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Domestic Determinants of the U.S.-Iran Rivalry

Recent studies of diversionary theory focus on domestic determinants of conflict between interstate rivals as well as the strategic behavior of potential targets of diversion. This paper addresses both issues by analyzing the tendency of the U.S. and Iran to use their rivalry for diversionary purposes from 1990 to 2004. Throughout the study, I seek to answer the following questions: Do the U.S. and Iran use their rivalry to divert attention away from domestic political and economic problems? Second, does Iran reciprocate hostile actions from the U.S. or act more conciliatory to avoid becoming the target of diversion. My findings demonstrate that U.S. Presidents appear to be more hostile toward Iran as there is a decline in their approval ratings. The same conclusion cannot be drawn for Iran. The findings suggest that Iran neither uses hostility toward the U.S. to divert attention away from domestic problems nor behaves strategically to avoid becoming the target of a potential U.S. diversion.

Domestic Determinants of the U S -Iran Rivalry

Introduction 

There has been an unresolved debate in conflict literature over the influence of domestic factors in the outbreak of conflict between states. Scholars have approached the topic, known as the diversionary theory, from different dimensions.1 They have utilized different methodological tools to verify or refute the assumption that state leaders use foreign conflict to divert attention away from domestic political problems. Yet, despite the unique focus of most of these studies on the same country, namely the United States (U.S.), the results are still inconclusive. And the theory still remains one of the most contested areas of foreign policy studies.

While the diversionary tendencies of the U.S. have been the subject of a host of studies, scholars have also begun to take interest in the reaction of potential targets of diversionary actions from the U.S. The theoretical reasoning guiding this new avenue of research is that it is not enough for U.S. Presidents to have diversionary incentives. If the target behaves strategically by adopting a more cooperative stance, it can sideline such actions. Nevertheless, in a study investigating diversion in the context of strategic conflict avoidance, Fordham has claimed that strategic conflict avoidance might fail if the leaders of some frequent American targets, Iran for example, actually were seeking hostile actions from the U.S. to enhance their domestic legitimacy and international prestige.2Therefore, it is worthwhile not only to observe whether the U.S. diverts against Iran, but also to analyze whether Iran chooses to avoid or reciprocate such U.S. actions.

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