Free and Confined: Iran and the International System



The study of Iran’s interaction with the international system is predicated on three broad theoretical assertions. First, the international system is a tripartite system with three interrelated yet distinct structures, namely coercive-military, normative-social, and economic-developmental. Second, agency (state), Iran in this case, is simultaneously unitary and composite, interacting distinctly with corresponding structural components of the international system. Third, the net assessment of any state’s position within the international system, in this case Iran’s, must take into consideration the symbiotic impact of the interaction with all three structures, and the cross fertilization and cross compensatory dynamics between them; weakness and vulnerability in one might be compensated for by strength in another. The delicate balance of Iran’s interaction with the international system in the last three decades, and especially in the post-Soviet/post-9/11 era, has vacillated between a systemically permissible threat of war and the potential for a historical, though reluctant, systemic accommodation. In its brinksmanship interaction with the three layers of the international system, Iran by design and by default has been strategically “lonely” and deprived of meaningful alliances and great power bandwagoning. Nevertheless, Iran is not isolated but rather intensely engaged, relying on its own capability which is predicated on a native strategic culture. The protection of this strategic culture remains the most formidable challenge facing the Islamic Republic in the fourth decade of its life; a challenge that emanates partially from systemic pressure and no less significantly by domestic normative dynamics.