DECEMBER 9, 2022
Iran Opinion

Opinion: Iran’s foreign policy continuity after Raisi

Opinion: Iran’s foreign policy continuity after Raisi

Mohamad Hasan Sweidan 


During a 20 May press conference, White House National Security Adviser John Kirby stated that while the US government offered its official condolences to Iran over the loss of President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, it does not “anticipate any change in Iranian behavior, and, therefore, the Iranians should not expect any change in American behavior when it comes to holding them accountable.” 

Over recent years, Iran’s eastward foreign policy orientation has solidified with the various experiences and factors that have convinced its leadership of this approach. Trust in the west was shattered when US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or “nuclear deal”) in 2018, and the west’s use of sanctions has consolidated Tehran’s cooperation with Asian and Global South partners. Moreover, recent shifts in the international arena have compelled the Islamic Republic to become an active player and secure a strategic position in the new multipolar world order. 

Diplomatic hopes and skepticism

In September 2013, the first direct contact between then-Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, occurred since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

As a so-called ‘moderate,’ Rouhani, who took office in 2013, represented a faction that believed in the possibility of resolving differences with the US through diplomacy and dialogue. In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2014, he emphasized Iran’s determination to continue negotiations:

We are determined to continue negotiations with our interlocutors in earnest and good faith, based on mutual respect and confidence, removal of concerns of both sides as well as equal footing and recognized international norms and principles.

Supporters of Rouhani’s western-centric approach saw the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and Washington as a validation of their strategy. At the time, the Iranian president hailed the agreement as a “political victory” for Iran, asserting that it meant Tehran would no longer be actively isolated by Washington and its allies. 

However, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, remained skeptical, stating in his first speech following the agreement:

I have told the officials to not trust the opposing side, to not be fooled by their smiles, to not trust their promises because when they have achieved their objectives they will laugh at you. ... After every round of talks they make public comments that they then tell us in private was meant to save face in their own country and to counter their opponents, but this is their own problem and has nothing to do with us.

Almost three years later, Trump proved Khamenei right and undermined Rouhani’s approach by announcing Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. This conviction that the US could not be trusted was further reinforced when Iranian principalist Ebrahim Raisi assumed the Iranian presidency in 2021. 

From that point on, the Islamic Republic operated on the premise that the west, despite US statements about returning to the nuclear agreement, would not take any mutually beneficial steps that would positively benefit Tehran.

Toward a multipolar world order

There is a global consensus that the world order is undergoing a transformation. Americans assert that we are at an “inflection point,” and the policies states adopt today will determine their positions in the new order. 

During Raisi’s tenure, Iran, like other regional powers, had expanded its influence and position on the world stage. It is crucial to understand that Iran’s decisions are not solely linked to Raisi but are rooted in the broader variables of the international system that have been acknowledged by all.

With change accelerating from Eastern Europe to West Asia and Africa, Tehran is racing to secure an advanced position in the post-unipolar order. Incidentally, Iran was the first country in West Asia to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2023, offering expanded cooperation with countries such as Russia, China, and six other strategically located Asian states. Additionally, Iran gained a seat in the BRICS last year, determined to play an important role in shaping multilateral structures and mechanisms.

With the inclusion of four other new members: Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the BRICS+5 now accounts for 46 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of its economic output. 

The group’s share of global oil production rose from 18 percent before the expansion to 40 percent, while its share of oil consumption will jump from 27 percent to 36 percent. Similarly, its share in world merchandise trade will rise from 20 percent to 25 percent, and its share of world services trade will increase to 15 percent from 12 percent.

Significantly, the new group will also account for about 45 percent of global foreign exchange reserves. This underscores the long-term importance of Iran’s presence in such a structure. One of Tehran’s main goals in joining these groups is to counter unilateral Atlanticist policies, as BRICS membership enhances Iran’s ability to bypass coercive western measures.

Strengthening eastern alliances

In addition to its growing presence in eastern blocs, Tehran has worked to strengthen its relations with major Eurasian powers, namely China and Russia. Under the heavy burden of western sanctions, the Islamic Republic intensified efforts to sign major agreements with Beijing and Moscow. 

Those efforts bore fruit with the signing of a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with China in 2021, covering economic, military, and security cooperation, and was implemented in early 2022 under the Raisi administration. 

The impact of this agreement quickly became evident as trade between Iran and China developed significantly between 2021 and 2023. By 2022, total trade volume between the two countries reached nearly $16 billion, representing a 7 percent increase from the previous year. This growth was largely driven by China’s import of Iranian oil, despite ongoing US sanctions that have affected Iran’s ability to trade with other countries.

As for Russia, the Ukrainian war has reinforced the Kremlin’s conviction to expand cooperation with “anti-western” countries, particularly Iran. This is exemplified by the two parties reaching the final stage of negotiating a strategic cooperation agreement

The activation of the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which runs from Russia to India via Iran, marks an additional success for the transit countries due to its international economic importance. Russia made its first shipment through this corridor in July 2022. 

The western sanctions campaign against Moscow was also a major factor prompting the Kremlin to develop economic cooperation with Tehran. Consequently, with Moscow’s growing desire to cooperate, the Islamic Republic has the opportunity to strengthen ties in line with its vision for its role in the fast-developing new world order.

Defense cooperation between Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran also accelerated over the past few years. The three countries have conducted five joint exercises since 2019 – their highest-ever rate of joint military activities.

Continuity of Iran’s foreign policy

In her book Madam Secretary: Memoirs, late former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright emphasizes the importance of institutions and laws within a country for maintaining internal stability and effectiveness in foreign policy. 

Albright argues that these institutions and laws provide a framework that constrains power and ensures the long-term continuity and success of a state’s foreign policy, regardless of changes in leadership. This principle is notably relevant to Iran, where the institutionalization of foreign policy allows it to withstand shocks, such as the recent passing of the head of state and its foreign minister.

A state whose foreign policy depends on the stability of institutions rather than individuals is more resilient, as the broad outlines of foreign policy stem from the interests of these institutions – which are essentially the interests of the state. 

Recognizing this reality, several western analysts have concluded that there will be no significant change in Iranian foreign policy following the departure of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian. As Jean Kinninmont notes in her article:

It is an extraordinary situation: the president and foreign minister have suddenly died in one of the most geopolitically significant countries in a conflict-torn region, and yet the prevailing view is that the geopolitical impact is minimal.

This shows that Iran’s current foreign policy orientation is shaped not only by the Islamic Republic’s ideological background but also by the state’s pragmatic interests, which necessitate continuing the approach established by Raisi.

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