Book Review

Squandered Opportunity: Neoclassical Realism and Iranian Foreign Policy

Thomas Juneau

Summer 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 2

Iranian foreign policy has been the subject of a large and varied literature over the past two decades, but not until Thomas Juneau's Squandered Opportunity has a book-length treatment of Iranian foreign policy been based on international-relations theory. The application of theoretical propositions on international relations could produce useful analysis of a state's foreign policy, if the right propositions are chosen and rigorously applied in an objective manner. It is not at all clear, however, that "neoclassical realism" or "structural realism" are best suited to the task of analyzing the making of Iranian foreign policy and its outputs.

More fundamentally, Squandered Opportunity also suffers from the inherent difficulty of freeing an analysis of Iranian foreign policy from the gravitational pull of the U.S.-NATO and media narrative about the Islamic Republic and its foreign policy. Juneau, now an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs but an analyst with Canada's Department of National Defence when he wrote the book, has evidently sought to get outside that narrative. Nevertheless, the tension between his recognition of the concrete realities surrounding Iran's policies and the overarching disapproval of Iran's stance emerges clearly throughout the study.

The title of the book reflects the author's relatively harsh verdict on the outputs of Iranian foreign policy from 2001 to 2009 (although he extends the analysis up to 2014 in the case of Iran's nuclear program). His central theme is that Iran had an opportunity during that decade to increase its power in the region significantly by playing its cards right, but that Iran "squandered" the opportunity by overplaying its hand, seeking short-term gains and provoking reactions that imposed much higher costs in lost power and influence in the long run.

Juneau chooses as his theoretical approaches what he calls a "strategic analysis variant," a combination of "neoclassical realism" and "structural realism" theories. According to Juneau, the two established theories posit that a state's power within the international system shapes its incentives and constraints in foreign policy, and the resulting policy is mediated or "filtered" by the state's domestic politics. The "relative power" of the state is the independent variable in these theoretical approaches; the domestic politics of the state is the "intervening variable," and the foreign policy is the dependent variable.

It is worth noting that any effort to apply such a theoretical approach to the analysis of Iranian foreign policy would encounter a fundamental problem: the "neoclassical realism" and "structural realism" approaches were devised to analyze the foreign policies of states competing with one or more great powers for the dominant position, or at least parity of power, in the global political system. Every case cited in Juneau's explanation of the chosen theoretical construct is about a major power competing for dominance or parity with other great powers in world politics. That should have raised a red flag in regard to applying it to one of the clearest cases in recent world politics of a relatively weak middle power that is threatened with aggression by a global superpower.

Juneau's analysis focuses on the contrast between the actual power achieved and the level of power the state would have achieved had it conformed to a theoretically rational power-maximizing foreign policy. He uses three issues as case studies: Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran's nuclear program. The key to Iran's failure to achieve the optimal level of power, according to Juneau's analysis, is the concept of "domestic pathologies" extracted from the literature on neoclassical realism. The term refers to domestic cultural and political influences that distort policies and cause them to diverge from the country's rationally derived "maximum" interests. That variable is broken down into three distinct factors: attitudes toward status, regime identity and factional politics.

The focus on Iranian attitudes toward status seems odd, since the theoretical approach assumes automatically that a state should rationally seek to maximize its power — and, by logical extension, its status. Iran's well-known sense of grievance about having been systematically excluded by the United States from formal discussions of the region would thus appear to be quite consistent with a rational state aspiration to end such a situation. Yet Juneau suggests that Iranian feelings of victimhood over being deprived of status are part of the suite of irrational "pathologies" allegedly distorting the outputs of Iranian foreign policy, to the detriment of the state's true interests. Similarly, Juneau treats the Iranian desire to change the present distribution of power in the region as one of its domestic "pathologies," despite the fact that the theoretical proposition seems to call for precisely the opposite.

The author devotes the bulk of the chapter on "domestic pathologies" to the rise to power of hard-liners in alliance with traditional conservatives in the 2001-09 period. He suggests that they favored confrontation with the United States and thus distorted Iranian foreign policy. But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not elected president until mid-2005; and although his rhetoric on Israel went beyond that of the Khatami government, the key lines of Iranian national-security policy, including its nuclear program and policy toward Iraq, had been adopted well before that.

The chapter on the Iranian nuclear program lays out the case that Iran had good reason to consider obtaining nuclear weapons. Iranian officials viewed the Islamic Republic as militarily weak and vulnerable to attack, especially by the United States, which they believed wanted regime change. The author further observes that Iran is surrounded by three regional powers possessing nuclear weapons. This analysis, especially in the framework of "structural realism" theory, would lead logically to the conclusion that the explicit pursuit of nuclear weapons would have been a rational choice. Indeed, Kenneth Waltz, whose work launched the "structural realist" theory, has argued that case explicitly.

Juneau does not argue that Iran adopted such a policy, however. He correctly points out that Iran has pursued a strategy of demonstrating only a "virtual capability" for nuclear weapons. Such a strategy, he acknowledges, gives Iran much the same security advantage as a nuclear weapons program by constraining the options of the United States and Israel without provoking an attack. Moreover, he points out that demonstrated progress in uranium enrichment also serves to strengthen Iran's hand in negotiations with the United States and other nuclear powers.

However, instead of acknowledging that the Iranian nuclear program represents a rational policy under the circumstances it has faced, Juneau comes to the opposite conclusion. He argues that Iran's power and security have been reduced by the sanctions imposed by the United States and the Europeans. And he unaccountably reverses his earlier judgment, finding that, without actual nuclear weapons, Iran must face the threat of U.S. and Israeli airstrikes. He makes this claim even though he recognizes, in one brief sentence in the conclusion, that Iran has devised "an arsenal of deterrent and retaliatory assets" to help prevent such a U.S. or Israeli attack. This is a reference to its conventional missile force and the capability of Hezbollah to fire thousands of missiles into Israel.

Juneau cannot deny that its nuclear program has given Iran unique options for protecting its interests, but his fundamental thesis revolves around domestic "pathologies" pushing Iran to adopt policies that are "suboptimal" because they are too aggressive. He resolves this problem by arguing (as of 2014) that Iran was forced to negotiate seriously an agreement limiting its nuclear program by its "growing weakness" as a result of sanctions imposed by the nuclear program itself.

In line with that analysis, Juneau makes two predictions: Iran would be forced to accept an agreement leaving it burdened by crippling sanctions for years, or the talks would break down, leading to a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites or a possible Iranian nuclear-weapons test. Unfortunately for the thesis of the book, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached in July 2015 showed that Iran was in a much stronger negotiating position than Juneau's analysis suggested. The thesis that Iran was negotiating only because it was forced to do so by economic weakness ignores a substantial body of evidence that Iran had been prepared for such an agreement well before the 2012 sanctions were imposed, and it was only the Obama administration's refusal to agree to an Iranian enrichment program until 2013 that prevented an agreement years earlier.

Juneau's treatment of Iran's policy toward Israel-Palestine is similarly marked by a contradiction between the basic facts acknowledged in his narrative and a conclusion that seeks to fit the case study into his overall thesis. In the chapter on Israel, he describes Iran's support for Hezbollah as successful in maximizing Iranian security in the face of "the massive power differential arising from the military superiority of Israel and the U.S." and the threat by the Bush administration to attack Iran — a success confirmed by the failure of the Israeli effort to disarm Hezbollah in the 2006 war. But the conclusion to the chapter abruptly judges this success in deterring attack to have been "important but narrow" and only a "short-term gain" for Iran. Iran's "rejectionism" toward Israel, Juneau concludes, "alienates Iran from most of its neighbors and increases its diplomatic isolation, while contributing to the regional U.S. military buildup." This conclusion comes off as a forced effort to save a highly questionable thesis.

With regard to Iraq, however, Juneau acknowledges that Iran "fared relatively well in terms of maximizing its power, security and influence" in response to the U.S. invasion. He agrees that Iran's support for Shia militia forces in Iraq represented a success in "developing significant retaliatory capabilities that likely played an important role in deterring the United States from attacking Iran."

Juneau musters a series of arguments in the concluding chapter to support his overall theme that Iranian policy during the decade was essentially a failure. Iran did nothing to improve its conventional military power, while the Iraqi army "will gradually reacquire the ability to act as a bulwark against Iran," and Hezbollah cannot be counted on to serve as part of Iran's deterrent because it "must first satisfy the interests of its constituents." The first argument ignores the well-documented evolution of Iran's ballistic-missile deterrent force as well as the continued upgrading of its ability to destroy U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. The latter two also appear far removed from reality in light of events in Iraq and Syria since 2013.

Especially with the success of Iran's nuclear diplomacy in 2015, some readers will likely find Juneau's case, framed by international-relations theory, that Iran has somehow botched a splendid opportunity to maximize its power and security under threat from the world's greatest power unconvincing. Those interested in how international-relations theories can help to illuminate the dynamics of Iran's national-security policy, however, may find much more nuanced insight, based in part on Persian-language sources, in a 2013 PhD dissertation by Ali Fathollah-Nejad at SOAS [the University of London's School of Oriental and Asian Studies], "A Critical Geopolitics of Iran's International Relations in a Changing World Order."