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The Origins And Foundations Of Iran's “Look East” Policy

04 Oct 2022
By Professor Pierre Pahlavi
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with President of Iran Sayyid Ebrahim Raisi. Photo: TASS

Iran’s ties with Russia and China have become increasingly close. Driven by anti-Western sentiment, Iran’s posture no longer follows the “Neither East nor West” doctrine of its past.

Over the past few years, Tehran has continuously evolved closer to Beijing and Moscow. In March 2021, the Islamic Republic and the People’s Republic of China signed a far-reaching economic and security partnership. That September, Iran took its first steps within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) overseen by Russia and China. Since February 2022, Tehran has refrained from openly condemning the Russian intervention in Ukraine, while providing logistical support to the Kremlin’s “special operation.” During the recent SCO summit in September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping officially welcomed Iranian President Ebrahim Raïssi into what is increasingly seen as an anti-Western bloc. What are the root causes of this rapprochement between Iran and these Eurasian great powers? To answer this question, it is indispensable to review the stages of this rapprochement before considering its geopolitical implications.

Questioning the “Neither East nor West” doctrine (2005-2021)

In the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and the advent of the Islamic regime, Iran adopted a staunchly anti-imperialist posture summed up by the “Neither East nor West” doctrine (Na Chargh, Na Gharb). Essentially oriented against the United States and Israel, Iranian anti-imperialism was also turned against the Soviet Union, its Marxist ideology, and its intervention in Afghanistan. At the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), during which the Soviet Union had supplied arms to the two belligerents, Ayatollah Khomeini nevertheless saw in the opening of a dialogue with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Russia a way to break Iran’s diplomatic isolation. Initially limited and rather symbolic, this cooperation developed after the collapse of the Soviet Union with Moscow’s assistance with the reconstruction of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant.

A turning point for the Iran-Russia relationship came in 2005 with the growing influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) within the Iranian state apparatus and the adoption by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration of the “Look East” doctrine (Nagah be Shargh). Formulated by former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, Ari Larijani, the new doctrine paved the way for increased cooperation with China and Russia in the economic, technological, and military fields. Although the election of “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 marked a relative warming of relations with the United States and its European allies, this foreign policy orientation towards Eurasian partners was never truly challenged. Tehran has steadily been getting closer to the SCO countries.

The rebuke of the nuclear agreement in 2018 and the adoption by the United States and its regional allies of the so-called “maximum pressure” strategy encouraged Ayatollah Rouhani’s government to adhere even more strongly to the Look East Policy. As early as 2018, Iran’s minister of foreign affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, evoked this doctrine to designate a policy of “cooperation with Asia in order to overcome oil and banking sanctions.” In 2019, Zarif went as far as to claim that “the future of our foreign policy is in this direction.” Implicitly expressed was the conviction of all Iranian leaders from all leanings that the West, perceived as a hegemonic whole, is inherently “untrustworthy.”

Diplomatic and strategic rapprochement with Russia and China (2021 – 2022)

As soon as he was elected in June 2021, the ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raïssi reaffirmed the primacy of the Look East Policy. For him, it was less about updating a policy put on hold by his predecessor than about following on a diplomatic line adopted and pursued since 2005. This permanent element of Iran’s foreign policy is embodied as much in the relaxation strategy (Tashanojzedai) associated with Hassan Rouhani as in the offensive strategy (Tahajomi) of Soleimani or Raïssi.

The Eurasian anchoring of Tehran’s foreign policy manifested first through the intensification of bilateral relations with Russia and China. In March 2021, Tehran and Beijing signed an ambitious 25-year strategic partnership in the economic, technological, and military fields. Beijing had long sought to strengthen its ties with Tehran, with Xi describing Iran as “China’s main partner in the Middle East.” In January 2022, Raïssi made an official trip to Moscow, which led to the strengthening of cooperation between the two countries.

The Eurasian anchoring of Iranian foreign policy also manifested through the formalisation of Iran’s diplomatic ties with the SCO. A first step had been taken at the 2018 Qingdao SCO summit attended by President Hassan Rouhani, when the integration of Iran was initially envisioned. Three months after the election of Ibrahim Raïssi, Xi declared that he had launched the procedure to integrate Iran into the SCO – an announcement immediately welcomed by Putin. In September 2022, the Islamic Republic was formally welcomed into the Eurasian bloc at the summit held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. After 17 years of membership as an observer, Iran proudly announced its permanent membership of the SCO.

Iran’s support for Russia in Ukraine War

All of these factors, combined with Iran’s close economic ties forged over the past 20 years with Russia and China, explain Tehran’s current pro-Kremlin stance on the war in Ukraine. A few hours after the launch of the so-called “special operation,” the Iranian authorities legitimised Putin’s decision by blaming the escalation of tensions in Eastern Europe on the United States and its Western allies. On 24 February 2022, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian tweeted that NATO “provocations” had prompted Russian intervention in Ukraine. The head of Iranian diplomacy later qualified his remarks by carefully adding that “We do not see recourse to war as a solution.”

Adopting a cautious stance, Iran did not vote against the United Nations General Assembly resolution that demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, nor against the resolution titled “Humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine.” Iran indeed abstained, invoking a posture of “neutrality.” While the Islamic Republic is careful not to explicitly condemn Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, its choices and actions have left little doubt as to its real support for Moscow. Faced with logistical difficulties encountered by the Russian army in Ukraine, Russia has made several purchases of arms from Iran that did not escape the attention of Western intelligence services. The Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian army are suspected of having provided the Russian armed forces with combat drones used against Ukrainian targets like Odessa, while the head of the Iranian Air Force, General Hamid Vahedi, heralded Iran’s willingness to purchase Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter planes. In September 2022, the United States announced a series of sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards and several Iranian companies involved in the delivery and routing of these weapons.

Tehran appears resolutely committed to linking its strategic destiny to that of Eurasian countries with an anti-Western and fiercely Westphalian posture Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Islamic Republic has poorly concealed its de facto support for Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine. Iranian leaders no longer make a secret of their desire to anchor their foreign policy on the Sino-Russian Heartland. By joining this group of illiberal Eurasian powers, Tehran no longer hesitates to question the very foundations of Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Neither East, nor West” doctrine. Such developments raise fears of the emergence of a rival Eurasian bloc capable of posing a significant threat for the US-led liberal world order.

Pierre Pahlavi is a full professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in the Department of Defence Studies, co-located with the Canadian Forces College, Canada’s Staff and War College.  

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.