This paper appears as a chapter of, Powers and Principles: International Leadership in a Shrinking World, published by The Stanley Foundation.
Since its explosive beginnings nearly three decades ago, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the poster child for recalcitrance and misconduct in the international system—the archetype for a new category of rogue or outlaw state. Iran’s post-revolutionary leadership has done much to earn this international reprobation: from the —1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy and ensuing fourteen-month hostage crisis to Iran’s embrace of terrorism as an instrument of statecraft, to its clandestine development of an extensive nuclear infrastructure. Dealing with Iran and its multiple challenges has become the quintessential policy ‘test case’ for aspiring regional powers seeking to assert their influence and establish their bonafides as ‘responsible stakeholders.’
For this reason, it may be tempting to consider any discussion of Iran’s prospective evolution into a responsible stakeholder as a purely imaginative exercise. In reality, however, the possibility that Iran could transform itself from one of the world’s foremost problem states to a respected problem-solver is not so far-fetched. With its long legacy of territorial integrity and relatively cohesive political heritage, Iranian influence has, over the millennia, dominated vast expanses of what is now the Middle East and Central Asia. During the Pahlavi period, Iran emerged as the dominant regional power broker, courting both superpowers and asserting itself extravagantly at home and abroad. Revolutionary Iran retained the messianic ambitions of its imperial predecessor, obviously with a distinctly religious flair. The vision of Iran as the heir to the ancient Persian empire, staking claims both to a history and a future as one of the Great Civilizations and regional powers, thus exerts a powerful hold on Iran’s worldview.