Great powers, small powers: The example of Iran


Originally Published in The Daily Progress

By R.K. Ramazani
AIC Honorary Board Member and University of Virginia Professor

The behavior of small powers suits their interests, not necessarily ours as the world’s dominant power. When Russia, China and Iran behave in their interests, these often do not coincide with America’s global vision as the world’s superpower, resulting in friction and discord.

Hans Morgenthau’s book “Politics Among Nations: the Struggle for Power and Peace” (1948) set the stage for the Cold War-era “realist” theory of nation-states. This landmark contribution to international relations argued that nation-states seek to advance their national interests in terms of power. He described this imperative as a “moral principle of national survival.”

Although his theory was meant to be universalist, Morgenthau in fact concentrated more on the role of great powers than of small powers. Still seeing the world from within this “realist,” Cold War framework that emphasizes great powers, we in America tend to be less aware of the significance of small states.

Take Iran as a recent example. In America, we often perceive Iranian behavior as deceptive or opaque. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted that the George W. Bush administration could not understand Iran. Iranian behavior is often deemed immoral by our standards.

But from Iran’s perspective, it is the behavior of great powers that isn’t altogether trustworthy, as exemplified when the United States and France cancelled their agreement to aid Iran’s nuclear program after the Iranian Revolution.

The United States decided it would be contrary to our interests to continue to treat Iran favorably, as we had done during the Shah’s regime in the 1970s.

Whereas the American view of Iran is shaped by Iran’s seizing and holding 52 American hostages for 444 days, the Iranian view of America is shaped by the American-engineered overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953.

Trying to predict Iran’s behavior on the basis of its own worldview as a small power, I argued in a recent book that Iran would likely forgo its nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions by the United States, the United Nations and other European powers. And indeed, Iran has made a dramatic change in its foreign policy. It has come to believe that a military nuclear program would essentially waste Iran’s highly productive oil revenues, whereas a peaceful nuclear program could provide energy for domestic purposes, including radiation for cancer patients.

Although this change in Iran’s behavior may seem of modest importance to U.S. national interests, this small power’s shift in its foreign-policy orientation will in fact have a large impact on the world’s superpower.

Iran will never again produce nuclear energy with the aim of destroying Israel or the United States. On the contrary, with bountiful trade and aid, Iran will re-enter global economics and international politics.

In many ways, the national interests of this small power and great power coincide, such as the defeat of Al-Qaida and ISIS and the stabilization of Afghanistan and Iraq. After a cooling-off period, we can hope that Iran and the United States, having buried the hatchet of their mutual grievances, will finally move toward the reconciliation that is in the best interests of the citizens of both nations.

R.K. Ramazani is Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. His latest book is “Independence without Freedom: Iran’s Foreign Policy.”