Pepe Escobar, a Brazilian journalist at the Asia Times, argued in a recent piece titled “Iran Embraces its Eurasian Future” that Iran is making a pivot to the East.
This comes against the backdrop of Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi being sworn in as the 8th president of Iran on August 5, 2021 at the Majlis, Iran’s Parliament, after Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khamenei endorsed Raisi’s presidency two days prior.
Raisi is seen as a hardliner who will likely remain hostile to the US and Western interests, as demonstrated in a speech titled “The Experience of Trusting the US” where he lashed out at the US and other Western countries for not honoring their agreements with Iran.
As a result of the mistrust between the US, Europe, and Iran, the Middle Eastern nation is looking elsewhere for building relations. Escobar was in correspondence with Professor Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran who told Escobar that “Iran’s foreign policy decisions are pretty clear. Iran will be putting less emphasis on Western nations, especially European, and more emphasis on the Global South, the East, neighboring countries, and of course that will include China and Russia. That doesn’t mean the Iranians are going to ignore Europe altogether, if they decide to return to the JCPOA. The Iranians would accept if they abide by their obligations. So far, we have seen no sign of that whatsoever.”
Interestingly, Escobar believes that the Iranian state’s main challenges will be domestic as opposed to foreign. Sanctions, which the US government has imposed starting in 1979 with follow up sanctions in subsequent decades, have been a gut punch to the Iranian economy, although they have done little to effect regime change. There are hints that the Raisi government will pursue more “social justice” oriented policies and those focused on bolstering internal improvements.
Escobar cited an anonymous Iranian diplomatic source that believes Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani has ignored Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s advice and largely overlooked policies that strengthen Iran’s economy and infrastructure. Most of the past decade, Iran was largely focused on trying to establish a diplomatic rapprochement with the West, namely, the US.
Now the game is changing in Iran as it realized in the last five years, especially during the Trump administration, that the US cannot be trusted. Due to the presence of neoconservative Iran hawks in the Trump administration, tensions between the two countries increased es evidenced by the tightened sanctions and the US government’s assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
With the so-called “tanker wars” kicking off between Israel and Iran, Iran will undoubtedly be subject to more subversion and external interference from the West. That said, Iran is a resilient nation that has civilizational continuity that is only matched by countries like China. It has existed for thousands of years and has resurged and reasserted itself even when many outsiders believed that Iran’s Persian imperial predecessors were down for the count.
The shift in Iran’s gaze towards the East is bringing it back to its Eurasian roots. Escobar is correct in observing that Iran’s traditional sphere of influence in both culture and politics consists of “Central Asia and Afghanistan, in the Caucasus, in Western Pakistan.” In the last 40 years, Iranian grand strategy has directed it towards countries with significant Shiite minorities such as “Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (Hezbollah), Yemen (the Zaidites) and the Persian Gulf (Bahrain, the Shi’ites in Hasa in Saudi Arabia)” as Escobar detailed.
From a big picture perspective, Escobar explained how Iran’s strategy is ultimately political and religious in nature due to its Shiite focus:
This is the Shi’ite arc – evolving in a complex Iranization process that is foremost political and religious, and not cultural and linguistic. Outside of Iran, I have seen in my travels how Arab Shi’ites in Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf, Dari/Farsi Shi’ites in Afghanistan, those of Pakistan and India, and Turcophone Shi’ites in Azerbaijan look up towards political Iran.
Iran’s move towards the East is logical. Since the toppling of the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, Iran has been nothing more than geopolitical plaything for external powers. The 1979 Revolution, which deposed the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and installed an Islamist government, has been at odds with the West.
Iran did make gestures to getting closer with the West after 9/11, when it took advantage of the attacks against the US to position itself as a potential strategic partner in the fight against Sunni extremists. The Iranian state stressed its Shiite character as a way to not only join the West in fighting Sunni rivals and simultaneously expand in areas that have traditionally been part of Greater Iran such as Afghanistan and parts of Iraq.
However, such overtures have faced their limits. US foreign policy mandarins are committed to universalism, a foreign policy approach that puts remaking “rogue” countries into America’s image. Iran fits the bill, given its hostility to the US and its style of governance that doesn’t jive with Western standards. It doesn’t help that Iran is Israel’s number #1 enemy in the Middle East either, another reason that makes the US eager to clash with Iran.
All things considered, it’s in Iran’s best interest to look east and rely on China and Russia to help build a Eurasian network that defends its interests. This new pivot in Iranian foreign policy is also an indictment of US foreign policy and its nasty ability of pushing countries like China, Iran, and Russia together thanks to US saber-rattling, sanctions, and attempts to carry out regime change.
A more realist approach to foreign policy would have likely prevented the rise of this modern-day Triple Entente. However, that ship has likely sailed and the US will have to come to grips with the new multipolar world in front of it.