Constructing Constructivist Change in the Iranian-U.S. Relationship

Despite the recent myopic attention paid by the media and the Obama administration to Syria, the Iranian nuclear program remains one of the most important issues in U.S. foreign policy—or so we are told. The challenge presented by the Iranians’ putative quest to acquire nuclear weapons has been portrayed as the most important security challenge facing the United States, particularly this millennium. Torn asunder by the 1979 revolution, the relationship between Iran and the United has been consistently adversarial for over 30 years. While in the West commentators and government officials accuse Iran of nefarious meddling and intransigence, the Iranian leadership views, or at least publicly asserts, that the United States is the “Great Satan,” engaged in a war against Islam.

What possibilities could there be for change in this intractably bellicose dyad? Two international relations schools of thought can help us better understand why these two states are so resolutely antagonistic. Neorealism and Constructivism offer two fundamentally different takes on international politics and state behavior. While the Neorealist school provides a useful descriptive analytical frame for understanding the current state of play, Constructivists offer a prescriptive framework that offers insights into how the Iranian-U.S. dynamic could be altered.

In his work Theory of International Politics, the late and prominent Neorealist thinker Kenneth Waltz adduces what he refers to as the “ordering principle” of the international system. According to Waltz, “the prominent characteristic of international politics… seems to be the lack of order and of organization.”[1] The lack of a central governing authority that supersedes the sovereignty of states means that states necessarily exist in an anarchic world. Contrasting national and international politics, Waltz suggests “national politics is the realm of authority, of administration and of law. International politics is the realm of power, of struggle and of accommodation… The national realm is variously described as being hierarchic, vertical, centralized, heterogeneous, directed and contrived; the international realm as being anarchic, horizontal, decentralized, homogenous, undirected, and mutually adaptive.”[2] The anarchy of the international system has profound effects on state behavior and the logic that drives state decision-making.

For Waltz and his fellow Neorealists, the story of the stag hunt is particularly instructive in understanding the international system. In the stag hunt story, a group of men in the state of nature can choose to jointly work towards capturing a stag and thus acquire enough meat to feed all the men. However, at any point one man can leave the group in order to catch a rabbit to ensure his own nourishment, thereby rendering the rest of the group incapable of capturing the stag. Although not all men are necessarily evil or so self-serving, to ensure survival man must act as though all other men have the potential to abandon the group to address one’s own immediate self-interest. In the international system states must recognize this dilemma. This engenders what Waltz and other Neorealists call a self-help system. Waltz asserts, “Self-help is necessarily the principle of action in an anarchic order.”[3] In contrast to Classical Realism, Neorealists assert that the anarchy of the international system is not a fundament of human nature, but is structural. In other words, in a self-help system with no supranational authority governing or superseding the autonomy and sovereignty of states each state must act according to its own self-interest, with particular concern for its own survival.

The self-help situation of every state for itself produces a security dilemma. States arm themselves to ensure their own security and survival. However, other states react similarly, seeing the buildup of military power in one state as a threat to their own survival. Iran’s putative drive for nuclear weapons and the concomitant response by the United States and its allies has congruence with the world described by Neorealists. Iran’s proximity to two states that the United States, the world’s preponderant power, has invaded in the last decade has certainly put leaders of the Islamic Republic on watch. Both North Korea and Iraq have been states in which the international community, led by the United States, has militated towards altering pernicious behavior. Many argue that North Korea’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb has been the deterrent that has prevented invasion to this point. Indeed, many observers note that if Saddam Hussein had actually acquired a nuclear bomb, the United States would have never invaded. To Iran, this demonstrates that acquiring a nuclear weapon will serve as a powerful deterrent to ensure survival and stave off a potential invasion.

Neorealism ignores a central component of the bellicose U.S.-Iranian dyad, that is, the role of ideology and ideas. Alternatively, drawing on a Constructivist perspective can lead to a better understanding of how to improve this dyad. Constructivism stems from the emergence of the post-positivist tradition, part of what Yosef Lapid calls the “Third Debate,” in International Relations theory. Although in many ways Constructivism is a diverse school of thought, there is a common focus on analyzing the key assumptions, ideas, norms, beliefs, and values that drive international relations.

According to Alexander Wendt, a prominent Constructivist, Constructivism, along with other Critical IR theory, has two central propositions: “the fundamental structures of international politics are social rather than strictly material…and these structures shape actors’ identities and interests, rather than just their behavior.”[4] Our ideas and beliefs are socially derived and shape the prism through which we view the world.

Furthermore, it is not simply structure, what Waltz defines as the distribution of capabilities, which determines the course of international relations. “Structure is meaningless,” notes Ted Hopf, “without some intersubjective set of norms and practices, anarchy, mainstream international relations theory’s most crucial structural component is meaningless.”[5] In other words, without a shared knowledge of interaction between actors (in the international system this means between states) concepts like anarchy, self-help and security dilemma have no context.  As Wendt notes, the history of interaction matters.[6] Without this shared history of interaction, Neorealism simply assumes that in the state of nature states “necessarily face a ‘stag hunt’ or “security dilemma.’”[7] Without a history of shared interaction states must presuppose that anarchy necessitates a self-help system. However, “self-help is an institution, not a constitutive feature of anarchy.”[8]

For Constructivists, perception and ideas are the fundamental forces driving the logic of international relations.  The values or perceptions of states and their citizens drive state behavior and these ideas, values, and perceptions are intersubjective and engendered by societal interaction. The conflict or cooperation paradigm that a state operates under largely depends on that state’s perceptions.  Wendt notes that anarchy is what states make of it. To build on this notion, enemies are what states makes of them. Often the only way to change a hostile dyad is to challenge the key assumptions and ideas that drive the pugnacity. These propositions of Constructivism help to explain the hostility that has driven the bellicose relations between the United States and Iran.  Not only can the Constructivist approach explain the evolution of the Iranian-U.S. relationship and the continued tension over Iran’s nuclear program, it can also offer a new way forward.

Initiating a new phase of Iranian-U.S. relations and a new intersubjective understanding of identities will be no simple enterprise. However, this type of reorientation of a bellicose dyad is not without precedent. Redefining the ways in which Iran and the U.S. perceive one another will undoubtedly be a piecemeal and perhaps lengthy process. Some suggest that it may require a more hawkish U.S. President than Barack Obama to undertake this process. American domestic politics may prevent a leader with a penchant for emphasizing engagement and diplomacy from attempting to transform U.S.-Iranian relations in such a way. It took the hawkish Nixon to go to China, and in the case of Israel and Egypt in 1979 it took the hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to make peace with Egypt. Certainly if the intersubjective identities of Israel and Egypt could change (after three wars in thirty years) there is reason to hope that Iran and the United States can mend their broken relationship.

The United States’ perception of Iran as an intransigent actor engaging in nefarious activities in the Middle East must change to understand that Iran, like the United States in the Middle East, is acting according to its perceived interests. Conceiving of the Islamic Republic as an unrelenting source of regional malignancy and evil will only perpetuate the U.S.’ jaundiced view of Iran. To be sure, Iran is a leading sponsor of “terrorism” and violence throughout the Middle East, perhaps only trailing the U.S. as the leading source of violence in the region. However, U.S. policymakers should attempt to engage Iran in an earnest fashion. This engagement, and even limited, but symbolic concessions—such as, allowing Iran to enrich its own uranium as long as it remains below weapons grade—will beget a new understanding. Moreover, the United States could demonstrate by its own efforts to dismantle nuclear weapons and leading a global clarion call of disarmament that nuclear weapons are no longer the symbol of prestige they were during the Cold War. This would send a strong signal to the Iranians that being a regional or even global power no longer requires nuclear weapons capability.

For its part, the Iranian regime must discard the pretense that it somehow needs to be anti-Western or anti-U.S. to justify its existence. Leaving the important question of Iranian democratic reform aside, the current regime can greatly enhance its own survival prospects by engaging with the West. Despite claims to the contrary, Iran’s economy has been hurt by the multitude of sanctions imposed on it. The lifting of these sanctions will help the Iranian economy improve and concomitantly alleviate the plight of many destitute Iranians. This would assuredly help the leaders of the Islamic Republic to regain much of the credibility they have lost due to a foundering economy and the repressive measures imposed on dissidents and opposition figures. The notion of working with a perceived nefarious regime is not likely to meet positive reception with many policymakers in the United States. Yet, the United States must engage with the regimes that are in place. Waiting for some confluence of events where regime change comes to Iran is quixotic and potentially perilous.

Neorealism does not account for states and their leaders fundamentally modifying their perceptions of interest and identity. In a Neorealist world, these identities and interests are static given the systemic constraints of anarchy. States remain undifferentiated units primarily concerned with ensuring their own survival and relative power position. Neorealism is also generally ambivalent about the role that particular individuals, even powerful leaders, can play in international politics. Yet, as history has demonstrated, a courageous leader like Gorbachev or Nixon can have a profound and lasting impact on international politics. Constructivism is able to account for changes in norms, values and expectations in international politics. Two states can begin, through interaction, to remake their intersubjective understanding and consequently foster a new mutually constituted relationship.

This relationship can change for the better or for the worse. In the case of the Iranian-U.S. relationship, there is nowhere to go but up. I have suggested a number of ways in which both actors can demonstrate their willingness to reform their relationship. A critical ingredient in changing the nature of this relationship is a courageous leader willing to take monumental risks to revise Iranian-U.S. relations. It goes without saying that this will require leadership, on both sides, that rejects the norms, values, perceptions and ideas that have driven the conflict.  Perhaps the most efficacious mechanism for building new intersubjective perceptions will be for both actors to focus on areas of common interest. Working together to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq, securing Israeli-Palestinian peace, improving Iran’s refining capacity, and issues of regional security can pave the way for a future in which Iran no longer perceives the need for a nuclear deterrent. This type of Constructivist change may not be plausible in the immediate future and some may even find the suggestion fanciful. However, if we fail to use Constructivism as an analytical tool in this conflict, it will only lead to continued crisis and perhaps conflagration. Even Liberal theories that would prescribe integrating Iran into the global community and allowing it reap the attendant benefits must presuppose a Constructivist change in values of both the international community and the Islamic Republic.

To say that this type of profound transformation in the Iranian-U.S. dyad is a herculean challenge may be an understatement. Constructivism makes no claims to the contrary. Changing long-held, self-reproducing intersubjective identities and interests is no easy task. However, if this process takes place it can lead to salubrious benefits for the United States and Iran. To paraphrase Alexander Wendt, the Great Satan is what you make of it. An Iranian leader with the courage to surmount the grievances Iran has with the United States can change the course of Iranian history and the bellicose Iranian-U.S. dyad, much as Gorbachev did for Russia. And an American leadership willing to address its own role in this conflict can further this constructive change and make an ally out of a longtime enemy.


[1] Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2010), 89.
[2] Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 113.
[3] Ibid., 111.
[4] Alexander Wendt, “Constructing International Politics.” International Security vol. 20, no. 1 (Summer 1995): 72.
[5] Ted Hopf. “The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory,” International Security vol. 23 no. 1 (Summer 1998), 173.
[6] Wendt, “Constructing International Politics,” 77.
[7] Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” In Conflict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations Second Edition, ed. Marc Genest, Toronto: Wadsworth, 2004, 287.
[8] Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” 287.

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