PhD Project - Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad • Official Website
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PhD Project

A Critical Geopolitics of Iran’s International Relations in a Changing World Order


Abstract | The thesis analyzes the evolutions of Iran’s international relations in the 2000s. Its theoretical framework is predicated upon a Critical Geopolitics of International Relations that combines ideational and material accounts within its agent–system arrangement. It is further stimulated by inputs from Critical Iranian Studies (pluralizing our understanding of Iran and its international relations) and Critical Geopolitics (challenging the rationale behind geopolitical representations).


After identifying Iran’s main political cultures (or politico-ideological formations) as they emerged from “anti-colonial modernity”, namely nationalism, socialism and Islamism, it scrutinizes their respective geopolitical imaginations (nationalism, Third-Worldism and Islamism), while identifying independence as Iranian geopolitical culture’s key feature that was eventually transmuted into a foreign-policy Leitmotiv. With foreign policy not only being shaped by particular worldviews but also by the domestic power structure, Iran’s military–clerical–commercial complex is examined, before unravelling the political élite’s dominant political and geopolitical culture. In its first half, the study provides evidence for the material and geopolitical significance of identity constructions.


The latter half is devoted to an examination of Iran’s international relations in the 2000s, starting with an extensive engagement with foreign-policy schools of thought and their controversies. It then studies them within unipolar and post-unipolar (conceptualized as Imperial Interpolarity) world-order configurations. In the decade’s first half, an accommodationist policy was repelled by U.S. imperial hubris, paving the way for a radicalization of Iranian domestic and foreign policies. In its second half, that alienation from the West led to a futile “Look to the East” policy within a misleadingly perceived truly multipolar world. Instrumental in sustaining the decade-long “nuclear conflict”, the study argues, was Iran’s entrapment within Imperial Interpolarity where great-power behaviour towards Iran was largely a function of their respective ties with the U.S. imperial power – posing formidable challenges regarding Iran’s grand-strategic goals (status, economic development and independence).


Research findings (excerpt) | In conclusion, the doctorate thesis provides insights into a number of important academic debates also relevant to the policy field:


  • On the omnipresent discussion about the nature of the emerging new world order, the study casts doubt on the extent of U.S. decline as Washington has demonstrated its hegemonic prowess on the international stage, by way of coercion and consent, to increase pressure on Iran – most forcefully witnessed in the dense architecture of the international sanctions regime against Iran). At the same time, the study confirms the end of U.S. unipolarity as re-emerging non-Western great-powers increasingly articulate their own “national interests”, which cannot be neglected by the U.S. superpower. Hence, the argument that the end of U.S. unipolarity has led into a new phase (conceptualized there as Imperial Interpolarity) that can neither be characterized as a multipolar order amongst equals nor can a decisive decline of U.S. unilateral power be diagnosed.
  • Adding to the discussion about Iran in world politics, the thesis maintains that Iran’s international relations from the mid-2000s onwards have increasingly been characterized by the Imperial Interpolar world-order configuration, which can have serious consequences for the pursuit of its “national interests” as well as for its domestic developments. Caught in a web of Imperial Interpolar, intra-great-power arrangements largely to its geo-political and -economic detriment, independence as a traditional tenet of Iranian foreign policy is facing tremendous challenges. It is therefore implicitly argued that only through a sober appraisal of the contemporary global power structure and its impacts on great-power behaviour and through a downgrading of the geopolitical outlook peculiar to the Islamic Republic in favour of a “cosmopolitan geopolitics” nurtured by the country’s diverse political cultures and its multi-ethnic composition can Iran acquire the preconditions to free itself from the current global entanglement and unearth the manifold endowments it unquestionably has.
  • Regarding the discussions about the interaction between international and domestic political arenas, the study finds stark evidence of global geopolitics’ malign impact on state–society relations by fuelling authoritarianism and undermining civil society, grounded on the permanent threat of war and crippling sanctions. Furthermore, the emergence of a cosmopolitan geopolitical outlook upon which foreign-policy would be ideally placed requires a process of domestic democratization that integrates various political cultures thus far excluded by the Islamist mainstream.

Praise | ‘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 201[5] PhD dissertation by Ali Fathollah-Nejad at SOAS, “A Critical Geopolitics of Iran’s International Relations in a Changing World Order.”’ (Gareth Porter, ‘Book Review – Squandered Opportunity: Neoclassical Realism and Iranian Foreign Policy’ [by Th. Juneau, Stanford UP, 2015], Middle East Policy, Vol. 23, No. 2, May 2016, pp. 161-164, here p. 164).