Alliances and Threats in the Middle East: Neoclassical Realism and the Balance of Interest

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Ahmed Morsy, American Political Science Association

Egyptian-Iranian relations offer a useful window into the dynamics of regional politics discussed throughout this collection. In the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt approached Iran with animosity, but in the 1970s Anwar Sadat befriending the Shah. Egyptian-Iranian relations went through what could be called normalized stagnation under Hosni Mubarak. Mohammed Morsi’s brief attempt at openness to Iran quickly faded, but Abdelfattah el-Sisi’s Egypt has not been nearly as focused on Iran as his regime’s sponsors in the Gulf might like. What explains the zig-zag trajectory of Egypt’s policy toward Iran?

I argue that Egyptian-Iranian relations cannot be explained solely through the structural level of analysis or via identity and ideology alone. Individual leaders, perceptions, and domestic politics play an important role in shaping the regime’s alliances and policies. An analysis built on Neoclassical Realism and Randall Schweller’s Balance of Interest approach can best explain the changes in Egypt’s policy toward Iran. This requires careful attention to Egyptian leaders’ ideas and views of structural conditions and their distinctive perceptions of threat.

Neoclassical Realism (NCR): A Valuable Foreign Policy Tool

Theorists of Neoclassical Realism (NCR) attempt to explain foreign policy decisions by employing elements of the realist approach to international relations, while incorporating domestic-level analysis. Gideon Rose argues that “a theory of foreign policy limited to systemic factors alone is bound to be inaccurate much of the time.”[1] Therefore, to be able to analyze how states understand and deal with the external threats and dynamics, the analysis must include unit level intervening variables like the decision-maker’s perceptions and domestic state structures since state leaders can be constrained by internal as well as external politics. This provides a solid theoretical framework that manage to bridge the spatial (domestic–international), the cognitive (matter-ideas), and the temporal (present–future).[2] By re-introducing domestic politics and state structure to realism, neoclassical scholars challenge the exclusivity of the unit level analysis claimed by liberalism and constructivism.[3]

To support their alternative approach, neoclassical realists maintain that unlike the balance of power approach, the structure of the system does not predetermine the decisions made by the state. Rather, it provides the actors with opportunities and constraints “within the predefined geopolitical context.”[4] Despite the external geopolitical structure, “a perceptual layer at policymaker level also affects the operationalization of that structure.”[5] In other words, the “complex domestic processes act as transmission belts that channel, mediate, and (re)direct policy outputs in response to external forces.”[6] Material structure, then, is not enough to explain state behavior. There is also an important role played by domestic politics and the leadership regarding foreign policy, alliance decisions, and threat perception.

Balance of Interest Theory: An Understudied Approach

Randall Schweller developed an important but under-studied approach, the balance of interest (BoI). Schweller argues that while Walt’s balance of threat, for all its value, is not entirely adequate to explain the full range of foreign policy choices. Walt’s definition and usage of bandwagoning reflects a status-quo bias and excludes profit as a common form of bandwagoning by focusing only on security.[7] Schweller highlights that alliances are not only motivated by threat, fear and danger, but it’s also driven by opportunities and profits. He emphasizes that balancing and bandwagoning are not opposite behavior, since “bandwagoning is commonly done in the expectation of making gains; while balancing is done for security and it always entails costs.”[8]

Schweller highlighted four forms of bandwagoning

  1. Jackal bandwagoning, is when a (limited revisionist) state ally (bandwagon) with the rising (unlimited-revisionist) expansionist power or coalition seeking to upset the current status quo. In this case, system stability is expected to decrease.
  2. Piling-on, is when a state sides with the stronger status quo powers to claim unearned spoils and benefits. If the pile-on decision is based on opportunity, then it’s seen as a form of jackal bandwagoning. On the other hand, states may decide to pile-on out of fear the strong state or coalition might harm them if they did not side against the losers.[9] In all cases, the pilling-on behavior would lead to increase stability of the system and diminish risks post conflict.
  3. Wave-of-the-Future, is when a state ally with a stronger power because it represents the new wave. This type of bandwagoning is “induced by charismatic leaders and dynamic ideologies, especially when buoyed by massive propaganda campaigns and demonstrations of superiority on the battlefield.”[10]
  4. The Contagion or Domino effect, by which an external force or incident triggers a chain reaction within a country or a region, fueling a bandwagon process.[11]

A bandwagoning tendency can be seen in Egypt’s foreign policies since Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, Egypt’s role shifted over the time from the leader of the bandwagon to the follower and dependent. Despite being situated in the same geo-political zone, the foreign policies of Egypt and Iran represented sharp contrasts and reflected their revisionist versus status quo positions over time and leadership.

Egypt policy toward Iran: A Bandwagon for Reward Case

There are good structural realist reasons to believe that Egypt and Iran might cooperate as they have the size and military power to imagine a bid for regional stability. Despite mutual potential benefits from normalized bilateral relations, a range of factors prevented them from doing so. Those obstacles included: the geo-political perceptions of the leaders; domestic political and economic considerations; regional and external alliances and competing visions of regional order. Under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Mohamed Reza Shah, the two regional powers were on the opposite side of the revolutionary-conservative divide which structured regional politics. After 1979, the radical reorientation of Iran’s foreign policy after its revolution and the strengthening of Egypt’s alliances with the United States and the Gulf monarchies, and sustained peace with Israel are directly correlated to aloof Egyptian-Iranian relations.

Egyptian-Iranian relations do not travel in a straight line between both capitals in which a decision by one is directly affecting or influencing the decision of the other. Egyptian policies are filtered through the leaders’ perspectives and regime’s interests, in addition to the regional and systemic structures. Neither Realism nor ideological accounts alone suffice. It is possible to view Egyptian post-1979 policy as an ideological balancing act against an “ideologically-motivated actor pursuing power in the name of Islamic revolution.” But it can also be perceived as bandwagoning with the United States and Saudi Arabia against a powerful state – Iran – that is “pursuing self-interest in an anarchic and high risk environment.”[12] What bridges this analytical divide is the common recognition that Iranian activities since 1979 were perceived by Egypt as revisionist and represent a challenge to the regional configuration and status-quo which Egypt believes to be beneficial and important to its survival.

During the second half of the 1950’s and during the 1960’s, Egypt played the role of the regional bandwagon-master that was working to attract other states to its orbit. In Schweller’s terms, Nasser’s Egypt was a “Wolf’ – an unsatisfied regional power that aims to challenge the regional status-quo and restructure the region. Nasser believed in Egypt’s leading role in the Arab world and as a potential regional hegemon. He used several tactics from ideological rhetoric (Pan Arabism) and robust propaganda machine to economic and military assistance supporting Arab and African independence movements. Egypt was also a Jackal (on the international level) that tried to benefit from the superpower rivalry and Cold War politics while pretending neutralism. For instance, it was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), yet it depended on Soviet arms and benefited from the food aid program of the United States among other benefits it extracted from the bi-polarity. In short, Nasser’s galvanizing rhetoric and rising power in the Arab world made Egypt the bandwagon from which other states hoped for benefits and better positioning in the region. This stood in contract to Iran, which represented a status-quo power under the Shah who enjoyed Western support and friendly relations with Israel.[13] These divergent positions on the regional level and dynamics best explain the tension between Egypt and Iran in the 1950s and 1960s.

After assuming the Presidency in 1970, Anwar Sadat realized that Arabism no longer fit with his goals of economic liberalization and peace. Sadat restructured Egypt’s foreign policy from an aspiring regional hegemon with state-led socialist policy and anti-imperial rhetoric to a benign state with an ‘Egypt-first’ approach and western-like aims. Sadat’s objective was to gain as much benefits from his restructuring policies that would support the war and peace plans and help transform Egypt into capitalism – or the Wave of the Future – as described by Schweller. Sadat’s tenure saw the closest relations with Iran, which at the time was the only country in the region with close ties to both Washington and Tel Aviv. This appeared in the steady communication and dialogue, the various bilateral agreements and Iranian investments, and the Iranian support to the peace process. The changing regional alignments as well as Sadat’s objectives were the main reasons for the Egyptian-Iranian entente. Both Sadat and the Shah thought they could extract a win-win formula from their cooperation especially that both were bandwagoning with the U.S. for a bigger regional role under the Cold War dynamics.[14] Sadat believed that aligning with the United States would provide much needed benefits for Egypt and that liberal western political and economic policies are the next wave of the future as opposed to the Soviet model. By the end of his tenure, Egypt has effectively moved into the Pax-Americana. During the 1970s, then, Egypt and Iran shared the same orientation towards regional order, which helped them align their policies and overcome the previous decades of mistrust.

The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel changed the regional dynamics and alliances and soured the relationship between both nations because Iran now adopted a revisionist perspective on the regional order it had previously backed, and which Egypt had now been firmly embedded within. Ayatollah Khomeini used the Pan-Islamic revolutionary rhetoric to discredit all the western allied regimes and call for a change in the regional structure – a reminder of Nasser’s Pan-Arabism strategy. Iran since 1979 has represented a dissatisfied power that is more risk-averse and willing to take steps to advance its status and possessions within the region. The Iranian leaders have – and continue to – look for ways to assert their presence and regional influence through various means. Tehran understood that keeping the ‘revolutionary regime’ intact and alive means being a dynamic and active player in the region. They sponsored aggressive rhetoric, strategic maneuvering, and built political alliances – on sectarian and pragmatic basis – as tools for regional influence. Clear examples include Iran’s influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah; their support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas against Israel; their strong hold over Iraq post 2003; fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime to keep it alive; and supporting the Houthis in Yemen.

Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, on the other hand, represented a core pillar of the regional status-quo. Mubarak continued Sadat’s policies, using the regional changes of the 1980’s to obtain benefits – mostly financial and domestic legitimation – from rapprochement with the Arab countries and consolidating his cordial relations with the West and the United States. As a state with average military power but weak economic capabilities, undemocratic rule and poor state-society relations, Egypt demonstrates a prime example of the satisfied static state – what Schweller calls a “Lamb” – that bandwagons for profit to keep its possessions and preserve the status-quo. Accordingly, the state is not willing to pay or take risks to expand its interests, and in fact would sometimes give away leverage to sustain and preserve the regime and its perceived status in the region. This became more evident during the last decade under Mubarak when other smaller states, like Qatar, started playing key regional roles.

Throughout his presidency, Mubarak remained distrustful of Iran’s rapprochement attempts and was convinced of the insincerity of Iran’s officials and the duality of Iran’s domestic apparatus as main challenges toward any normalization. While this could be true in some instances closer to home – like Iran’s support for the nascent Islamist regime in Sudan or funding Hamas and al-Jihad in Gaza – the Egyptian approach has always been rigid, with little room for negotiation. Security services believed that irrespective of Iran’s apparent intentions for cooperation and goodwill messages, Iranians are working to infiltrate Egypt to advance their revolutionary zeal across the region.[15] Mubarak’s regime invested in and enjoyed strong relations with the Gulf monarchies, especially the Saudis, which provided much needed economic aid and investment for the populous Arab state. Egypt’s alliances did not stop with the Gulf but included strategic relations with the United States and the Europeans, which influenced the anti-Iran rhetoric at times. Egypt looked at its Western partners for military and economic aid, which when added to the Gulf support have kept Egypt’s economy afloat. In short, Egypt’s perception of Iran and its bandwagoning with the Gulf and the United States were far more important than normalizing relations and opening up to Iran.

The brief tenure of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood highlights the importance of a multiple level of analysis approach to foreign policy. Egypt’s foreign policy suffered from competing internal narratives as well as regional changes. Despite the recognizable influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on Egypt’s political scene, their foreign policy was not part of a grand Islamist project or any project, for that matter. The expectations of a revolutionary foreign policy that would alter Egypt’s status-quo positions coupled with a fluid domestic and regional situation seemed idealistic. However, the Brotherhood looked at better relations with Hamas and Iran as two files that would distinguish them from the Mubarak regime. The exchange of visits by Morsi and Ahmadinejad in 2012 were historic as the first since Mubarak’s visit to Tehran as vice-president in 1978 and the Shah’s asylum in Cairo in 1980. These simple gestures were met with anxiety on the regional and domestic levels alike. Regionally, Morsi and the MB were quick to respond by assuring Egypt’s Gulf allies that any prospective relations with Iran would not detract from Cairo’s commitments to the security and stability of region as well as its obligations under the peace treaty with Israel. While internally, the Salafi Nour party – traditionally having close ties to Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s state security – organized protests and held conferences to warn against any normalization with Iran. They used sectarian rhetoric to galvanize Egyptians against Shiites and highlight Iranian support to the Syrian regime killing its Sunni citizens. The Salafists demanded a halt to the nascent Iranian tourism to Egypt initiative on fears of increasing Shiite influence and money that would alter Egypt’s Sunni culture and traditions

Morsi’s foreign policy symbolism might have given his supporters the impression that Egypt was moving toward a new path. However, nothing much changed and Egypt’s regional leadership aspirations by the Muslim Brotherhood were devoid of substance. The short-lived attempt at reorienting Egypt’s foreign policy seemed at odds with Egypt’s limited capabilities, which was struggling to stay solvent and adjusting to a new domestic political reality. Egypt was too dependent on financial assistance from the Gulf states, the United States, and the EU.[16] Since the 2013 coup, President Abdelfattah el-Sisi has been focused on consolidating his grip on power and keeping Egypt solvent. This meant firmly returning to Mubarak’s approach of solidifying Egypt’s relations with the Gulf monarchies for economic gains and presenting Egypt as a pillar of regional status quo and security order by championing the fight against terrorism and curbing illegal immigration to Europe. While Sisi did much on the former – alienating and stifling the Egyptian society in the process – he did not join the aggressive anti-Iran bandwagon led by his Gulf allies, Israel and the United States. Egypt only continued its routine statements and lip-service decrying any Iranian intervention in the domestic affairs of the Arab states.

This stance poses the question of what is holding Cairo back from joining the regional offensive against Tehran. Is it the regime’s focus on internal consolidation and legitimation? Is it a recognition of possible role for diplomacy on certain issues? Or simply sustaining the long tradition under Mubarak of normalized stagnation and use Iran as a card to extract benefits from its allies. If bandwagon for rewards is the name of the game, then Egypt’s Sisi will continue on the path of lip-service against Iran.


[1] Gideon Rose. “Review: Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy,” World Politics, 51.1 (1998), pp. 152 (pp. 144-172).

More works on Neoclassical Realism:

Brian Rathbun. “A Rose by Any Other Name: Neoclassical Realism as the Logical and Necessary Extension of Structural Realism,” Security Studies, 17:2, 2008, pp. 294-321; Nicholas Kitchen. “Systemic Pressures and Domestic Ideas: A Neoclassical Realist Model of Grand Strategy Formation,” Review of International Studies 36:1, (2010), pp. 117-143; Steven E. Lobell et al. Neoclassical Realism, the State, and Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009; and Jeffrey W. Taliaferro. “Neoclassical Realism and the Study of Regional Order,” in T.V. Paul, ed. International Relations Theory and Regional Transformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012

[2] Michiel Foulon. “Neoclassical Realism: Challengers and Bridging Identities,” International Studies Review, 17 (2015), p. 635-661

[3]Jeffrey W. Legro and Andrew Moravcsik. “Is anybody still a Realist?” International Security, Vol. 24, n. 2, (Fall 1999), pp. 5-55.

[4] Foulon. Ibid., p. 635

[5] Foulon. Ibid., p. 636

[6] Schweller, “Unanswered Threats: A Neoclassical Realist Theory of Underbalancing,” International Security, 29.2 (2004), pp. 164

[7] Randall Schweller. “Bandwagoning For Profit: Bringing The Revisionist State Back in,” International Security, 19.1 (1994), p. 79. For Stephen Walt’s definition of Bandwagoning, see Stephen Walt. “Testing Theories of Alliance Formation: The Case of Southwest Asia,” International Security, 42.2 (1988), p. 282.

[8] Randall Schweller. “Bandwagoning For Profit: Bringing The Revisionist State Back in,” International Security, 19.1 (1994), p. 106

[9] Schweller. Ibid., pp. 95

[10] Schweller. Ibid., pp. 96-97

[11] Schweller. Ibid., pp. 98-99

[12] Marc Lynch. “Regional International Relations,” in Ellen Lust, ed. The Middle East. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 315

[13] Shahram Chubin and Sepeh Zabih. The Foreign Relations of Iran: A Developing State in a Zone of Great-Power Conflict. University of California Press, 1974, p. 141

[14] As part of their anti-communist policy, Egypt and Iran were members of an intelligence service alliance – Safari Club – along with Morocco, Saudi Arabi and France to fight communism in Africa. See, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. Iran: The Untold Story. Pantheon Books, New York, 1982, p. 113

[15] Ahmed Abu el Gheit. Shehadaty: al-Seyasa al-Kharejya al-Masrya 2004-2011 – [My Testimony: Egyptian Foreign Policy 2004-2011]. Cairo: Nahdet Misr Publishing, 2013, p. 387

[16] Nael Shama. Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi: Against the National Interest. London: Routledge, 2013