The year 2023 has marked certain milestones for the foreign policy of Iran beginning with signing of the deal with the Arab regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia and gaining membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)- an intergovernmental international organisation and the BRICS- a grouping of the emerging economies. On the one hand, it signed the prisoner’s swap deal with the United States of America and on the other, it has expressed vocal support to the HAMAS in the ongoing war with Israel. To understand the gravity of these events it is pertinent to look at the issues and inter linkages.
Rooting for a Multipolar World Order
First and foremost, Iran adheres to a multipolar world order and emphasises that the unipolarity is coming to an end. The closer ties with Russia and China and its stress on pivot to the east reinforces Tehran’s support for a multipolar world. In an attempt to strengthen the multipolar world order, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made a visit to the Latin American countries Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua in June 2023 and said that Iran is trying to contribute to the development of a multipolar world with countries that oppose an international system based on ‘unilateral hegemonic power’.[i] He also stated at the General Assembly of the Organisation of Asia-Pacific News Agencies in October 2022 that the construction of a multipolar world cannot be stopped as there are already many centers of power outside the Western world.[ii]
Iran’s adherence to the multipolar world order is rooted in its deep disdain for the US policies in the Middle East. US and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since the US embassy hostage crisis of 1980s and the two countries have been engaged in armed as well as unarmed confrontations. US has been imposing sanctions for Iran’s support to the armed groups and non-state actors in the region and concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the attacks by its proxy groups on the American forces in Iraq in October 2023 were a consequence of the wrong policies of US in the region including its support for Israel in the ongoing war against Hamas.[iii]
In 2023, the attacks against the United States (US) forces in Syria, disruptions in commercial shipping in the Gulf, additional US military deployments in the region, and the continuation of sanctions have enhanced the hostility between the US and Iran. The year also witnessed the Biden administration making an effort to engage directly with Iran. In September, the US and Iran conducted mutual prisoner releases and the former agreed to unfreeze USD 6 billion in Iranian funds transferred from South Korea to Qatar.[iv] However in light of the Iranian role in support of Hamas, US reconsidered its decision and agreed with Qatar in October to prevent Iran from tapping into those funds.[v]
Among the non-western centers of power, Iran’s ties with Russia are growing stronger. Iran looks at Russia as a partner country reeling under western sanctions. The growing political solidarity has been visible during the Syrian crisis when Iran supported the Russian efforts for survival of the government of Bashar Al Assad and the Ukraine conflict in which Iran supported Russia’s operation in Kyiv. Iran also looks at Russia as an important partner for defence cooperation and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the same in 2016; Moscow accounted for about a third of Tehran’s arms imports during the four decades after the revolution in 1979[vi] and there were reports about use of Iranian drones by Russia in Ukraine. The two countries are also working on strengthening the twenty-year Strategic Partnership signed in 2001.[vii] In May 2023, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran Dr. Ali Bagheri Kani said that Russia has the capacity for a renewed role in the international developments and the multipolar world order and Iran is keen on deepening interactions with the country. He also said, “Russia plays a pivotal role in peaceful nuclear energy, particularly in the construction of nuclear power plants in Iran, further strengthening cooperation in this area.”[viii]
Iran also perceives China as an important global actor that has the potential to end its political and economic isolation. China is the main buyer of discounted oil and gas from Iran despite the international sanctions and it has mediated in signing of the Saudi-Iran deal. Furthermore, Iran’s political engagements with China have expanded across various domains, allowing it to establish a meaningful presence on the global stage.[ix] The two countries have also signed the 25-year Strategic Cooperation pact in 2021. Iran intends to learn from China's development strategy and is certain that closer economic cooperation with Beijing can help the Iranian economy grow faster.
Focus on Multilateral Institutions
Secondly, Iran focuses on multilateralism and has shown keen interest in being part of the multilateral institutions. After coming to power in 2021, Ebrahim Raisi mentioned that the world has entered a new era and hegemony and unilateralism are failing.[x] Iran aims to diversify access to international resources and means so as to meet its economic, monetary, and financial requirements, and is determined to play a consequential role in shaping multilateral structures and mechanisms. Joining multilateral institutions such as SCO and BRICS provides Iran the much-needed platform to voice its concerns regarding the economic sanctions and to counter its isolation.
As a middle power, Iran was keen to join SCO since long. It was an observer state in the SCO since 2005 and gaining the membership was the top priority for the country. Iran joined the organisation within a year of formation of the Raisi government in Tehran and during India’s Presidency of SCO. The Foreign Minister of Iran Hossein Amir Abdollahian mentioned that the SCO membership demonstrates Iran’s balanced, smart, active and dynamic foreign policy approach and its support for the “Asian multilateralism”.[xi] Multilateralism places the Asian countries in a favourable position in order to deal with the challenges and shape developments in a region that is increasingly dominated by the rivalry among big powers.[xii]
Along with underlining Iran’s closeness to Russia and China, the SCO’s membership emphasises on the significance of Central Asian countries for Iran. As a member of the SCO, Iran considers stability in Afghanistan as a pre-requisite for the expansion of economic cooperation through growth in investments and mutual trade. Situated in the proximity of Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, Iran looks at forging strategic cooperation with the SCO in the area of connectivity and aims to link the member countries to the global supply chain. It is to be noted that thirty per cent of Iran’s foreign trade is with the SCO member countries.[xiii]
Iran’s membership to BRICS is also a significant development for its foreign policy. It depicts Iran’s quest to overcome the economic sanctions imposed by the US while keeping its economy afloat. Joining this economic grouping also signals Iran’s pivot to the East policy. Gaining BRICS membership is a natural and organic move for Iran as India and China are its main economic partners. Tehran’s entry to the BRICS with five other members i.e., Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Ethiopia and Argentina makes the bloc a major concentration of energy market and it might be beneficial for Iran’s economy. The Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran, Mahdi Safari said that the BRICS member countries will benefit from the Iran’s vast energy resources as well as the ongoing connectivity projects linking North to South and East to West.[xiv]
Iran has also applauded de-dollarisation initiatives and views it as a tool to overcome the western dominance on the global economy. President Raisi said that Iran supports the use of national currencies by the BRICS members and appreciates the strengthening of BRICS mechanisms for payment and financial settlements. Iran’s strategic geographic location in terms of transit, its huge energy resources and the developments in the field of science and technology ensures that Tehran will be an active and worthy member of the bloc.
Iran’s support to multipolarity and multilateralism underlines its hostile relations with the US and its continuous striving for countering its isolation. It underlines its search for newer options for cooperation and a recognition of the need for diversified partnerships to cater to emerging challenges in an efficient and effective manner.
[i]Iranian president visits Latin American countries in an attempt to strengthen multipolar world order, Peoples Dispatch, June 13, 2023, available at https://peoplesdispatch.org/2023/06/13/iranian-president-visits-latin-american-countries-in-an-attempt-to-strengthen-multipolar-world-order/ (Accessed on October 30, 2023)
[ii]Iran: Multipolarity can't be halted, TeleTrader News, October 25, 2022, available at https://www.teletrader.com/shran-multipolarity-can-t-be-halted/news/details/58829260?ts=1697436801289 (Accessed on October 30, 2023)
[iii] Iran says attacks on U.S. forces due to 'wrong American policies', The Hindu, October 30, 2023, available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/iran-says-attacks-on-us-forces-due-to-wrong-american-policies/article67478072.ece (Accessed on October 31, 2023)
[iv] U.S. Reaches Deal With Iran to Free Americans for Jailed Iranians and Funds, Shafaq News, August 10, 2023, available at https://shafaq.com/en/World/U-S-Reaches-Deal-With-Iran-to-Free-Americans-for-Jailed-Iranians-and-Funds (Accessed on October 31, 2023)
[v] Mary Bruce, Rachel Scott, Elizabeth Schulze, Benjamin Siegel, and Molly Nagle, US, Qatar agree to prevent Iran from tapping previously frozen $6 billion fund, ABC News, October 13, 2023, available at https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/us-halting-release-6-billion-iranian-oil-assets/story?id=103928072#:~:text=The%20funds%20were%20part%20of,to%20free%20five%20American%20citizens.&text=The%20U.S.%20and%20Qatar%20have,sources%20confirmed%20to%20ABC%20News. (Accessed on October 31, 2023)
[vi] Iran & Russia: Burgeoning Military Ties, Iran Primer, United States Institute of Peace, September 5, 2023, available at https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2023/may/18/iran-russia-burgeoning-military-ties (Accessed on October 29, 2023)
[vii]Mathieu Droin and Nicole Grajewski, Iran, Russia, and The Challenges Of “Inter-Pariah Solidarity”, War on the Rocks, July 11, 2023, available at https://warontherocks.com/2023/07/iran-russia-and-the-challenges-of-inter-pariah-solidarity/ (Accessed on October 29, 2023)
[viii] Iran’s foreign policy outlook in light of new world order, May 28, 2023, Institute for Political and International Studies, available at https://www.ipis.ir/en/subjectview/720552/iran%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy-outlook-in-light-of-new-world-order (Accessed on October 29, 2023)
[x] Nazila Fathi, What will SCO membership mean for Iran?, Middle East Institute, September 28, 2021, available at https://www.mei.edu/publications/what-will-sco-membership-mean-iran (Accessed on October 28, 2023)
[xi] Abdollahian, H. A., SCO: An opportunity to bolster Eurasian convergence, September 16, 2022, CGTN, available at https://news.cgtn.com/news/2022-09-16/SCO-An-opportunity-to-bolster-Eurasian-convergence-1dmTvERt2GA/index.html (Accessed on October 28, 2023)
[xii] Multilateralism gives Asian countries agency to shape regional developments amid big power rivalry: DPM Wong, Channel News Asia, May 25, 2023, available at https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/dpm-lawrence-wong-japan-nikkei-forum-multilateralism-asean-3516976 (Accessed on October 28, 2023)
[xiii] Abdollahian, H. A., SCO: An opportunity to bolster Eurasian convergence, September 16, 2022, CGTN, available at https://news.cgtn.com/news/2022-09-16/SCO-An-opportunity-to-bolster-Eurasian-convergence-1dmTvERt2GA/index.html (Accessed on October 28, 2023)
[xiv] Iran's membership in BRICS is an attack on US sanctions, Kayhan News, September 3, 2023, available at https://kayhan.ir/fa/news/271810/%D8%B9%D8%B6%D9%88%DB%8C%D8%AA-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A8%D8%B1%DB%8C%DA%A9%D8%B3-%D8%B4%D9%84%DB%8C%DA%A9-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%85%E2%80%8C%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%A2%D9%85%D8%B1%DB%8C%DA%A9%D8%A7 (Accessed on October 28, 2023)