In contemporary International Relations (IR), new powers are emerging to contest the United States (US) primacy and bring about vital changes to the global arena. There has been a shift from a predominant unipolar world order to a more multipolar world order. These powers are commonly known as ‘emerging powers’ and a common question asked today is, whether Iran can be considered an emerging power?
Before analysing Iran’s role in the international realm, the term ‘emerging’ power needs to be defined. There are contending debates and a variety of definitions on what constitutes as an ‘emerging power’, however it can be defined as: “a country whose conquest of space in the international arena occurs gradually, through economic and political means”i. In conjunction to this, there are a number of characteristics that a country requires to fulfil as an emerging power, these typically include: “regional predominance, aspiration to a global role, and [challenging] the US hegemony. These characteristics [essentially] make the group as a whole a useful category in analysis and policy formulation”ii.
States such as the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) would commonly fall into the above category. However, in recent years it is arguable that Iran could be considered an ‘emerging power’, specifically in regards to its recent actions in the Syrian civil war and its influence across the Middle East.
The Iranian state still remains powerful compared with its neighbours and is determined to proclaim itself abroad, despite its continuous economic and social challenges. The events of the Arab spring were a major game changer for Iran. The overthrow of Arab rulers opened the door for a firmer Iranian foreign policy in the Middle Eastiii. With its actions, Iran is seen as a more confident country compared to a few years ago and has been able to mobilise Shia minorities (Iran’s main religious group) throughout the Middle East. In addition, ranging from Yemen and Iraq to Syria, Iran along with other nations such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia have engaged in more autonomous patterns of action regionallyiv. In this regard, there has been a decline of American influence in the Middle East over the years and Iran has been seen as the challenger of US hegemonic power and a threat to US interests within the gulf region.
Along with these aspects, there are a few other factors that have contributed towards Iran’s regional ascendency. The Iranian nuclear deal under the Obama administration, along with the lifting of sanctions was also seen as having short-term economic benefits for the country and the deal could have been seen as a path to decreasing tensions with the US and the West. In essence, these benefits could have been projected throughout the region. Iran is essentially one of the highest producers of oil and gas, and this strategically strengthens Iran’s position within the Persian Gulf. This strategic value forces the West not to militarily intervene to contain Iran’s ambitions, specifically with the former supreme leader of Iran Ruhollah Khomeini and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the past, who have attempted to menace several times by reducing oil production. Adding to this, two-thirds of all oil consumed world-wide passes through seven ocean choke points. The most significant of these, is the Strait of Hormuz, which is the portal to the Persian Gulf’s oil shipment ports, and is bordered by Iran, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)v. Essentially, Iran has the ability to block the most vital oil transit choke point in the world, in turn the price of oil will substantially increase for the US and the Westvi.
Although Iran cannot protrude conventional force, it can most definitely implement asymmetrical warfare techniques very wellvii. The Iranian strategy of militia warfare has become more recognisable since the advent of ISIS in central Iraq. Owing to this, Iran has become an influential actor in one of the most important Arab countriesviii and is the most capable military the US has encountered in decadesix. Lastly, the Islamic Republic has also used its influence over Syria and Hezbollah to create a defence against Israelx.
Ultimately, Iran’s role in the international domain is changing rapidly. There is no doubt that the nation is regionally strong and with the aspects discussed, it does fit into the emerging power category. In fact, Iran’s emerging power position is the reason why there is a significant amount of tension and conflict concerning the Islamic Republic, especially with regards to the Saudis. However, due to the international sanctions placed on Iran and the nuclear deal being in jeopardy under the Trump administration, along with the country’s domestic challenges and forthcoming presidential elections, the question now is, whether Iran can sustain its regional and emerging power position, and still be able to exert its influence abroad?
Ms Negar Fayazi holds a BA Hons in International Relations from the University of Pretoria and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with the University of South Africa (UNISA). Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.
i Derolle, P.G. 2015. What does it mean to be an emerging power? Available at: http://www.moderndiplomacy.eu/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=652:what-does-it-mean-to-be-an-emerging-power&Itemid=768. [Retrieved 19 April 2017].
ii Macfarlane, N. 2006. The ‘R’ in BRICs: is Russia an emerging power? International Affairs, 82 (1): 41-57.
iii NATO review magazine. 2016. The rise of Iran as a regional power: Shia empowerment and its limits. Available at: http://www.nato.int/docu/Review/2016/Also-in-2016/iran-regional-power-tehran-islamic/EN/index.htm. [Retrieved 19 April 2017].
iv Boserup, A.R., Hazbun, W., Makidisi, K. & Malvig, H. 2017. New Conflict Dynamics: Between Regional Autonomy and Intervention in the Middle East and North Africa. Copenhagen: The Danish Institute for International Studies.
v Huessy, P. 2016. The Risk of Iranian Terror: The Straits of Hormuz in Danger. Available at: http://dailycaller.com/2016/05/24/the-risk-of-iranian-terror-the-straits-of-hormuz-in-danger/. [Retrieved 21 April 2017].
vi Shokri, N. 2015. Is Iran a Regional Power? Available at:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265267786_Is_Iran_a_Regional_Power_Is_Iran_a_Regional_Power. [Retrieved 21 April 2017].
vii Sick, G. 2011. Iran: An emerging Power in Perspective. Available at: http://www.saisjournal.org/posts/-iran-an-emerging-power-in-perspective. [Retrieved 25 April 2017].
viii NATO review magazine. 2016. The rise of Iran as a regional power: Shia empowerment and its limits. Available at: http://www.nato.int/docu/Review/2016/Also-in-2016/iran-regional-power-tehran-islamic/EN/index.htm. [Retrieved 19 April 2017].
ix Lowther, A.B. 2012. Five Reasons Not to Attack Iran. Available at: http://thediplomat.com/2012/01/five-reasons-not-to-attack-iran/. [Retrieved 25 April 2017].
x Krauthammer, C. 2015. Iran’s emerging empire. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-irans-emerging-empire/2015/01/22/c3098336-a269-11e4-903f-9f2faf7cd9fe_story.html?utm_term=.48f3579b69be. [Retrieved 25 April 2017].