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What “Realism” Often Misses: A Study of Iran and Qatar

The Ukraine conflict, which entered its hundredth day last week, has major implications for all aspects of geopolitical dynamics, and consequently challenges the theoretical foundations of well-established concepts of power in international relations. As the conflict has continued, its consequences have helped to show how some states gain power and influence, seemingly illogically, over others. Paradoxically, for example, Iran, a geographically large and well-endowed nation with a population of around 85 million, is reliant on Qatar, the small peninsular emirate of 3 million, to assist in the renewal of the JCPOA nuclear deal. Iran also has the second-largest gas reserves in the world, while Qatar has the third-largest; but it is Qatar that has been seen in the West as the key alternative to end European dependency on Russian gas during the continent’s burgeoning energy crisis. What do these cases suggest about the measurement of state power, evaluating who is ‘big’ and who is ‘small’? To answer these questions, it is essential to learn from the key foundations of the concept of power, with a primary focus on realist, neorealist, and neoclassical realist views, which particularly consider power in quantitative characteristics.

Theoretical Foundations of Power

The relationship between power and statehood has long been discussed, and can be found in canonical theoretical works by Thucydides, Machiavelli, and modern schools in IR theory. For example, in the realist (including neorealist and neoclassical realist) tradition, the most famous approach to defining political power is the concept of ‘elements of national power’. Morgenthau explains these components, sometimes termed ‘power resources’ or ‘capabilities’: geography, natural resources, industrial capacity, military preparedness, population, national character, national morale, the quality of diplomacy, and the quality of government. Similarly, applying the ‘elements of national power’ approach, neorealists, or structural realists (sometimes divided into categories of ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ realism), view state power through its tangible resources, with military power as an essential element. Kenneth Waltz, the father of ‘defensive realism’, considers a state’s power to be the combination of the tangible resources used to serve its interests. These elements he lists in this category are the size of a country’s population and territory, military strength, resource endowment, economic capability, political stability, and overall competence.

John Mearsheimer, the founder of ‘offensive realism’, sees power as derived from material capabilities, but defines two types: latent and military. Latent power refers to a state’s overall population and wealth. Great powers need this raw potential—money, personnel, and technology—to construct armed forces and sustain combat in competition with rivals. He defines power mainly in military terms, considering force as the ultima ratio of international politics, and therefore emphasizes the importance of population as the foundation of military power. Realists consider the power of great states as a combination of power resources, while neorealists view it as a set of tangible resources, dominated by armed capacity rather than latent power.

Discussions of national power and relational power approaches are important in determining which states can effectively build and use their power, and most international relations theorists divide nations into great powers, middle powers, small states, and micro-states. Even until the twentieth century, states were regularly described as ‘powers’ in European languages (e.g., German Macht, French puissance, Russian derzhava). In modern parlance, this term is applied to ‘great powers’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘middle powers’, but very rarely those now referred to as ‘small states’.  A Middle power can be understood as a small state which has reached ‘greatness in one specific regard’. The literature on micro-states focuses on issues of sovereignty and action capacity, and to differentiate these from small states, a lack of resources is assumed.

What realists, neorealists, and neoclassical realists applying the national power approach have in common is a shared belief that only great powers are able to obtain power. As Morgenthau claims, ‘states with a small population cannot be great powers’. An absolute power approach, based on quantitative criteria, is part of the realist tradition that considers ‘small states’ as ‘weak powers’ more preoccupied with survival than great powers, and without real power in international relations. This absolute definition is a sign of a country’s ‘size’, defined as its area, armed capacity, population, and GDP.

What about Iran and Qatar?

Focusing mainly on IR theory, and in order to locate Qatar’s place within it, it should be noted that Qatar has an enormous wealth advantage that realist, neorealist, and neoclassical schools view as an indicator of power; its economic power is its status as one of the richest states in the world in terms of GDP. When one considers other indicators, Qatar’s capacity to demonstrate greater power appears far more limited. Qatar is only 11,437 square kilometers, or 4,247 square miles, in area. In 2020, the country’s population totaled roughly 3 million, making it a small state by any reasonable criteria. When one considers that only approximately 300,000 of the country’s total population are Qatari citizens as opposed to expatriate migrant workers, Qatar could even be considered a micro-state. The country’s military is highly professional, but limited by Qatar’s tiny population, and it is estimated that less than one-third of the soldiers in the Qatari armed forces are Qatari citizens. By contrast, Iran’s indicators are much higher. It has the seventeenth-largest territory in the world (1,648,195 square km), along with the seventeenth-largest population (85,480,885). In 2019, Iran’s military strength—including both the regular army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—was ranked fourteenth in the world out of 137 states. With 523,000 active-duty troops and another 350,000 reservists, Iran has the largest military in the Middle East. All of these indicators clearly demonstrate Iran’s position as a middle power. Iran also has abundant mineral wealth; it has the second-largest gas reserves in the world, behind Russia and ahead of Qatar. Both Qatar and Iran are also top-five natural gas-producing states: at the end of 2017, Qatar had been only sixth in this ranking regionally, while Iran was second. In spite of all this, Iran’s economy remains under sanctions due to Washington’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’, linked to Iran’s regional foreign policy. These economic indicators, then, belie Iran’s limitations.

In other words, the attempts of the ‘small’ state, Qatar—which is emerging as one of the primary exporters of gas to Europe, but ironically has a lower gas capacity than Iran, and which has taken a key role in actively mediating with Washington for the renewal of the JCPOA—illustrates the challenges of understanding ‘powerful’ and ‘weak’, ‘big’ and ‘small’, and ‘vulnerabilities’ and ‘strengths’ of state capacities. Geography and demography are not destiny, and economic influence may bring a country more ‘power’ than raw military might. As in the case of Iran, the state is being sanctioned over its foreign policies, which has been understood in some regards within the context of this crisis as a ‘vulnerability’ or ‘weakness’. By contrast, despite its limited military capacity, Qatar has shown strength by utilizing its wealth and energy resources, and by maximizing its diplomatic outreach and mediation efforts.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Diana Galeeva is a Non-Resident Fellow with Gulf International Forum. She previously was an Academic Visitor to St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford (2019-2022). Dr. Galeeva is the author of two books “Qatar: The Practice of Rented Power” (Routledge, 2022) and “Russia and the GCC: The Case of Tatarstan’s Paradiplomacy” (I.B. Tauris/ Bloomsbury, 2022). She is also a co-editor of the collection “Post-Brexit Europe and UK: Policy Challenges Towards Iran and the GCC States” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). Dr. Galeeva completed her bachelor at Kazan Federal University (Russia), she holds MA from Exeter University (UK) and Ph.D. from Durham University (UK). Beyond academia, she was an intern at the President of Tatarstan’s Office for the Department of Integration with Religious Associations (2012) and the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan (2011) (Russia).

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