Emerging Challenges by 2050: Iran’s International Relations
17th Jun 2021 by Banafsheh Keynoush
This essay is part of a SEPAD report reflecting on the Middle East in 2050.
As an aspiring strong middle power in the Persian Gulf region, Iran is faced with three alternatives to face the international challenges that impact its immediate foreign relations by 2050. Iran could reshuffle its existing political order in its entirety, opt to retain its present system of governance while gradually assimilating with leading regional and international trends, or remain steadfast in expanding its revolutionary agenda and aspirations. It is likely that the Islamic Republic of Iran will develop modalities to combine these alternatives when it can ensure power and security.
The re-shuffling of Iran’s existing political order is a product of its domestic politics, and the interactions between Iranian domestic priorities and the international security system. The ambiguity of U.S.-Iran ties in the foreseeable future makes it difficult to predict its full impact on the regional sub-system. But the murkier these relations remain, the more volatile are Iran’s regional and international interactions. Simultaneously, the more likely it is that Iran’s neighbors will develop alternative policies to shield against tensions in US-Iran ties.
Iran could opt to assimilate with major regional and international trends that emerge, be it with its immediate neighbors, or with other Asian countries. By necessity, a level of assimilation is to be expected. Iran is already engaged in merging its economy with its neighbors in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Eurasia, and with Russia and China. Furthermore, looking south, Iran remains a key political and security player in the Persian Gulf, and the international maritime routes which it connects to. Hence, Iran is likely to contribute to emerging regional orders that partly supplant Iran’s lack of steady ties with countries like the United States.
It is likely that Iran will combine its desire to merge with emerging regional or international orders with its steadfast unlimited strategic aspirations to remain a revolutionary influence in world events. In this event, Iran will remain a fluid actor when it comes to managing its regional and international relations. This fluidity will impact Iran’s international relations on several levels, as it struggles to remain a strong middle power to face the challenges ahead.
Firstly, it will increase Iran’s desire to engage in para-diplomacy, by granting the sub-state or non-state actors which it supports a greater voice in regional and international political processes. Secondly, Iran will seek to enhance the security capabilities that these sub-state and non-state actors have, so as to grant them more prominent negotiating power with adversarial groups. Thirdly, Iran’s actions will cultivate relations with willing countries, but serve to undermine inter-state relations on a regional and international level. Regionally, this may place Iran at odds with its neighbors who traditionally depend on strong inter-state relationships to advance foreign policy. Internationally, Iran’s actions will grant it more power to build strategic parity to contain U.S. power when their interests clash (Keynoush 2021a).
The fluid dynamics of Iranian foreign policy making in the foreseeable future imply that international relations with Iran should shift to include wider engagement with the same sub-state and non-state actors over which Iran currently has more influence. This entails engagement by the U.S. and the West with groups such as Hezbollah, the Houthis, and the Iraqi paramilitary groups. Some level of engagement has already occurred, but it is insufficient. The U.S. and western powers should build strategic parity by containing exclusive Iranian influence over these groups. This may require stepping down somewhat from the moral high grounds that the U.S. and western democracies set to demonize Iran and its partners at all times, in favor of engagement. Otherwise, Iran and its partners may emerge victorious in advancing their exclusive regional interests.
Finally, Iran will by necessity need to engage with a host of other actors including the Taliban, and groups currently considered to be terrorist organizations, in order to ensure the security of Iran’s borders. To this end, Iran can play an effective role if its interests are included when other regional or international powers develop policies of engagement or non-engagement with these groups. If Iran’s interests are disregarded, Iran is likely to remain a major influencer as an engaged member of the international community (Keynoush 2020, 2021b).