A New W.A.V.E: Iranian Foreign Policy, A Rejection of Realism

Johannes Lundberg via Flickr
Johannes Lundberg via Flickr

When realism is mentioned concerning international relations, the concept of a “zero-sum game” comes to mind. Theoretically, the structural realist paradigm emphasizes the need for power maximization: a state’s primary goal will be to hold as much power as they can, to protect their interests and deny other states power; in this model, any increase in one state’s power inevitably comes at the expense of another state. This is a popular way of thinking about international relations among both laypeople and intellectuals.

Yet, Iran’s newly elected president Hassan Rouhani made it clear in his article in the Washington Post on September 19, 2013,that he does not subscribe to a realist viewpoint. In a world where international institutions like the UN or the WTO have a quite influential say at the table, states are no longer the only significant actors. Hence Rouhani’s claim that “international politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously”. He further emphasized this in his speech at the UN General Assembly’s 68th session on September 24,2013, where he argued that the world today remains locked into a “Cold War mentality”, and pleaded for international cooperation.

An important idea Rouhani explains is that structural violence caused by issues that realism doesn’t account for hurts the people much more than the states. Similarly to Immanuel Kant’s reasoning that “the [rulers] enjoy the benefit of war while the [ruled] pays its costs”[1], the violence that the world witnesses today primarily affects the lives of the “innocent people”. As Iran’s president said, “people all over the world are tired of war, violence and extremism. They hope for a change in the status quo”. What must be stressed here is that the status quo will not have space to change in a realist framework of international politics; only by giving more importance to the concepts of identity and cooperation will there be potential for fighting endemic structural violence.

To make his point, Rouhani points out that the world of today faces many challenges that were unimportant or absent in the past. Issues such as terrorism or extremism cannot and hence should not be handled with “hard power and the use of brute force”. Indeed, transnational terrorist networks embody the importance that non-state actors have gained in the international system, making it impossible for it to be approached from a realist perspective which leaves no space for such actors and their importance. Therefore, Iran’s president emphasizes the need for states to co-operate at the international level in order to “end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence” and address the underlying causes of what corrupts the world we live in today.

Not only does Iran’s president speak against realism, he also seems to argue for the usefulness of the constructivist paradigm. For example, in identifying the variables of the increasing significance of international issues today, President Rouhani points out the ignored potential of paying attention to the concept of identity. This is especially relevant, he says, when looking at the “vicious battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria” in which he sees identity as “a key driver of tension”. Compared with a realist perspective that sees state self-help amidst structural anarchy as the only important at the international level, Rouhani’s approach considers interests at the domestic and even individual levels.

As he explains, Iran’s drive for nuclear power is first and foremost driven by a “demand for dignity and respect” on the part of Iranians. This is highly relatable to Alexander Wendt’s constructivist analysis of identities. Indeed, “each identity is an inherently social definition of the actor grounded in the theories which actors collectively hold about themselves and one another and which constitutes the structure of the social world”[2]. Identities are then, he argues, the basis of interests. In this way, Rouhani hence seems to argue for nuclear power as part of the social construction of Iranians both as a national identity and as part of the existing international system.

In the end, Rouhani believes that “the bitter and ugly realities of the human society can only be overcome through recourse to and reliance on human wisdom, interaction and moderation”. This accepts the capacity of the human society for change through construction of shared norms and values where realism condemns human nature as a permanent force which will always cause more structural violence. Iran hence proposed to the General Assembly of the UN the project of the W.A.V.E. Their president invited all “states, international organizations, and civil institutions” to participate in this initiative for a World Against Violence and Extremism.

The recognition that there can be no moves made towards a better world without the inclusion of non-state actors is Rouhani’s most definitive step away from the realist paradigm which, although its influence has been decreasing over the last few decades, still retains an important place in international relations and political decision-making today. In fact, his W.A.V.E. could correspond to Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s definition of a transnational advocacy network (TAN), which “includes those relevant actors working internationally on an issue who are bound together by shared values, a common discourse, and dense exchanges of information and services”[3]. Since TANs are a constructivist concept due to their main objective being the promotion of norm implementation; the W.A.V.E. shows further how Rouhani seemingly uses the constructivist paradigm in his efforts to discredit realism.

The newly elected president of Iran has hance made it clear to the international society that he intends to create opportunities for states to operate in a non-realist framework where the concepts of identity and cooperation through shared norms of human ideals need to be stressed. His clear dismissal of realism as the conceptual mindset of international politics is a call for all states, international organizations and civil institutions to revisit their place in the international system and reconsider the impact they can have through initiatives, potentially following the model of the W.A.V.E. However, while his rhetoric is soothing, one must pay attention to Iran’s actions as well as their words, which Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out in his address to the UN General Assembly’s 68th session on October 1st, 2013.

European External Action Service (EEAS) via Flickr
European External Action Service (EEAS) via Flickr

For example, Rouhani stated that “much of foreign policy is a direct function of domestic politics” today. This would infer that Iran’s citizens can actually influence the stance that their country takes on the international stage. Unfortunately, Iran’s lack of credible democratic qualities today puts this to question. For instance, taking Alan Siaroff’s criteria for liberal democracy, a regime would need to have “a responsible government; free and fair competition; full and equal rights of political participation; full civil liberties; and a legally-based, limited, but well-functioning state”[4] to be qualified as such. When taking into account that six out of seven hundred potential candidates were allowed to run for the presidential elections, as well as the repressive nature of the Iranian regime, which executes and jails political dissidents, Iran can by no means present itself as a democracy.

Therefore, in a country where real power is “the dictator known as the supreme leader”, how credible can Rouhani’s advocacy of constructivist ideas really be? Indeed, as Martha Finnemore argues, “liberal regimes are viewed as the best guarantors of international stability”[5], and Iran can hardly be described as such. Due to the lack of commonality between Iran’s defining qualities and most internationally shared ideals, Rouhani cannot credibly present his country as a vehicle for change, especially not when what he argues for is a change in paradigms used to frame international issues.

Realistically, Netanyahu is right when he claims that, “when a radical regime with global autonomy gets awesome power, sooner or later its appetite for aggression knows no bounds”. As a result, Israel’s Prime Minister stresses the importance of being firm today to avoid the war of tomorrow; which is why he wants “to combine tough sanctions with a credibly military threat”. When asked about the potential of diplomacy in stopping the threat of a nuclear armed Iran, President Obama emphasized the need for “transparent, verifiable and meaningful action”. Both these requirements fall under James Fearon’s realist explanations for war, which include “rational miscalculation due to lack of information or rational disagreement about relative power”[6]. Therefore, it would seem that both Netanyahu and Obama have trouble believing Rouhani’s argument that realism is outdated today in international politics.

While Hassan Rouhani’s advocation of the end of realism and the advancement of constructivism in international politics is refreshing, the critiques of his argument by Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama make doubtful the applicability of his ideas to international politics today. Indeed, for Iran’s supposed view of international relations today to have any credibility on the international stage, commitments will have to be made on the part of its government. Whether those are to terminate the nuclear program as Israel demands; or to increase transparency and accountability as the US requires; general efforts towards democracy will have to be made. This will allow both a potential reduction of sanctions as well as the disappearance of threats which will in turn lessen the importance of realism as the dominant paradigm in international politics.


[1] Frieden, Jeffry A., Lake, David A., and Schultz, Kenneth A., 2010. World Politics. Interests, Interactions, Institutions. New York: W. W. Norton. & Company. p158

[2] Wendt, Alexander. Anarcyhy Is What States Make Of It. Found in : Essential Readings in World Politics. New York: W. W. Norton. & Company, 3rd edition (2008). 95.

[3] Keck, Margaret. And Sikkink, Kathryn. Transnational Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Found in: Essential Readings in World Politics. New York: W. W. Norton. & Company, 3rd edition (2008). 279-278.

[4] Siaroff, Alan. 2009 (2nd edition). Comparing Political Regimes. Toronto: UofT Press. 64-73.

[5] Finnemore, Martha. 2003. The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force. USA : Cornell University Press. 87

[6] Fearon, James. Rational Explanations for War. Found in: Mingst, Karen A., and Snyder, Jack L. 2001. Essential Readings in World Politics. New York: W. W. Norton. & Company, 4th edition (2011). 350.