Iran Looking East?

Iran embraces its “Look to the East” foreign policy with tactical exceptions. 

Iran’s 1979 revolution sparked a major change in both domestic and foreign policies. With the slogan, “Neither East nor West,” the Islamic Republic rejected multilateral mechanisms and emphasized ideology in bilateral relations. 

Fred Halliday, professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, has said that Iran’s revolution had more transnational goals than even the Russian and French revolutions. For Iran, challenging the established world order has long been a particular priority.

Despite the desire to depend on neither East nor West, Iran saw the United States as the greater threat. America was labeled the ‘‘Great Satan,’’ while the Soviet Union, initially called the “lesser Satan,” gradually became a friend. In 1989, Iran formalized relations with the “less evil” country by signing a comprehensive economic protocol with Moscow. Iran subsequently expanded ties within the framework of then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking.”

After the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Iran sought to re-establish ties with the West to help rebuild the country, ease international isolation, and attract foreign investment. However, the administrations of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami failed to restore sustainable ties. Even the Khatami administration’s cooperation with the United States against the Afghan Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks did not improve relations; instead, Iran found itself put on an „Axis of evil“ by the George W. Bush administration.

This made many in Iran realize that the West’s problem with the Islamic Republic went beyond its actions to its very existence and identity. Khatami’s successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thus turned toward China and Russia as more reliable partners for Iran.

Hassan Rouhani, Ahmadinejad’s successor, followed a more balanced policy towards the East and West in an effort to relieve sanctions tied to Iran’s nuclear program. With the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018, however, internal opponents of the Rouhani government questioned his approach. As a result of European countries‘ inability to compensate for the U.S. withdrawal by continuing to trade with Iran, Rouhani could not realize the goals of the “look to the West” strategy.

The policy of “Looking to the East” has intensified under Rouhani’s successor, Ebrahim Raisi’s presidency. It has geopolitical, economic, and ideological components. It is a strategic choice in Iranian foreign policy that also reflects changes in the international system and a specific interpretation of sovereignty in favor of Eastern powers, including China and Russia. 

Accordingly, in the Raisi administration’s Government Transformation Document, North America is no longer seen as a region with which it is possible to normalize relations. The nuclear issue has been downgraded from a political issue to a technical one of relieving sanctions rather than a platform for improving relations with the West.

Based on this, in May 2023, the Raisi government reached an ‘understanding’ with the United States, which, in addition to resolving the issue of American-Iranian prisoners, was also considered a framework for reducing nuclear tension. According to the agreement reached between the two states in Muscat, Oman, Iran avoided enrichment above 60 percent. Furthermore, after the direct attacks of Iran and Israel against each other, there are reports of the start of nuclear talks between Iran and the United States.

In contrast, Iran sees its relationships with China and Russia as strategic. The 25-Year Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement with China and the 20-year cooperation agreement with Russia are aimed at establishing long-term relationships with the two other poles of a new multipolar world order.

Iran believes that the future international system will be determined by three fault lines: West Eurasia, East Eurasia, and the Mediterranean and Asia.

According to the opinion of Former IRGC commander and top aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Yahya Rahim-Safavi, “in the western Eurasia fault, actors such as the US and Europe as naval powers with the support of NATO in front of the power of the Russian Federation are struggling and competing. The geographical range of this fault starts from the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean and eastern Finland to the countries separated from the former Soviet Union to the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean.”

From his point of view, the eastern Eurasia fault between the United States and the aligned governments in East Asia and the Pacific Ocean has been formed for the economic blockade of China and the dominance and control of the East-West maritime trade. He considers the third geostrategic fault to be ranging from the Mediterranean to West Asia. According to this understanding, the USA, the UK, and some other Western countries have created Israel in the eastern Mediterranean.

Iran sees the development of these fault lines as potentially weakening Russia and China. Accordingly, Iran has supported Russia in the Ukraine war and worries that Hamas has been severely damaged by the Gaza conflict. Iran is also worried about developments in Taiwan and the possible weakening of China in the Indo-Pacific region. 

This understanding of the future international order has been criticized by some influential Iranians, including former foreign ministers Mohammad Javad Zarif and Ali Akbar Salehi. They believe that the future international order does not have a fixed aspect and that Iran should not get closer to Russia and China at the cost of losing relations with the West. However, with reformers and moderates removed from the internal power structure, the supporters of a more balanced foreign policy are in a weak position. Therefore, the continuation of the “Look to the East” policy should be considered a permanent trend in Iran’s foreign policy even if the experience of relations with Russia and China and Iran’s admission to groups such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have not met Iran’s economic needs.

Mohammad Sadr, a former Iranian diplomat, has criticized the current approach, saying that sanctions have kept Iran from controlling inflation or benefiting from new trade corridors. 

Russia and China have also not been reliable supporters of Iranian interests. Shahriar Heydari, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Parliament, criticized Russia and China’s support for the positions of Arab governments regarding three small islands in the Persian Gulf, which Iran controls and the United Arab Emirates claims.

Yet, Russia and China do value Iran’s challenge to the U.S.-led international system and have joined Iran and North Korea in a so-called ‘‘The Axis of Upheaval’’ against the current world order.

Alexander Dugin, an advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has praised Iran and its support for an “Axis of Resistance” against Israel and the U.S. as important in confronting what Dugin calls the West’s “evil liberalism.” Dugin sees Iran, a majority Shi’ite Muslim nation, as an ally of Orthodox Christian Russia against this liberalism and even suggested that Iran will be present at Armageddon as part of an “Army of Light” against an “Army of Darkness.”

Rajab Safarov, who is also close to Putin, considers a Western-oriented Iran as more dangerous for Russia than a nuclear-armed Iran.

At the same time, the Iranian deep state worries that Russia may eventually reach an accommodation with the West over Ukraine in a compromise similar to the 1907 St. Petersburg Agreement between tsarist Russia and imperial Great Britain. Even as it doubles down on a “Look to the East” policy, Iran acknowledges that outreach to the West is necessary in emergency situations as a tactical choice.