The international environment of Iran can be described as “complicated”. In its immediate neighborhood, the country is surrounded by three types of states: historic rivals (Turkey and Russia), newer rivals (Israel and Saudi Arabia) and former provinces. Outside of its region, Iran is isolated by its ideological agenda and nuclear program. Among the major powers, only China and, to some extent, India entertain good relations with Tehran. Still, Iran has managed to carve out a sphere of influence for itself in the Middle East, which makes it a natural rival for any other regional power. The 2003 US-led coalition invasion of Iraq gave Tehran the opportunity to spread its influence westwards, which it did until then the regime of Saddam Hussein separated Iran from its allies in Syria (the Assad regime, with its social base in the Shia-affiliated Alawite sect) and Lebanon (the Iran-sponsored Shia militia Hezbollah). Through its militias and communal allies, Iran is now reaching the Mediterranean, which is as worrisome for Saudi Arabia (severely lacking in both population and political tradition vis-à-vis Iran) as it is for Israel and Turkey. The latter is a historical rival of Iran and has its own, neo-Ottoman designs for Iraq and the Levant. Turkey’s situational cooperation with Iran in Syria, or the economic partnership between the two countries, co-exists well with their implicit, and often explicit, rivalry in the Middle East.
Iran’s relationship with Russia is very similar to that with Turkey, if only more pronounced. The northern neighbor, geographically more distant since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is currently engaged in a cooperation with Iran in the nuclear energy and military spheres, but is constantly alert to any Iranian ambitions regarding the Russian “near-abroad” in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Those land-locked countries have many reasons to engage in profitable relations with Iran (for the benefit of gaining access to the open sea) as well as to fear becoming too dependent on their ancient Persian overlord.
East of Iran is the other half of the Iranian Plateau, where most of the Iranic ethnic groups are located. Persian (by the name of Dari) is the native language of the Tajiks and Hazaras in Afghanistan and is spoken by most of the Afghan population, functioning as the local lingua franca. Besides these cultural links and previous centuries of inclusion in the Persian state, Afghanistan also presents a persistent security issue for Iran – in the past because of nomadic invasions and now due to drug traffic and terrorism. Pakistan, with its large Iranic population (Pashto and Baluchis) and Mughal legacy, also possesses cultural links with Iran. This is precisely why it has had an often-difficult relationship with Tehran – Islamabad probably remembers that the traditional eastern border of the Persian Empire was at the Indus River.
Despite the two countries having been locked in an adversarial relationship for over forty years, Iran and the United States have few reasons to quarrel. The US being an a priori outside actor, able to pick its regional partners with more freedom than other powers, it makes more sense for Washington to seek an alliance with Iran than with the Gulf states given Tehran’s much more valuable strategic position and capabilities. As stated by none other than Henry Kissinger, Iran could be the regional ally the US dreams of having, and yet, due to a number of political – and ideological – factors, this has not come about. Iran could be of similar value to the European Union, especially with its untapped natural gas reserves.
In the absence of a new Nuclear Deal and with renewed US sanctions on Iran (which prompted Europeans to follow suit), it is China and India who are the most willing to engage with Tehran. China and Iran are becoming closer and closer: the Iranian economy is still surviving in large part due to China purchasing Iranian oil. In 2021 the two countries signed an agreement for twenty-five-years’ of strategic cooperation of an undisclosed nature, which allegedly includes massive Chinese investments in Iranian infrastructure projects in return for long-term Iranian oil supplies. India is trying to compete with this growing Chinese influence by investing in the port of Chabahar, hoping it could match the Chinese-sponsored port Gwadar in Pakistan.
It would be very advantageous for Iran to be able to entertain close relations with all these powers, in order to not have to depend on any of them. This would, however, require it to give up on nuclear weapons at least for the near future, as well as to hand out political concessions that could potentially endanger the power of the regime.
Although it possesses many advantages – an abundance of resources, placement at a strategic crossroad in Eurasia, and one of the oldest cultural and political traditions in the world - Iran has no shortage of impediments to becoming a great power. Its oil-dependent economy, divided, and underequipped military, and the hostile international environment limit Iranian ambitions to a position as a regional power. Tehran will first need to overcome the structural weaknesses in its economy and military, as well as escape from its international isolation, in order to ever hope of replicating the legacy of Cyrus.