For centuries, the dilemma facing Iran (and before it, Persia) has been guaranteeing national survival and autonomy in the face of stronger regional powers like Ottoman Turkey and the Russian Empire. Though always weaker than these larger empires, Iran survived for three reasons: geography, resources and diplomacy. Iran's size and mountainous terrain made military forays into the country difficult and dangerous. Iran also was able to field sufficient force to deter attacks while permitting occasional assertions of power. At the same time, Tehran engaged in clever diplomatic efforts, playing threatening powers off against each other.
The intrusion of European imperial powers into the region compounded Iran's difficulties in the 19th century, along with the lodging of British power to Iran's west in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula following the end of World War I. This coincided with a transformation of the global economy to an oil-based system. Then as now, the region was a major source of global oil. Where the British once had interests in the region, the emergence of oil as the foundation of industrial and military power made these interests urgent. Following World War II, the Americans and the Soviets became the outside powers with the ability and desire to influence the region, but Tehran's basic strategic reality persisted. Iran faced both regional and global threats that it had to deflect or align with. And because of oil, the global power could not lose interest while the regional powers did not have the option of losing interest.
Whether ruled by shah or ayatollah, Iran's strategy remained the same: deter by geography, protect with defensive forces, and engage in complex diplomatic maneuvers. But underneath this reality, another vision of Iran's role always lurked.
Iran as Regional Power
Possessing an essentially defensive posture, a vision of Iran as a regional power remained. The shah competed with Saudi Arabia over Oman and dreamed of nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad duels with Saudi Arabia over Bahrain, and also dreams of nuclear weapons. When we look beyond the rhetoric -- something we always should do when studying foreign policy, since the rhetoric is intended to intimidate, seduce and confuse foreign powers and the public -- we see substantial continuity in Iran's strategy since World War II. Iran dreams of achieving regional dominance by breaking free from its constraints and the threats posed by nearby powers.
Since World War II, Iran has had to deal with regional dangers like Iraq, with which it fought a brutal war lasting nearly a decade and costing Iran about 1 million casualties. It also has had to deal with the United States, whose power ultimately defined patterns in the region. So long as the United States had an overriding interest in the region, Iran had no choice but to define its policies in terms of the United States. For the shah, that meant submitting to the United States while subtly trying to control American actions. For the Islamic republic, it meant opposing the United States while trying to manipulate it into taking actions in the interests of Iran. Both acted within the traditions of Iranian strategic subtlety.
The Islamic republic proved more successful than the shah. It conducted a sophisticated disinformation campaign prior to the 2003 Iraq war to convince the United States that invading Iraq would be militarily easy and that Iraqis would welcome the Americans with open arms. This fed the existing U.S. desire to invade Iraq, becoming one factor among many that made the invasion seem doable. In a second phase, the Iranians helped many factions in Iraq resist the Americans, turning the occupation -- and plans for reconstructing Iraq according to American blueprints -- into a nightmare. In a third and final phase, Iran used its influence in Iraq to divide and paralyze the country after the Americans withdrew.