- Squandered Opportunity: Neoclassical Realism and Iranian Foreign Policy by Thomas Juneau
Squandered Opportunity is a valuable work that offers interesting theoretical advancement and important insights into Iranian foreign policy. Thomas Juneau argues convincingly for what he calls the “strategic analysis variant” of neoclassical realism (pp. 3–6). He articulates the structural realist position that the distribution of power produces constraints and opportunities on states (p. 8). These constraints and opportunities are permissive causes (p. 25) that in certain alignments produce “windows of opportunity” (p. 13). States should use these windows to achieve their ideal end states; their failure to do so is suboptimal (p. 12). Domestic political factors that generate a state’s foreign policy are the proximate cause that result in suboptimal outcomes. In Iran’s case the domestic political landscape is driven by factional competition and the drive for recognition and status (p. 8). Juneau explains well how Iran aspires to a certain status but how status is ascribed to it by other actors, primarily the United States, resulting in status discrepancy and therefore a foreign policy of revisionism (p. 43). According to Juneau, the Iranian domestic political structure’s pathologies (i.e., factional competition and the drive for status) produce suboptimal results — a failure to capitalize on windows of opportunity like the realignment of power in the region following the US invasion of both Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 — and thus the title: squandered opportunity.
In terms of theory, there are two things that strongly recommend this work. First, congruent with neoclassical realism, Juneau recognizes the limitation of structural realism [End Page 155] in furthering the study of foreign policy decision-making. The ability to capture the insights of structural realism, while using the concept of “windows of opportunity” as a means to introduce agency is a useful mechanism. Second, Juneau posits that the end state of foreign policy is to maximize influence and this is a significant theoretical advancement for contemporary realist approaches to foreign policy analysis. Further, any work that penetrates the “black box” of Iranian foreign policy decision-making and explores that space by exposing the factional competition that propels change and the role of status is deeply warranted and welcomed. For these reasons, this work is an important contribution to the foreign policy decision-making literature and should be widely read.
Naturally, as in most work that significantly advances theory, there are some weaknesses that need to be addressed. The first is in the assumption that less-than-optimal decision-making needs explaining. Juneau posits that the structural distribution of power shapes states’ interests — ideally. Iran, due to certain “pathologies,” fails to achieve its ideal goals; this is referred to as suboptimal. It would be interesting to see any state at any time that achieved their ideal interests — on purpose. A reliance on rational choice models and optimality seems a bit unrealistic. In other words, suboptimality is the norm and requires no explanation.
Further, it is not clear in this work what the international system, or structure, actually means or more importantly what effect it should have on Iran. The clearest articulation of this comes from the underlying assumption that because Iran is facing hostile neighbors and a hostile superpower, it should pursue regional domination (p. 51). In fact, this is posited as an ideal goal. There are two problems here. First, there is an assumption that the only, or perhaps best way, to achieve security is to dominate others, where domination means military superiority. But that is a particular preference for certain schools of thought and not necessarily given by the structure. In fact, many argue that is what gives rise to security dilemmas and should be avoided, particularly for a rising power with very powerful adversaries. Another more sustainable form of stabilizing a precarious security environment could be forming alliances and institutions. Second, what if the leadership in Iran has decided that regional domination is simply too costly and that what they seek is greater influence, not domination? It seems odd that Juneau posits...