“We will not tie the economic and living conditions of the people to the negotiations and we will not allow the negotiations to be prolonged.” These are the words of Ebrahim Raisi, the eighth president of Iran, who spoke at a press conference after winning the election. After Iran’s full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Iran’s pivot to the East became a reality. When Raisi came to office, he made it clear that, unlike former President Hassan Rouhani, he would not seek to negotiate with the West and instead would pursue closer ties with China and Russia.
Raisi has taken great strides to distance his foreign policy from that of his predecessor. The most obvious instances of this change can be seen in Raisi’s insistence on independence from the West and stalling the negotiations with P5+1 to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal. These form the basis of Iran’s pivot to the East.
Breaking Down Iran’s Pivot Policy
Pivoting to the East gained traction during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, almost 16 years ago. The policy feeds on significant disillusionment with the West after several rounds of negotiations under Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Hassan Rouhani. Importantly, it is strongly supported by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the choice of this strategy by Raisi is directly rooted in the aspirations of the Supreme Leader. Khamenei specifically endorsed the pivot during a conversation with the country’s elites: “We must look to the East; Looking to the West and Europe has no effect on us except procrastination and trouble. There are countries in the East that can help us, we can interact with them on an equal footing. We help them, they help us too.” The Supreme Leader’s support for Raisi on relations with Eastern countries is due to bitter memories of Western negotiations and reminders of Western fickleness, evidenced by Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018.
The pivot to the East policy has three main components for Iran. The first, which is now a high priority, is reducing the effects of sanctions and ameliorating Iran’s poor economic situation. President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA severely damaged Iran’s economy. In three years, the value of the national currency, the rial, has fallen eightfold and the country faces 45.5 percent inflation. U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration completely isolated Tehran and curtailed the sale of Iranian oil. Iran desperately needs foreign investment, access to which it has been excluded since 2018. Also the Iran’s oil and gas industry needs $200 billion of upgrade to continue its activities.
The worsening economic situation has led to several riots in Tehran and other cities in Iran. The election of Raisi represents the last hope of the people to solve the country’s economic problems. If Raisi fails to solve the economic problems with the backing of the Supreme Leader, the country will likely face widespread anti-government protests. Raisi, who witnessed the Rouhani government’s inability to resolve the people’s economic problems through negotiations with the West, does not want to repeat Rouhani’s experience and has reached out to the East.
Using the international power of Moscow and Beijing is the second component of the pivot to the East. China and Russia have independent and anti-American foreign policies, and both seek to broker partnerships with like-minded states. Given the Biden administration’s concerns with limiting Chinese and Russian influence in the international arena, Raisi hopes to enter the competition between the anti-Western bloc and the U.S., playing one off the other to Iran’s benefit.
Increasing Iran’s regional influence through its neighbors, especially the Arab states of the Gulf region, is the third component of the pivot policy. Raisi is now making clear that his priority will be to forge closer ties with neighboring countries and throughout Asia. While this may seem as a mere continuation of Rouhani-era policies, it is fundamentally a decisive shift. While Rouhani prioritized ties with neighbors out of necessity, Raisi is pursuing the same policy because he fundamentally prefers it. The recent talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which began in Iraq in April, are part of this pivot.
The GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia, have clearly realized that the Biden administration is much less eager to pursue close ties with them. Therefore, they chose to start a dialogue with Iran. The realities of regional conflict in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon have shown that the Middle Eastern states can no longer pursue the idealistic aspirations of the past and must recognize each other’s mutual interests. That is why King Salman, in his speech at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, expressed hope for continued direct talks with Iran.
The Future of China-Russia-Iran Relations
In the international system, countries act on the basis of their national interests. The advancement of national interests constitutes the paramount aim and thus no country can remain a permanent friend or foe. China and Russia have always followed this policy towards Iran and have left Iran alone in times of crisis. The truth is that although China, Russia, and Iran have all been restricted by the U.S., Russia and China always avoided military escalation with the U.S. and have tried to resolve their disagreements with Washington through diplomacy. For this reason, Iran cannot count on them to face U.S. sanctions and policies.
China’s interests regarding Iran boil down to increased economic ties and more favorable trade. China grew concerned about the increasingly “anti-Western” tilt in Tehran during the tenure of Ahmadinejad, therefore it opposed Iran’s full membership in the SCO for more than a decade. During the two periods of American sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, China stood as the main buyer of Iranian oil. Iran is therefore as dependent on the Chinese investment in its energy resources as Beijing is on Iran’s continued exports. This confluence of interests has certainly contributed to Tehran’s inclusion in the SCO.
Russia also makes strategic gains vis-à-vis the West by playing the Iran card. Moscow took two decades to build the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant and took large sums of money from Iran, beyond what was agreed. Also in Syria, Russia allows Israeli planes to attack Iranian-backed militias’ locations, and it did not keep its promises to work together with Tehran to develop a Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine. It thus seems that the pivot to the East alone cannot meet Iran’s foreign policy goals. Russia and China see Iran through the lens of self-interest and will abandon Tehran in times of crisis.
Iran sees its pivot to the East policy as leverage against the U.S. China and Russia are role models for Iran’s undemocratic system, because they show that economic growth can be achieved in the absence of political freedom. For the past three decades, Ayatollah Khamenei has strived for a “new Islamic civilization” and believes that pivoting to China and Russia will improve Iran’s strategic position, and when Iran confronts the U.S., Tehran can count on China’s and Russia’s support. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of such a policy’s success. It has been demonstrated many times in the past that Russia and China have not sought to engage with Iran in times of crisis, and there is little indication that this behavior has changed.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.