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Foreign Policy Analysis

Mehdi Noorbaksh
Professor of International Affairs and Business
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology
Vice President, World Affair Council, Harrisburg

The Middle East as a region has remained unstable because of at least two specific reasons. Middle Eastern states are driven toward militarization, and at the same time, most of the region's countries have authoritarian governments, and their political systems are unaccountable to the public. With the assumption that regimes pursue militarism in the Middle East, then Realism as a school in international relations and its branch, foreign policy, can offer a framework for analysis if the assumption is based on the state as a unitary actor, pursuing or advancing its interests in a world considered anarchic. Second, one of the off-shoots of Realism, Neorealism, which Stephen Walt mainly advocates, in the book, The Origines of Alliances, adds domestic considerations to the power structure existing at the international level and argues that the combination of the two encourages regional alliance building among nations.

Structuralism remained a robust conceptual framework for analysis of the international relations among Neorealists. Still, some of its proponents argued that this framework is not sufficient in explaining foreign policy. As a result, two schools emerged, one concentrated on regime security, claiming that state behavior is very much the result of elites and regime actions. The second school, Neoclassical Realism (NCR), maintains structure as a unit of analysis but at the same time includes domestic factors shaping states' actions to actively react to systemic pressures and opportunities opening internally and externally. NCR argues regimes with centralized authoritarian rules under the control of elites and leaders respond to external threats, but internally, domestic factors such as legitimacy, economics, state-building imperatives, ideology, and relations between state and society are significant factors shaping their foreign policy. Thus, Telhami tries to explain the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978 in the Realism framework and elite personalities. He also resorts to realist theories to explain alliance-building among the Arab nations; the others examine domestic economic capabilities conducive to alliance formation.

 NCR distinguishes itself from Neorealism by emphasizing unit-level analysis and characteristics while abandoning some of the Neorealists' arguments, stressing that international theory is separate from foreign policy theory. Instead, NCR argues that the study of states and states' characteristics are crucial in understanding how internal and external imperatives influence states foreign policy and the process in which foreign policy is shaped. This approach includes states' motives, perceptions, ideology, nationalism, and domestic institutions in foreign policy analysis. Then NCR emphasizes the notion that political leaders and elite make foreign policy. Distinguishing between the two, regime security under Neoliberalism treats domestic factors as independent variables in decision-making while NCR considers them intervening variables.
A third approach, Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA), looks at foreign policy differently from regime security and NCR approaches. First: proponents of this approach argue that Neorealism and regime security approaches consider states as an abstract concept, where decision-making in all regime types are the same. When authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are treated similarly, then no room is left to investigate various sources influencing foreign policy decision-making in these countries. FPA argues that authoritarian regimes are also accountable to public pressure in the decision-making, but not consistently observable. The regime security approach ignores why leaders in some of these countries overlook domestic public opinion. Examples: Al-Asad decision to ally with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Sadat's decision to make peace with Israel in 1979, and al-Sisi handing Tiran control and Sanafir to Saudis in 2015. All were unpopular decisions in Syria and Egypt.
Second: The regime security, as an approach and frame of analysis, conflates leadership and regime security. Leadership security is different from regime security. Leaders may be overthrown, but occasionally, regimes through dominant coalition systems and the way of the ruling may stay intact. Egypt and Tunisia are the cases. To compensate for the shortcoming of the regime security approach, FPA research on coalitions and institutions under authoritarian regimes helps distinguishing between leaders and regimes. FPA advocates that FPA can help understand coalition building under authoritarian regimes and the way they make foreign policy in their respective countries. FPA emphasizes the leaders' beliefs, personalities, and perceptions of the world, which can crucially enhance foreign policymaking in a state.
Third: FPA also challenges both regime security and NCR's arguments of how domestic and international politics influence leadership and decision-making. Both domestic and international pressures may not drive leaders. Leadership personality, leadership style, perception of a leader, belief, images, cognitive frames, analogies, biases in information gathering and processes, threat perception, and small in-group dynamics can all influence his or her decision-making in foreign policy. Leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Gamal Abdul al-Naser have shown how their personalities, information processing, small in-group dynamics, and perceptions had impacted their foreign policymaking.
Realism and Liberalism: Explaining United States' international relations and foreign policy has benefited Neorealism and liberalism theories. Neorealism and especially NCR can explain various dimensions of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the arena of the power structure at the international level, alliance building, and domestic components of foreign policy. In democracies where civil society and political parties play a significant role in shaping and articulating demands, domestic elements influencing policymaking are powerful. Liberalism, especially with the considerable speed of globalization, economic interdependence, and the complex nature of international relations, adds to the understanding of American international relations and foreign policy. Different leaders in American politics bring their approaches to foreign policymaking, stretching the boundaries of theories and concepts such as unilateralism versus multilateralism or domestic reliance on nationalism, nativism, or internationalism.
American Foreign Policy Goal in the Middle East: First: The United States is pursuing maintaining security in the Persian Gulf, consequently preventing China and Russia from the military competition with the U.S. in this region. The United States has two particular reasons to contain China and Russia from competing militarily with this country in the Persian Gulf. First, United States considers itself in the leadership of the Western democracies, then securing the Persian Gulf for various reasons for the West is crucially important. Second, United States tries to ensure the free flow of commerce and energy from the Persian Gulf. Washington is not dependent on energy sources in the Middle East, but the European countries need these resources from this region. Both United States and European countries desire to continue commerce and trade relations with the area's countries. Most of the region's countries are wealthy, resourceful, have a young population, and a broad flourishing market. Third: Combating terrorism and terrorist organizations is the goal of the United States in this region. Terrorism threatens the security of the area and the United States, European countries' security, and their interest in the Persian Gulf. Fourth: Maintaining nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and preventing the building of weapons of mass destruction is crucial for the United States in this region.
The new Biden administration also has to deal with wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, Rift in GCC, conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Russia, China, and Turkey have taken a more robust economic position while Russia has entered into security positions in the Middle East, the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ramification of the new relations between the Arab states and Israel and finally and on the side pushing on democratic and human rights issues because most citizens of the countries of the region demand it.
Chinese interests in the Middle East are more economical, and they are not interested in competing with the West and the United States militarily in this region. Russians think differently, and if given the opportunity, they would challenge American hegemony in the region, and Washington is well aware of it. Moreover, Russians are at war with the United States more than the Chinese by various means, including interfering in the American and European countries' elections and occasionally challenging the West in Crimea and elsewhere. Consequently, part of American efforts in the region involves resolving issues threatening the stability of the Middle East and at the same time encountering the influence of Chinese and Russians.
Obama and Trump and the Middle East: The calculation by the Obama administration was to draw down on resources in the Middle East to allow prioritizing for geopolitical challenges in Asia. Obama sided with the Arab Spring in 2011, did not support Hosni Mubarak, then outraged Arab countries. Arab countries were frustrated with Obama when he did not commit to his "Red Line" policy on Syria when chemical weapons were used against civilians. Russia entering Syria in 2015 further aggravated the Arab world since it was encouraged by Iran and unchecked by the United States. The JCPOA concluded in 2015 between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (U.S., UK, France, Russia, and China) and Germany. The proponents of multilateral international achievements supported the agreement, but it was vehemently denounced by the Republicans in the United States, Israel, and the Arab neighbors of Iran. Obama, in the end, relinquished supporting changes in Egypt when al-Sisi took over by a military coup and gradually lost interest in promoting reform for democratic changes in the region.
Trump withdrew from JCPOA in May 2018 and exerted the policy of "Maximum Pressure" on Iran. The other parties rejected Trump's policy on Iran but were welcomed by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. Trump had two goals with his approach to Iran. It was first bringing Iran to the table for a new negotiation on its nuclear program. Second, destroying the economy of Iran for possible regime change. None of these scenarios were successful, although this policy damaged the Iranian economy badly. Iran continued its influence in the Middle East, the tension between Saudi Arabia continued, oil facilities of this country were attacked. In January 2020, the head of the IRG Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, was targeted and assassinated by the United States; Iran retaliated carefully and by a measured action, sending missiles to the American Iraqi military base, Ayn al-Asad. The Arab states of UAE and Bahrain recognized Israel, established formal relations with one another. Currently, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and UAE have recognized Israel and formed new ties with this country. The possibility of more Arab nations joining forces is high. "Abraham Accord" was initiated by Trump to negotiate between Israel and the Palestinians; it was one-sided, did not take into consideration the Palestinians concerns, and did not achieve anything for initiating peace. Israel received the support that it wanted from the Trump administration moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Trump's foreign policy in the Middle East mainly was for supporting Saudi and Israeli policies and their initiatives on frictions, especially with Iran in this region.
Two presidents, one Democrat, and the other Republican, had two different approaches toward the Middle East and Iran. Before Obama, Geoge W. Bush also had a foreign policy toward the Middle East and Iran different from his predecessor, Clinton. During the Clinton era, Iran had one of the most significant opportunities to resolve its conflicts with the United States. This opportunity was not utilized.
The Biden administration's foreign policy in the world and specifically the Middle East relies on a combination of Structural Realism and Institutional Liberalism. Biden administration is not under any illusion that the United States is the most powerful nation globally politically, economically, technologically, service, and market. Therefore, he has the responsibility to his own country to maintain this dominance and hegemony globally. Institutional Liberalism pushes for institutional building for three specific reasons. First, institutions are arenas for cooperation among nations, and when collaborations under specific rules that benefit nations are achievable, they collaborate. Institutions also provide directions and mechanisms for conflict resolution and peaceful settlement of the conflicts. Thirdly, in a complex world with various issues, only through cooperative actions could these problems be solved. One of the main approaches in foreign policy discussion toward the Middle is currently FPA. Western countries rely heavily on leadership and personalities and the decision-making style of leaders in this region.
Another opportunity has opened for Iran, but Iran also has to understand the problems that Biden is facing in the United States now. First: the American political scene is not conducive and ready for returning to JCPOA without some conditions. All Republicans and a few Democrats in the congress of the United States want this country to negotiate with Iran an exclusive deal on all issues of friction between the two countries. Biden would return to JCPOA, but he is not ready to deal with other sanctions without Iran's commitment to negotiate other issues between the two or West and Iran. At the same time, Biden is under pressure in the region from the allies of this country, including the Arab countries and Isreal.
The arena of foreign policy is always about finding opportunities to enhance the national interests of a nation. Looking at all these frames for analysis and the restrictions and opportunities facing the United States and Iran, times have come for Iran to prepare the ground for a win-win negotiation with the West. Countries with a strong understanding of international relations can successfully pursue their goals in foreign policy. Foreign policy is not only an act; it is also an art of learning and practicing.


Editorial Board of Iranian Journal of International Relations








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