by Alireza Shams Lahijani
One of the biggest raps against President Hassan Rouhani’s foreign policy in Iran is that he and his administration are too eager to expand relations with the West. Yet, in the two years after his election, Rouhani has met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, no less than four times and held numerous telephone conversations, not to mention authorized dozens of bilateral diplomatic missions. Rouhani’s July 9 meeting with Putin during his two-day trip this week to Russia—which coincides with the annual summits in Ufa of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa)—was their fifth meeting to date.
The unprecedented number might be more symbolic than substantive, but it clearly suggests a common political will to explore further cooperation. Iran and Russia, with extensive experience in facing political and economic pressures from the West, have expanded cooperation, particularly in the areas of defense, oil and gas, and nuclear energy, while coordinating on other key geo-political issues, notably Syria.
The bilateral relationship’s resurgence might be regarded by some as a hedging strategy or a backup plan in the event that Tehran’s attempt at rapprochement with the West fails. Although such an interpretation is superficially persuasive, but it underestimates both Iran’s desire to achieve a strategic rebalancing and Russia’s own need to improve relations with Iran at a time of multiple upheavals in the Middle East and the return of tensions between Moscow and the West in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. Iran, despite bitter memories of Soviet assistance to Iraq during Iraq-Iran war and multiple past setbacks in Russo-Iran relation, has clearly welcomed this opportunity to solidify its relations with Russia.
Between 2004 to 2009, Iran pursued a policy of “looking to the East” while abandoning and antagonizing Western countries. It was a tactic for desperate times (which was not wholly successful). Tehran’s current “look to the East” is not a tactic but rather the outcome of a strategic rebalancing that requires Iran to normalize relations with European countries, achieve détente with the United States, and expand ties with Russia, China, and India.
Increased contact between Tehran and Moscow should be analyzed within such a context. Furthering the partnership is not without hurdles. Despite sharing similar views on a broad range of issues, Iran and Russia face challenges in strengthening their relationship, including ongoing disputes over the legal regime governing shipping in the Caspian Sea and exploitation of its resources, bilateral commercial disputes, and the potential impact of closer ties on the two countries’ respective relationships with key Arab states. Some of these problems may be eased somewhat if the coming days (or hours) lead to a deal between Iran and the P5+1.
At the present moment, the geostrategic repercussions of a comprehensive deal struck between Iran and the P5+1 is the focus of a torrent of speculation by academics, pundits, and risk analysts, not to mention government officials of the great powers and throughout the region. Media outlets, for example, are reporting how representatives of Western companies are flooding Tehran to assess prospects for—and make or renew contacts in—an Iran that potentially offers a huge and relatively untapped market. Commentary about a new regional balance of power that could facilitate Washington’s promised “pivot” to the Asia/Pacific is rampant.
However, Rouhani’s scheduled speeches at both the SCO and BRICS summit, as well his rumored attendance at the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summit—also taking place in Ufa this week—are timely reminders of the broader political and economic components and direction of Iranian foreign policy. Iran wants regional cooperation and global partnership.
For Iran, the SCO, initially formed in 1996 with the primary aim of combating terrorism and extremism in Central Asia, has become a platform for pursuing regional cooperation. At the moment, Iran is an observer member, but, as Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said in April, a promising end to ongoing talks between Iran and P5+1 and the lifting of UN sanctions would pave the way for Iran’s full membership. Tehran, eyeing increased participation in multilateral arenas, clearly sees that membership as a way to enhance its fight against violent extremism by enlisting the support of both the West and the East. As stated repeatedly by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Iran stands ready to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. Joining the SCO would also boost Iran’s economic ties with member countries, as it would expand the organization’s reach to the Persian Gulf.
At the BRICS conference, Rouhani will no doubt tout the potential of Iran’s economy to the emerging economies in attendance. Iran’s decision to become a charter member of the new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is another indication that Tehran is not all-in in relation to the West but is adjusting its foreign policy for what it regards as a new era, both for Iran and for international politics. Rouhani’s yet unconfirmed participation at the EAEU summit, whose member states currently include Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, also affirms Tehran’s interest in expanding its political and economic ties with Central Asia. Shared cultural heritage with the region also adds to the allure of cooperation there.
In light of the interim agreement concluded between P5+1 and Iran in November 2013 and the subsequent Lausanne framework in April this year—as well as the increasingly frequent and “new-normal” contacts between Iranian and U.S. officials—media coverage of Iranian foreign policy has been, with some justification, skewed toward a binary view of Iran-West relations, with the suggestion that enhancing ties with Russia and China was Tehran’s “Plan B.” But there is a bigger game afoot. Iran is strategically reinvigorating its diplomacy through normalizing relations with the West and expanding ties with the East. Rouhani’s trip to Ufa this week is just another step in such a direction, while Zarif is taking the other one in Vienna.
Alireza Shams Lahijani is a researcher of Iranian foreign policy. He received his Masters degree from the Department of International Relations at London School of Economics in December 2014. He tweets at @ashamsla.