Iran’s foreign policy in 2022 will aim at securing several general objectives. The country will first seek to end the isolation from the international community it has suffered since 2018. Tehran will likely attempt to grow Iran’s sphere of influence in the Middle East, also while striving to resolve disputes with neighboring and regional countries.
On the first objective, Iran seeks to finalize the nuclear talks in Vienna and revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). After reaffirming the nuclear deal, Tehran would likely pursue international economic integration and commercial diplomacy with states keen on working with Iran. The government’s “Pivot to the East” policy will improve Iran’s economic and diplomatic relationship with China and other Asian countries. Within the Gulf region, it may adopt a more conciliatory stance to reduce tensions with its neighbors.
The regional foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran derives from the “Second Phase of the Revolution” statement, a document that was compiled at the request of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in February 2019 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. The statement recommends that Iran should seek to increase its sphere of influence in Muslim and non-Muslim states oppose Western policies, such as Syria and Cuba, in order to counter the policies of Western countries. The pursuit of this policy, along with the rushed withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan and America’s increased attention to East Asia, has given Iran greater confidence that it will achieve its goals. Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Syria are at the forefront of Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East, and Iranian involvement in these countries serves as Iran’s trump card against the U.S.
Iran Pivots to Asia
After taking office, Iran’s hardline president Ebrahim Raisi adopted the “Pivot to the East” strategy to diversify Iran’s relationships with foreign powers and counter Western pressure, especially pressure emanating from the U.S. This strategy will likely continue through 2022 and Iran will seek to forge stronger ties abroad with even greater vigor. Instead of negotiating with the West, pivoting to the East emphasizes Iran’s partnerships with non-Western powers, such as China and Russia. China and Russia have independent and anti-American foreign policies, and both seek to broker agreements with like-minded states.
Tehran’s relations with Russia are of particular interest to the Iranian government. Close relations between Iran and Russia began in 1989, when President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani traveled to the Soviet Union to implore Moscow to assist Iran and balance against the U.S. in the Middle East. Since 1989, Tehran has engaged with Russia across several economic and geopolitical areas. Raisi’s visit to Moscow in January 2022 demonstrated Tehran’s determination to strengthen relations with Russia. During the visit, Raisi and Putin ordered the preparation of a 20-year “long-term cooperation roadmap.”
Iran already cooperates with Russia in Syria, and both have common interests in the survival of the Syrian regime. Tehran knows it cannot help the Syrians in its reconstruction because of Western sanctions, and it needs Russia to persuade the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to invest. Iran has also signaled its interest in cooperation with Moscow in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and the Persian Gulf. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Iran has stated its willingness to help resolve the Ukraine crisis. Tehran would welcome the emergence of a new geopolitical order that would allow it to increase its sphere of influence. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine between Russia and the West could lead to a new non-Western order—one that Iran’s elites have awaited for many years.
China serves as the other main pillar of the Pivot to the East. Iran signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with China in March 2021. China buys Iranian oil despite American sanctions and has invested in Iran’s oil and gas industry. Beijing is also Iran’s largest trading partner. Tehran believe that China’s significant financial and economic capabilities may help increase Iran’s sphere of influence in the region. Indeed, it appears that Beijing sees an interest in closer ties with Tehran. China supported Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in September 2021, which would increase Iranian presence in Central Asian countries and open their markets to Iranian producers.
In January 2022, China and Syria signed a memorandum of understanding that would see Syria included in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. It could break the isolation of the Assad regime and make it involved in regional economic diplomacy, which advances Iran’s foreign policy objective of stabilizing the Assad regime.
China wants to expand relations with Afghanistan in Central Asia, too. In January 2022, Beijing received the new Taliban ambassador to China. The cordiality on display between China and the Taliban may be viewed as a prelude to eventual diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government in Kabul. At the same time, Iran holds a measure of influence in Afghanistan and has official ties to the Taliban, as well. The Taliban’s Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Motaqi, visited Tehran on January 8, 2022. Many see Motaqi’s appearance in the Iranian capital as a sign of Iran’s willingness to increase its engagement with the Taliban. Beijing and Tehran both appear to have a common interest to recognize the Taliban. This, in turn, could expand cooperation between them in Afghanistan.
Iran’s foreign policy in 2022 will likely draw the country closer to China. Despite some Chinese activities that worry Iranian activists and academics, such as China’s ballistic missile cooperation with Saudi Arabia—Iran’s main regional rival—Tehran will be encouraged to work with China to increase its spheres of influence in Syria, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and will likely rely on China for diplomatic support during the Vienna talks.
Reducing Regional Tensions
At the same time that talks in Vienna have taken a turn towards optimism, Iran has sought economic engagement with neighboring countries to ease the burden of U.S. sanctions and to reduce tensions with its neighbors. To this end, Iran has initiated talks with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The visit of Iran’s deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani to Dubai in November 2021, where he promised a “new chapter” in Iran-UAE relations, exemplifies Tehran’s approach to its traditional rivals. A month later, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, the UAE’s National Security Adviser, traveled to Tehran and met with President Raisi. These events demonstrate the desire of both countries to reduce tensions and find common ground.
Recently, president Raisi visited Doha and signaled another sign of Tehran’s efforts to increase collaboration with the GCC states. Both countries, Qatar and Iran, signed several agreements to increase collaboration in several fields. Alongside Tehran’s overtures to the UAE, Iran and Saudi Arabia have held four rounds of talks since April 2021, mediated by the Iraqi Prime Minister, and Raisi has supported further talks on the condition of an atmosphere of “mutual understanding and respect.”
Yemen remains the most severe sticking point between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The war in Yemen has festered for six years and has caused a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the country. Despite its deep engagement in the conflict, Saudi Arabia has grown tired of the war in Yemen and seeks a dignified withdrawal. Iran has repeatedly asserted its willingness to mediate a ceasefire between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.
In an initiative to reduce tensions with its neighbors, Raisi’s government seeks to increase direct communication and collaboration with Iran’s neighbors. Although the initiative may reduce tensions between Iran and Tehran’s neighbors, it remains to be seen whether Iran will be able to influence its proxies in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon to defuse tensions with the GCC states.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.