Throughout the 45 years it has existed, the Islamic Republic of Iran has made the struggle against the United States and the West central to its unchanging identity. Indeed, Tehran’s actions abroad reflect an obsession with increasing Iran’s influence at the expense of its Western adversaries. Conceptualized by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government and greatly expanded under the Raisi administration, this struggle has taken the form of the “Look to the East” strategy. Senior Iranian officials strongly believe that the power of the West is declining and that Eastern countries like China and Russia are in the ascendancy. Thus, aligning with these upcoming powers—and thereby diluting the influence of the adversarial West—has become one of the main principles of Iranian foreign policy.
However, the opinion of ordinary people and the educated professional class would suggest that the masses disagree with the government’s strategy of looking Eastward for friends and allies. Contrary to what the central government might suggest, many Iranians believe that China and Russia are actively exploiting Iran’s isolated and sanctioned position for their own benefit.
The new generation emerging in Iran is extremely skeptical of the regime and does not accept its traditional legitimacy, derived from Islam and the duty to protect Islamic values against external foes, at face value. Young Iranians are a pragmatic bunch. They firmly believe in the national interest, and place less emphasis on Islamic values as a priority of the state. Unlike the current political elites, they see ideological expansionism as futile and wasteful; indeed, in their view the ideological adventurism of the past decades has severely impacted Iran’s economic stability.
Perhaps more worryingly for those in power, the new generation of Iranian citizens has gained a reputation of indifference toward politics, religion, and traditional customs. Unlike their predecessors, they worry less about the social or legal repercussions of dissent—a tendency best exemplified by the Mahsa Amini protests that began in 2022. This widespread, grassroots movement demonstrates that young people are willing to openly defy the clerical regime en masse if their interests are threatened. Indeed, the two sides of the protests often spoke past one another; this new generation has completely different demands, trends, and views than those that came before it, and Iranian youth share very few commonalities with the officials of the country’s administration.
Iranian youth generally oppose the government’s courting of Russia and China. Perhaps correctly, they maintain that “Look to the East” seeks to secure the current regime—and line officials’ pockets—rather than secure Iran’s national interests.
A Budding Managerial Revolt
Discontent with the government’s foreign policy priorities extends to individuals who were once the regime’s biggest supporters. General Hassan Alaei, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, expressed pessimism about Russia’s worth as a partner. He recently argued that Tehran had misjudged the balance between East and West, committing a serious strategic error by hitching its wagon to China and Russia. “Russia seeks to involve Iran in the Ukraine war to take our foreign policy hostage,” he said. “The best policy for Iran is to maintain neutrality and try to resolve differences with the U.S. and Europe.”
Ali Akbar Salehi, the former head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and later Iran’s minister of foreign affairs, expressed his own reservations in an interview: “There are those who argue the US is a power in decline…let us assume it is so, but when will it decline? If the decline takes place within a year, we can wait, but let us assume the U.S. does not decline within the next 30 years. What should we do in the meantime? We must somehow solve our problems.”
The educated, managerial class can clearly see that the livelihoods of ordinary people have become a tool for the regime to leverage in its relentless competition with the U.S. Enmity with Washington, of course, is core to the regime’s identity. To make matters worse, Iran’s fervent, revolutionary ideology makes it difficult for leaders to admit failure or weakness. Despite the crippling effects of the international sanctions regime and the precipitous devaluation of the rial against the dollar, the regime continues to improve its ties with China and Russia. These initiatives will only engender further distrust in the West.
Among educated Iranians, there is a pervasive belief that China and Russia are opportunistic powers determined to play the “Iran Card” against the United States and its Western allies. Rather than assisting Iran with its ailing economy, Beijing and Moscow appear content to buy cheap Iranian oil and drones to boost their own strategic positions.
Indeed, it is not as if Iran’s closest partners have always stuck by the Islamic Republic. Between 2006 and 2010, China and Russia, along with the Western powers, consistently voted to condemn Iran in the United Nations Security Council, resulting in in six resolutions against Iran. By comparison, Beijing and Moscow have vetoed Security Council resolutions targeting the Syrian regime 14 times.
Iranian protesters do not forget that China abandoned them during the 2022-2023 Mahsa Amini protests. Chinese officials deemed ongoing instability in Iran a “domestic issue” and described criticism of Tehran’s crackdown as “interventionist actions.” In addition, China has sold to Iran “Digital Crackdown” such as surveillance cameras to identify protesters and arrest or fine them. In 2018, as Iran’s economy was battered by Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign, China’s oil giant CNPC withdrew from the $4.8bn offshore gas field Arash/Durra. Chinese car makers also exited the Iranian following the U.S. decision to impose harsh restrictions on Tehran.
Economic experts are similarly disappointed with China. Low-quality, cheap Chinese goods have captured the Iranian market, pricing out many domestic producers. Furthermore, China’s development projects have caused environmental degradation within Iran, such as the desiccation of the Hur al-Azim wetland and overfishing in the Persian Gulf, which sparked protests by fishermen in southern Iran.
Nevertheless, Iran’s leadership continues to curry favor with China. In March 2021, Tehran and Beijing inked a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement that committed China to invest $400 billion in the Iranian economy. The statistics speak to a different reality, however. According to the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute’s “China Global Investment Tracker,” China has only invested $618 million in projects in Iran from 2018 to 2022. Meanwhile, China invested $22.5 billion in Saudi Arabia, $13 billion in Iraq, $4.6 billion in Kuwait, $1.8 billion in Qatar, $19.3 billion in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and $2.5 billion in Oman. Even China’s investment in Bahrain was more than twice that of Iran. Iranians who believed in China’s duplicity felt confirmed when China approved a joint statement with the Gulf Cooperation Council to condemn Iran over disputed claims to three islands in the Gulf.
Distrust of Russia remains similarly common among Iranians, who have long worried about Moscow’s imperialist aims. In the early 19th century, Russia forcefully separated the countries of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia from Iran, imposing two lop-sided agreements on Tehran in the process. 200 years later, Russia’s domineering attitude toward the Caucasus region remains a disconcerting reminder of Moscow’s malintent.
In a 2022 survey of 53 countries, half of Iranian respondents held a negative perception of Russia. Only 15 percent of Iranians felt positively about Russia. In the Middle East, only Israel had a higher negative perception of Moscow, with 52 percent.
Despite widespread public opposition to closer ties with “the East,” Iran now finds itself economically dependent on China and irrevocably associated with Russia militarily. These developments have limited Tehran’s maneuverability and granted Iran’s regional adversaries free reign to make inroads in Iran’s backyard. Israel has adeptly established ties to the Central Asian states in the north, as well as the Persian Gulf Monarchies in the south. At a time when Iran is on the verge of transitioning to the third supreme leader, it cannot afford to be internationally isolated. Somewhat ironically, Tehran’s encirclement—which is in part due to its reliance on Russia and China—only increases the regime’s sense of insecurity, thus pressuring the Islamic Republic to deepen its partnerships with Moscow and Beijing.
The Iranian regime and its affiliated media have made many advertisements to show a positive image and strategic relations with its Eastern partners, but educated and young Iranians know a bad bargain when they see one. Contrary to their government’s insistence, the Iranian public has evaluated these relationships on their merit and found them wanting.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.