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Abstract

How the U.S.-Iranian competition for influence in the Middle East plays out will have profound consequences not just for the Middle East, but also for the legal frameworks, rules-based regimes, and mechanisms of global governance that shape international order in the 21st century. This is particularly true with regard to U.S.-Iranian disagreements over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities. Strategic competition between America and Iran and its implications for international order play out against a backdrop of the progressive diminution of U.S. leadership in world affairs. Relative decline challenges the United States to share the prerogatives of global governance, especially with rising powers in the global South. As America experiences relative decline, its abuse of rules-based regimes governing key dimensions of international relations—e.g., the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—for hegemonic purposes becomes less and less sustainable. Today, the U.S. posture toward the Islamic Republic of Iran—particularly on the nuclear issue—is the most potent driver of hegemonic unilateralism in American foreign policy. That is why the manner in which the U.S.-Iranian competition for influence in the Middle East plays out over the next few years—and how Washington conducts itself in this competition—will decisively affect both America’s international standing and the dynamics of international order in the 21st century. To enhance both, the United States needs to drop its deliberate misreading of the NPT and recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards; it also needs to turn away from its post-Cold War pattern of illegal (and strategically dysfunctional) resort to military force to assert hegemonic prerogatives.

 

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