The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently travelled to Cuba to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro and other Cuban dignitaries. This Iranian outreach to Cuba is raising eyebrows in the United States, as the two countries have historically acted as impediments to American foreign policy (1). The meeting between the two countries is further complicated by the Obama administration’s foreign policy of rapprochement. With the implementation of the JCPOA (otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal) and the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba, there is a lot riding on improved relations with both Iran and Cuba. Ultimately, though, it is unlikely that recent diplomatic actions between Iran and Cuba portend any significant changes in the current global order.
Foreign policy decision-making is a two-level game (2). In other words, policymakers have to consider two central questions when formulating foreign policy: how will the policy be viewed internationally and how will it be viewed domestically? While each have authoritarian elements, both Cuba and Iran have legislative bodies that hold some degree of influence over decision-making. Thus, Iranian and Cuban leaders need to design policies that both appease their legislative bodies and are effective on the international stage (3). Iran, in particular, has a powerful conservative bloc that has been staunchly opposed to Iran’s moves toward détente with the United States. Indeed, recent military actions like the testing of potent missile systems and the harassment of American warships in the Persian Gulf signal a growing willingness on the part of Iran to flex its geopolitical muscles (4). This, of course, is partly designed to pressure the U.S. and remind it that Iran has cards to play. However, provocative actions like these are likely more focused on signaling to Iranian hardliners that the Rouhani administration is not caving to American pressure and is still working to frustrate American foreign policy.
This is not the first time that Iranian emissaries have met with Cuban officials. Back in 2014, for example, Cuban and Iranian officials met to strengthen their resistance “against hegemonic powers” (5). Thus, the more recent meeting should hardly be viewed as a novel or particularly unprecedented event. It is unsurprising that rogue actors like Iran and Cuba seek to strengthen their ties to one another. As small, relatively isolated states, they are only to project strength through cooperation with like-minded regimes across the globe. Indeed, this dynamic of cooperation among states opposed to U.S. international policy can be seen in East Asia as well, with Russia, China, and North Korea cooperating in opposition to American interests. These Asian powers aren’t allied because they have particularly close bonds ideologically or culturally, but because they have a shared goal of limiting U.S. foreign policy successes and enhancing their power and influence outside of the U.S.-led liberal international order (6). So it is with Iran and Cuba as well.
It’s important to remember that despite these provocations from Iran and Cuba, the U.S. still possesses enormous leverage over both countries, as access to the lucrative American market is a powerful incentive with which Washington can shape Iranian and Cuban actions. Alarmist rhetoric about the creation of a new “axis of evil” is, therefore, entirely overblown. The Iranian hardliners that pushed for this diplomatic trip likely seek to provoke the U.S. into overreacting. In other words, this action might very well be designed to incite the United States into condemning or threatening Iran, giving hardliners the excuse they need to abrogate the JCPOA and sabotage U.S.-Iranian relations. Thus, it is important that the United States does not take any drastic actions in response to this Iranian overture toward Cuba: overreacting and engaging in inflammatory rhetoric will only provide hardliners ammunition needed to eliminate moderate voices within the Iranian government. It is imperative that the United States unilaterally refrains from engaging in confrontational actions because only through ignoring minor diplomatic insults can the U.S. break the enduring rivalry shaping Iranian-American relations (7).
Like everything with Iran and Cuba, the factors shaping this visit are complex, nuanced, and somewhat opaque. It is very easy to believe that Iran and Cuba are acting solely to anger and provoke the U.S., but it is just as likely that this recent diplomatic meeting was designed to appease hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). The real reason for Zarif’s visit to Havana probably has to do with both factors, and possibly even other factors not immediately clear to Western observers. Understanding the foreign policy of American adversaries is always important, as it allows American policymakers to predict and impede hostile actions against the U.S. Nevertheless, it is also important not to exaggerate the significance of individual actions, as events are frequently not as significant as they might originally appear. A budding Cuban-Iranian alliance is certainly concerning. However, there is currently too little information to draw sweeping conclusions.
(1) O’Reily, Andrew. “Iranian minister's trip to Cuba, Latin America raises concern about its influence in region.” Fox News. August 25, 2016. Web.
(2) Putnam, Robert D. “Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games.” International Organizations 42(3) (Summer 1988): 427-460.
(3) For selectorate dynamics, see Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce et. al. The Logic of Political Survival. Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Print.
(4) For example, see Dickstein, Corey. “Navy Fires Warning Shots At Iranian Ships In 3rd Close Call In 2 Days.” Task and Purpose. August 27, 2016. Web.
(5) “Envoy underscores Iran-Cuba growing relations.” The Iran Project. October 8, 2014. Web.
(6) Mead, Walter Russel. “The Return of Geopolitics.” Foreign Affairs. May/June 2014. Web.
(7) Goertz, Gary. “Enduring Rivalries: Theoretical Constructs and Empirical Patterns.” International Studies Quarterly 37(2) (June 1993): 147-171.
Image: © Zoltán Balogh | Dreamstime.com - Cuba
Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.