The Dynamics Of Iran’s Eastward Pivot

In recent years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has witnessed strained relationships with Western countries because of sanctions placed on the country due to fallouts in negotiations regarding Iranian nuclear policy, human rights issues, and Iranian proxies in the Middle East. What impact does this phenomenon have on the current shifts in the global balance of power?

Iran has largely oriented itself towards non-Western partners. “In foreign relations,” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in 2018, “favouring the East over the West, neighbours over far countries, and nations that have commonalities with us is one of our priorities today.” The most recent realpolitik manifestation of this pivot to the East occurred this year, when Iran signed a memorandum of understanding for ascension to the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (S.C.O.). Iran has been attempting to ascend to the S.C.O. for over a decade, eager to gain access to its platform for developing bilateral relations and bureaucratic links with member states. Membership in the S.C.O. will allow Iran to participate in transnational infrastructure projects and economic initiatives currently undertaken or proposed in its immediate region, so this recent development represents a success in the eyes of the Iranian government.

Current developments also show that Iran is pursuing closer bilateral relations with principal strategic rivals of Western nations, notably China and Russia. The World Bank reported in 2022 that China represented an extremely lucrative export market for Iran, especially for petrochemical products, accounting for over $12 billion C.A.D. worth of total exports in 2021. Iran is also extremely important to China, thanks to its geographical influence on the success of the Belt and Road Initiative. It would be challenging to implement China’s grand “New Silk Road” without Tehran’s participation. Chinese leadership understands this vital position, the World Bank reported in 2018, as demonstrated by the substantial Chinese investments in Iran’s transport infrastructure since the B.R.I. began in 2013.

Bilateral trade between Russia and Iran, meanwhile, increased by 81% in 2021 and went up a further 22% in 2022. The leaders of the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic have been actively meeting to co-ordinate their responses on bilateral concerns, particularly security and economic issues. Their mutual commitments to addressing the former is demonstrated by their close co-operation in Syria, primarily through the Astana Format summit.

These economic figures, as well as the geographical and political realities that Iran is facing, show that Iran is not trapped in an “internationally isolated” paradigm, as analysts claim. The Islamic Republic is reaching out and constructing ties, which means that it is possible for us, too, to communicate. Upon reaching this realization, it is essential that we pioneer different solutions to engage Iran on the issues which concern policymakers in the West – particularly human rights and the use of Iranian proxies in the Middle East.