Iran’s Strategic Thinking - The Evolution of Iran’s Foreign Policy

01.11.2020
Mert Aslan Assistant, Foreign Policy

Iran’s Strategic Thinking – The Evolution of Iran’s Foreign Policy

Kozhanov, N. (2018) Iran’s Strategic Thinking – The Evolution of Iran’s Foreign Policy 1979-2018. Berlin: Gerlach Press. 190 pages.

ISBN: 978-3959940382


Nikolay Kozhanov graduated from St. Petersburg State University in the field of Oriental Studies. Kozhanov continued his education career in multiple fields and universities. He received his master’s degrees from St. Petersburg State University in 2006 in both International Economics and Oriental Studies. In the same year, he started his doctorate education in the field of International Economics and Economic Security at the same university. He worked as an attaché at the Russian Embassy in Tehran in the years that he continued his doctorate education. Kozhanov, after completing his doctorate in 2010, started the Middle Eastern Studies master program at the University of Exeter. During his education life and the following period, he worked in various positions in many leading institutions and organizations in the international arena, such as Chatham House and The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Also, Kozhanov worked as an academic at the St. Petersburg State University. He has been working as a senior research assistant at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) within the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow since 2018, and as an associate professor at the Center for Gulf Studies at Qatar University since 2019. His expertise areas are Russia and Iran's foreign policy and the energy geopolitics of the Gulf region. Kozhanov’s book titled Iran’s Strategic Thinking – the Evolution of Iranian Foreign Policy 1979-2018, published in 2018 is one of his works published in English so far. His other two works are Russia and the Syrian Conflict: Moscow’s Domestic, Regional and Strategic Interests, published in 2016, and Russian Policy across the Middle East: Motivations and Methods, published in 2018.

In this book, Nikolay Kozhanov explains in detail the reasons for the changes in Iran’s foreign policy both regionally and globally and the reasons for the prominent differentiation in Iran’s decision-making mechanism against similar events. The author, beyond analysing past events, considered how Iranian decision-makers would react to future events, rather than focusing on Iranian foreign policy between 1979 and 2018.  Kozhanov’s book divided into “Introduction”, “Preconditions for the Evolution of Iran’s Foreign Policy Thinking in the Wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79”, “The Formation of the Iran’s Foreign Policy Doctrine 1979-1989”, “Iran between the Western Scylla and the Soviet Charybdis”,” Reassessing Foreign Policy Priorities during the Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami Era (1989-2005)”, “International Sanctions as the Main Driver of Iran’s Foreign Policy under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013)”, “From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani and Beyond”, “Conclusion”, “Notes” and “Bibliography” chapters.

The ideological foundations of Iran’s foreign policy shaped around Iran’s national interests and power policies are mentioned in the introduction part of the book. According to the author, Iran stands out not only as a regional power in the unstable Middle East but also has the power to influence international systems in terms of economy, security and politics. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who sees Iran as a “Besieged Fortress”, and the conservatives are the main actors that shape the current Iranian foreign policy. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, also known as the “chain/line of defence” Shia Crescent, are important for the Iranian foreign policy developed by the conservatives in order to ensure the security of Iran. At the same time, Iran sees itself both as the last castle of all Muslims fighting against the West and a potential leader of the Middle East energy geopolitics. Besides, the other factor affecting Iran’s policies in a regional sense is the opposition to Israel and the USA. In other words, it is possible to talk about many different ideological dynamics that affect Iranian foreign policy. In this context, according to Kozhanov, it is necessary to analyse the changes in the Iranian foreign policy doctrine in the post-1979 period, both the internal and external factors that determine Iran’s foreign policy predecessors, and Iran’s political, economic, religious and cultural means in the world, in order to understand the differences in Iran’s foreign policy.

The first chapter, which is the shortest chapter among the main chapters of the book, begins by talking about the new state system built in Iran with the Islamic Revolution. Iran diplomacy, which was shaped around the US foreign policy in the pre-revolutionary period, has undergone radical changes in the post-revolutionary period. Perhaps the most important of these changes is the new foreign policy understanding adopted in the 1980s with the motto “neither Western nor Eastern but the Islamic Republic”. In the chapter, Iran’s struggle for independence and sovereignty is described over both the First World War and the Russian revolution of 1917 in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In addition, the process of bringing Mohammad Reza to power and the occupation of Iranian lands by the British and the Russians in 1941; was announced through official and diplomatic meetings between British and Russian diplomats. What happened in 1941 caused Iran to put the Soviets at the center of the threat perception and prefer the Western Bloc in the post-World War II period. The public's reactions, especially the religious sector, against the Westernization and modernization policies of Mohammad Reza Shah are mentioned at the end of the chapter.

The second part of the book describes the process of building foreign policy of Iran in the first decade of the Islamic Revolution between 1979 and 1989. Although there was no officially determined foreign policy doctrine in this period, the Iranian Constitution, which was created after the Islamic Revolution, shaped the foreign policy decisions of the country. The names such as Supreme Leader Khomeini, Ali Shariati, Morteza Motahhari and Mohammad Beheshti, who played an important role in the Islamic Revolution, came to the fore as the main actors of Iranian foreign policy in the country in the 1980s. As in every post-revolutionary period, revolutionaries first aimed to reshape the society within the country. In this context, policies that rejected both capitalism and communism, which were first named as “the third way of development” and were based on Islam, started to be implemented in Iran. The foreign policy ideology of Khomeini is still being taught in Iran. The foreign policy precursors in the Iranian Constitution and the policies of spreading the export of the revolution with soft power elements rather than hard power elements are mentioned.

The third chapter begins with Kozhanov’s criticism of Iran’s foreign policy, which was created in the post-revolution period, on the grounds that it is utopian. In fact, it is not unfair to criticize that Iran’s foreign policy is “romantic”, which is developed solely on Muslim countries by rejecting the West, which accounts for 70% of its economy, and the East, which dominates about 10%. As a matter of fact, Iran has realized fundamental changes in its foreign policy by realizing this situation since the mid-1980s. In fact, the USA and USSR have respected the Islamic Revolution, even they adopted it. Although Iran's motto, "neither Western nor Eastern but the Islamic Republic", was evaluated as anti-communist by US President Jimmy Carter and attempted to contact Iran through all political ways. On the other hand, the Soviets took a very moderate approach by committing to providing confidential information to Iran in the post-revolutionary period. Detailed explanations about the Iran-Soviet Union relations, the Iran-Contra Affair, the Iran-Iraq War, and the raid of the American Embassy in Tehran are given in the third chapter.

In the fourth, fifth and sixth chapters, changes in Iranian foreign policy doctrines during the periods of Hashemi, Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani are explained, respectively. After Khomeini died in 1989, the election process of Khamenei as the new revolution guide and the reasons for his preference are mentioned in the fourth chapter. In addition, in the fourth chapter, the changes in Iran’s decision-making mechanism, the influence of Khamenei on foreign policy, which continues Khomeini’s ideological legacy, and the transformation of Iranian foreign policy into a more pragmatic structure is mentioned. At the end of the fourth chapter, Iran-US relations are explained, based on the neutral reaction of Iran against the military intervention of the USA following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.

The fifth chapter is basically shaped on the impact of the US sanctions on the Iranian economy during the period of Ahmadinejad between 2006-2010. The chapter in which Iran’s efforts to bypass the US sanctions are explained and ended, continues through Ahmadinejad in the sixth chapter. Particularly, in the chapter, Ahmadinejad’s efforts to establish his foreign policy ideology within the framework of Iran’s national interests proceeds by mentioning the increasing role of Iran in the international system and organizations. Iran has increased its influence in many regions, including Latin America, thanks to its growing role in the international system. In addition, since the 1990s, Iran territory open to using as a transit route for trade to Russia, Turkey, and China. This decision has led to the development of Iran’s relations with East Asian countries. This chapter as the longest part and most recent one, which also includes Iran’s nuclear policies, is the most important chapter of the book. Furthermore, the term of Hassan Rouhani, who was elected as the president at the 2013 elections, was also examined in detail. Syria, which has become a regional crisis center, has been evaluated in terms of Iran-Russia relations; and the socio-economic effects of the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) were mentioned. US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement and the increasing role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the economy was mentioned at the end of the sixth chapter.

In the conclusion chapter, the changes in Iranian foreign policy since the 19th century are explained through the decisions taken by the state leaders. The failure of the active neutrality and counterbalancing policies adopted by Reza Shah in the 1920s and 1930s; after the Second World War, Iran became a satellite of the USA under the leadership of Mohammad Reza Shah; Supreme Leader Khomeini’s Velayat-e Faqih and the motto of "neither Western nor Eastern but the Islamic Republic" that shaped foreign policy are covered. In addition, the sociological reflections of these different policies are also included. Iran, having struggled for sovereignty against the great powers in the last two centuries, continued its struggle with the Islamic Revolution based on revolutionaries under the leadership of Khomeini. Foreign policies adopted in the pre-Khomeini period were not adopted by the people. Besides these, final chapter includes the peculiar structure of the Islamic Revolution, the changes experienced in the export of the revolution policy in Iran after the 1980s, the increasing influence of the prime minister’s office both within the country and on foreign policy after the 1989 Constitutional Reform, and the changes Khamenei made on Iran’s strategic thinking after Khomeini’s death. Since every prime minister elected in the post-1989 period applies their foreign policy doctrine, and the possible effects of the new generation, which will sooner or later replace Khomeini are mentioned at the last part of the final chapter.

This work has been written by Kozhanov in order to understand and explain Iran’s foreign policy is important in terms of understanding Iran’s foreign policy preferences that differ in regional and global terms, to see the effects of changes in domestic politics and/or ideologies adopted by decision-makers on foreign policy, and to understand the reflections of the events experienced both in Iran and regionally between 1979 and 2018. Considering the studies made in the west or Iran about Iran's foreign policy, the fact that the book was written by a Russian increases its eigenvalue. It's noteworthy to mention that the book is also a reference book thanks to its rich content.