Facing isolation Iran turns to Russia, China
Since the 1979 revolution, a mosaic that reads “Neither East nor West — the Islamic Republic” has adorned the entrance to the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The slogan was originally meant to emphasise the regime’s non-aligned stance in the final phase of the Cold War. It is still said to be the fundamental foreign policy doctrine of the regime.
However, the claim is not borne out by reality. The regime’s foreign and security policy record shows a decided tilt to the east, in particular towards the Soviet Union and its successor the Russian Federation, as well as towards China.
This was apparent as recently as March 24. John Bolton’s appointment by US President Donald Trump as national security adviser elicited the following comment from Ala al-Din Boroujerdi, chairman of the Iranian parliament’s Foreign and Security Policy Committee: “Exorbitant arms deals were signed during [US President Donald] Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia… Since Saudi Arabia’s attempts to counter the Islamic Republic in the region have failed, the Americans had yet another reason to adopt harsher policies towards Iran…”
Boroujerdi also said that to “neutralise US policies,” Tehran should strengthen relations with the East, in particular with China and Russia, both of which are “subjected to American sanctions and face formidable obstacles in the path of their relations with the United States.”
Tehran’s fear of the rapidly changing mood in Washington is not without reason: Trump is assembling a war cabinet ready to declare the nuclear agreement with Tehran null and void. The Europeans, in an attempt to keep the nuclear agreement alive, are pressing Tehran to give further concessions, in particular regarding Iran’s ballistic missile programme. If Tehran does not give in to those pressures, prospects for some kind of a military conflict are very real. This, in turn, forces, Tehran into the arms of Russia and China.
The regime’s orientation towards the East is not without tension. In public, officials insist on the strategic nature of the relationship with Russia and China but they are often frustrated by Moscow and Beijing’s perception of Tehran as, at best, a tactical ally.
More often than not, Russian and Chinese leaders use their influence over Tehran as leverage in their negotiations with Washington. As UN Security Council resolutions against Iran clearly demonstrate, when the price is right, Moscow and Beijing do not hesitate to forsake their friends in Tehran. Moscow and Beijing perceive Tehran’s fear of Washington as a welcome opportunity to increase arms exports to Iran, which makes Tehran even more dependent on the East.
Of course, Iran has alternatives to looking East if only it were minded to take them. Tehran could, in the words of Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, cabinet spokesman under former President Mohammad Khatami, deal with increased pressure from Washington by “deepening internal unity” and by pursuing a policy of “regional detente.”
Behzad Nabavi, a veteran politician and former minister, also said in an interview with reformist daily Arman: “We must avoid adventurism in the regime. More than Trump and [former President Barack] Obama, we ourselves are to blame [for Iran’s regional isolation].”
Going by Iran’s trajectory, however, it seems most unlikely that the regime will listen to Ramezanzadeh and Nabavi’s advice. Unfortunately, it is far more likely that Tehran will continue to suppress domestic allies and alienate neighbours by regional military adventurism.
In so doing, the regime will remain extremely vulnerable to Moscow and Beijing, which will abandon the Islamic Republic of Iran whenever that is in their interest.