Whenever there is a slight thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran, it sparks the age-old question about how Iran handles its interactions with the rival powers vying for control and influence in the 21st century. Does Iran lean towards maintaining its close ties and new partnerships with China and Russia, or does it lean towards the West if there is a significant breakthrough achieved through a revived Iranian nuclear agreement, writes Salem AlKetbi, UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate.
Answering these questions involves numerous factors, some aligning and others conflicting, all of which influence the decisions made by the Iranian government concerning their relations with global powers.
At the core of these considerations lies the very nature of the Iranian government itself. When it comes to dealing with the world, whether it is in the East or the West, Iranian leaders do not always see eye to eye, and their approaches vary.
Indeed, there is a faction that leans towards maintaining robust alliances and strategic cooperation with the West, formerly known as the “reformist” faction. However, the influence and power of this group have significantly waned in recent years to the extent that its impact on Iran’s decision-making and foreign policy cannot be considered minimal. Iran has strongly pivoted towards the East, forming strategic partnerships with China and bolstering cooperation with Russia.
Nevertheless, what sustains this option is the fact that tens of millions of Iranian youth are impressed by and attracted to the development and openness model observed in the neighboring GCC countries. As a result, the concept of embracing a more global outlook remains a significant factor in the Iranian government’s calculations. They aim to both appease the Iranian people and quell the wave of discontent that has sparked a series of popular protests in recent years.
There is another crucial consideration tied to Iran’s growing strategic interests with China. The two nations have inked a 25-year cooperation agreement encompassing a range of areas, including energy, security, infrastructure, and communications. During a visit to Tehran in 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed Iran as China’s “key partner in the Middle East.” Beijing is banking on collaboration with Iran and other regional players to shift away from unipolarity and work toward a multipolar world.
Turning to the Russian front, we see that Iran has played its cards strategically in this relationship. It indirectly intervened in the Ukrainian conflict by supplying Russia with drones that played a pivotal role in tipping the scales in favor of Russia, precisely when the Russian military was grappling with resolving the aerial conflict against Ukrainian forces.
The above does not imply that Iran’s current orientation completely disregards its relations with the West and has definitively turned towards the East. Iran still places importance on its ties with the West, not only to ease the sanctions imposed on it but also because, in 2020, the EU stood as Iran’s second-largest trading partner. Iran continues to be a vital global source of oil supplies and a substantial market for European goods and services. Moreover, it serves as one of Europe’s strategies to diversify its energy sources after reducing its reliance on Russia following the Ukraine invasion. Conversely, Iran requires substantial investments, expertise, and technology transfer, particularly from Europe.
I believe that Iran’s foreign policy maintains a significant pragmatic margin and maneuverability, not solely dictated by ideology, as some might assume. Iran’s stances on various international issues underscore the separation between politics and ideology in its foreign policy approach.
Hence, it appears that Tehran is aiming to adopt a strategy akin to Turkey’s in its approach to both Russia and the West, all while leaning towards the East and maintaining ties with the West.
This approach is not solely about diversifying partnerships but also about skillfully leveraging all available resources to secure advantages from various parties. It is a game plan that has enabled Turkey to wield significant influence in recent years.
Given this perspective, it becomes clear why dialogue between Washington and Tehran persists, whether it is related to the recent prisoner release deal or the nuclear issue. This persistence occurs despite Western frustration and concern over Iran’s role in the Russian crisis.
Russia, on the other hand, harbors genuine apprehensions that this ongoing dialogue could lead to agreements that might impact its strategic interests with Iran. It is important to recognize that the removal of U. S. Sanctions on Iran aligns with Russia’s interests. Russia views Iran as a crucial economic lifeline, and it understands the hardships Iran faces due to Western sanctions.
As a result, the intricate web of interests among all involved parties leads to Iran’s effort to maintain a flexible stance and maximize its strategic advantages amid the escalating global conflict. Neither Russia nor Iran can afford to jeopardize their respective relationships. Russia cannot distance itself from Iran, and Iran cannot distance itself from Russia and China.
To decipher Iran’s decision-making, we can draw parallels with Tehran’s approach to its relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations.
Iran has shifted away from confrontational tactics and provocations, instead opting for cooperative ties with its neighbors. The aim is to manage and dampen the momentum of GCC-Israeli normalization. In this context, it is noteworthy that Iran has not insisted on severing ties with Israel but has rather worked to de-escalate tensions and address regional concerns stemming from its expansionist activities. The goal is to remove the justifications for collaboration with Israel in countering the perceived Iranian threat.
Iran’s political pragmatism can similarly apply to its management of relations with competing global powers. However, its course will largely hinge on the benefits Tehran can secure from Western capitals in the forthcoming phase.
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