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In this picture made available by Iranian state-run TV, IRIB, reformist candidate for the presidential election Masoud Pezeshkian speaks during a debate with hard-line candidate Saeed Jalili at the TV studio in Tehran, Iran, Monday, July 1, 2024. (Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/IRIB via AP)

Neither East nor West: Pezeshkian’s Challenge to Redefine Iran’s Global Stance

On July 5, reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian defeated his hardliner rival Saeed Jalili and was elected as the ninth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While the U.S. Department of State castigated the Iranian elections as neither free nor fair, Russia and China struck a different tone; Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Pezehskian on his victory, while his press secretary Dmitry Peskov expressed hope for stronger Russia-Iran relations. Chinese President Xi Jinping similarly vowed to strengthen his country’s comprehensive strategic partnership with Tehran.

Beneath this veneer of optimism, however, complications in Iran’s partnerships with Russia and China threaten to surface. At the July 1 presidential debate, Pezeshkian sparred with Jalili over the merits of Iran’s eastward foreign policy pivot. Citing former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s “Neither East nor West” mantra, Pezeshkian defended the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement and highlighted the need to restore Iran’s traditional neutrality and non-alignment in foreign affairs—taking the country away from its pro-Kremlin slant and re-engaging with the West, at least economically.

Despite the president-elect’s ambitions, current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s dominance over foreign policy decision-making limits Pezeshkian’s ability to overhaul Iran’s international partnerships. Iran’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and intransigence over uranium enrichment limit the prospects for sanctions relief. This means that Pezeshkian’s short-term policies towards Russia and China will likely mirror those of his predecessors, even as his conciliatory rhetoric sparks concern in Moscow and Beijing.

More of the Same vis-a-vis Moscow

Since Pezeshkian’s victory, the Kremlin has publicly defended the Iranian electoral process against U.S. criticisms. In its aftermath, the Russian Embassy in South Africa—notorious for its aggressive use of Twitter against Kremlin critics—declared, “According to the U.S., free and fair elections only occur when a U.S.-sponsored candidate wins. The victory of any other candidate is considered ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘cynical disregard for democracy.’” Russia’s assertive defense of the Iranian electoral process aligns with its history of support for American adversaries across the globe. Russia was the first country to recognize President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s June 2009 victory, even as many Iranians cried fraud; consequently, “Death to Russia” banners featured in the Green Movement protests that gripped Iran in the months following the election.

Russian commentators have not universally mirrored the Kremlin’s defense of Iran’s electoral process. Some have insinuated that Pezeshkian’s relatively pro-Western stance may have been the result of foreign interference. Former Kremlin advisor Sergey Markov claimed that Pezeshkian’s victory is “partially the result of mass unrest organized by the West” and could inspire the West to believe that it can “break Iran and subjugate it.” Former State Duma Deputy Elena Panina likewise described Pezeshkian as the West’s preferred candidate. Panina argued that former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s support for Pezeshkian underscored the newfound strength of political forces that wished to decouple Iran from its Eastern partners.

Notwithstanding these conspiracies, the prevailing view in Moscow is that Pezeshkian’s domestic reforms will be more effective than his efforts to reorient Iran’s foreign policy direction. Sergei Demidenko, an academic at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, declared that the idea of “Islamic democracy” had ceased to justify itself. Instead, Demidenko argued that Islamic democracy had plunged Iran into a permanent state of economic crisis—and that while Pezeshkian was not a “strong politician” in the typical sense, he had emerged victorious because of the urgent need for reform. The will of the electorate, though clear, may not result in direct political power. Conversely, Ruslan Mamedov, the research director of the Primakov Center for Foreign Policy Cooperation, argued after the election that Iran’s entrenched conservative stakeholders would continue to dictate Iran’s foreign policy agenda and limit Pezeshkian’s freedom of action.

Pezeshkian’s initial statements point at least to short-term consistency in Russia-Iran relations. After his election, the president-elect pledged continuity in his relations with the Kremlin, including by supporting its burgeoning cooperation with Hezbollah in Syria. Pezeshkian’s announcement that Russia and Iran would sign a comprehensive strategic partnership pact at the October 2024 BRICS summit in Kazan furthers this image of stability. This pact is an upgraded version of the two-decade comprehensive agreement that Russia and Iran signed in 2001. While the substance of this agreement remains unclear, it would likely enhance sanctions evasion efforts and could expand Russia-Iran cooperation on nuclear issues and in space.

The medium-term outlook for Pezeshkian’s foreign policy toward Russia is much less certain. Panina expressed concern that Pezeshkian could stall Iran’s entry as an observer into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and might even reconsider arms exports to Russia after the U.S. presidential election. These predictions underscore uncertainty in Moscow about the Supreme Leader’s tolerance for Pezeshkian’s new direction in Iranian foreign policy.

China’s Second Choice

Much like their Russian counterparts, Chinese experts do not expect any marked post-election change in Iran-China relations. Li Fuquan, the director of Iran Studies at China’s Northwest University, conceded that Pezeshkian could “exert a certain impact on Iran’s diplomacy,” but concluded that deep-rooted U.S.-Iran antagonism would be impossible to overcome. Liu Zhongmin, a professor of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, argued that while Pezeshkian might focus on sanctions relief from the West, he would nonetheless continue strengthening ties with Russia and China.

Despite this optimistic rhetoric, the contrast between Jalili and Pezeshkian’s rhetoric on China cannot have escaped Beijing’s notice. An ultraconservative member of Iran’s Principlist faction, Jailili has been one of Iran’s fiercest advocates for closer ties with China. In September 2020, he praised China’s 25-year plan for comprehensive cooperation with Iran as an essential bulwark against U.S. sanctions efforts. During election season, Jalili praised China’s willingness to purchase Iranian oil when most other countries were deterred by sanctions. Jalili’s supporters in Iranian state-aligned media used Iran’s cordial ties with China, broadly popular among Iranians, as a wedge issue to undermine Pezeshkian’s campaign. Hardline commentator Abolfazl Zahrawand accused Pezeshkian of wanting to appoint “JCPOA agents” in the Iranian Foreign Ministry and warned that his policies would strain ties with Beijing.

In contrast to Jalili’s unbridled desire for greater coordination with Beijing, Pezeshkian expressed concern on the campaign trail about the paucity of Chinese investments under the 25-year strategic partnership. Under the terms of that agreement, China promised significant investment in the Iranian economy in exchange for a heavy discount on Iranian oil; however, Pezeshkian complained that Iran had been excluded from major Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects, suggesting that Beijing had failed to live up to their side of the deal. Pezeshkian’s rhetoric reflects widespread popular sentiments in Iran; Iranian social media users have compared the deal to the humiliating 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, in which Iran under the Qajar Dynasty ceded substantial amounts of territory to Russia. These critiques are not confined to Pezeshkian’s reformist base; former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative populist, has also deplored the partnership agreement’s opacity and lopsidedness.

While Pezeshkian might demand more from China as president, the prevailing view in the Gulf region is that the Islamic Republic’s relations with Beijing will still continue to strengthen. If Donald Trump triumphs in America’s election in November 2024, heightened U.S.-China tensions are expected to draw Beijing and Tehran closer—not to mention the stronger tack that Washington will almost certainly take against Iran. Rasha Al-Joundy, a senior researcher at the Dubai Public Policy Research Center, contends that if Pezeshkian deepens Iran’s thaw with the Gulf monarchies, Tehran’s economic ties with China could strengthen. The only realistic alternative would be large-scale Western sanctions relief on Iran—which is highly implausible in the near-term and inconceivable if Donald Trump returns to the White House.

In short, despite Pezeshkian’s rhetorical support for engagement with the West, Iran’s partnerships with Russia and China are unlikely to shift dramatically in the near term. The precedent of Mohammed Khatami’s reformist presidency (1997-2005), which paired relatively open and productive dialogue with the West with landmark state visits to China in 2000 and Russia in 2001, could provide a roadmap for Pezehskian’s foreign policy. Still, attaining the balance Khatami managed during his presidency will be a difficult task for the new president. To overcome the Islamic Republic’s conservative power players and modify Iranian foreign policy beyond only the fringe issues will be harder still.

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

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: Iran

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Dr. Samuel Ramani is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and the CEO of Pangea Geopolitical Risk. Samuel is the author of two recent books on Russian foreign policy “Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender” and “Putin’s War on Ukraine: Russia’s Campaign for Global Counter-Revolution.” Both books were published by Oxford University Press and Hurst in 2023,. Samuel is a regular contributor to major broadcast networks, such as CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC, Sky News and France-24, and to Foreign Policy magazine. Samuel has advised the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Defence, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, France’s Ministry of Defence and NATO Headquarters on international security issues.


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