Since the onset of the Islamic Revolution of 1978-9 the Iranian foreign policy motto has been “Neither East, nor West, Islamic Republic”. But one has to consider that Iran has always been more East than West by both necessity and design. Faced with the economic consequences of Western containment, Iran put aside its historic rivalry with Russia, and included it in its Look East policy – referring to China, Russia and India. Iran’s inclusion of Russia in its Eastern vision is a political manoeuvre made by the Iranian clerical establishment in general, and the Supreme Leader in particular.
To achieve foreign policy independence, the Islamic Republic not only became more dependent on Russia and China, but also relied on the theocratic state’s harsh anti-US ideological rhetoric; an ideological dimension that presents a strategic disadvantage for Iranian diplomats in negotiating with the three non-Western countries, impeding their ability to leverage Tehran-Washington relations to balance increasing partnership with eastern countries. Despite this disadvantage, the political landscape under the Trump administration presents an opportunity for Iranian hard-line factions in search of presumed ideological purity, and in opposing the economic rapprochement with European countries.
While the Islamic Republic’s anti-US slogans make it almost impossible to normalise ties with Washington, Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi are more flexible in balancing their geo-economic interests between the U.S. and Iran. More broadly, the Iranian search for bilateral partnerships with China, Russia and India is also part of a broader project to integrate into Asian regional organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Until now, this Iranian strategy was only partly successful because Iran was able to secure observer status in the SCO in 2005 and to sign a friendship treaty with the ASEAN in 2018. However, Iran is still not a full member of the SCO – despite Russian diplomatic support – because of Chinese reluctance to transform the SCO into an anti-US regional organization.
Since 2005, the establishment of a bilateral strategic partnership between Beijing and Tehran is one of the main diplomatic objectives of the Islamic Republic. According to the Iranian political elite, the two countries share the same mistrust towards Western imperialism as well as geo-strategic interests regarding what they perceive as an “US hegemonic order”. Internal opponents and dissidents offer critical views on this rapprochement because of the conflicting economic interests between the two emerging economies. For radical religious clerics, the silence of Iranian authorities regarding the repression of the Uyghur population contradicts the Islamic ideals of the Revolution.
Chinese diplomacy is opposed to US unilateral economic measures against Iran as well as the use of a US military option to solve the conflict between Iran and the US. At the same time, Beijing is opposed to a military-nuclear Iran and to any measures taken by the Iranian leadership that will jeopardize the free-flow of oil in the Strait of Hormuz or in the Strait of Bab El-Mandeb. That’s why Beijing is still supporting the JCPOA while negotiating with the Trump administration to defend its economic interests in Iran and globally.
Given the asymmetry in the bilateral relationship between Russia and Iran, Iranian policymakers proclaim the relationship became an alliance or even a strategic partnership. Indeed, there is a gap between the discourse and the reality of bilateral cooperation in the economic sphere. For instance, in 2015, the two governments set an unrealistic target for trade between 10 and 15 billion dollars per year, with both parties boasting joint-projects with financial targets set at 40 to 50 billion dollars according to Iranian sources. These political statements do not reflect the current level of bilateral trade between the two countries, which has oscillated between 1 and 3 billion dollars annually since 2011.
This economic cooperation is driven by political will rather than economic convergence. A good example of this tension between economic imperative and political incentive is the Iranian reluctance to use the oil for goods mechanism between Iran and Russia. After a first exchange between one million barrels of oil from Iran and Russian goods in 2017, the talks to implement another exchange of 5 million barrels of oil from Iran are not yet finalized despite the implementation of a US embargo against Iranian oil from the 5th of November 2018.
Tehran was never able to build an alliance with India despite widespread shared regional geopolitical interests namely in Afghanistan and the realization of the Chabahar port project. After an initial rapprochement between the two countries during the Khatami Presidency (1997-2005), two main hurdles limiting the partnership between Tehran and New Delhi remain: US influence and India-Israeli rapprochement. After rejecting the notion of Iran being part of an axis of evil in 2002, New Delhi still cooperates with Tehran to subdue the rise of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. Although India does not perceive Iran as a threat but rather as a potential strategic partner, the hostile Iran-US relationship remains a significant setback in the bilateral relationship between the two countries. This does not mean that India is not using the Iran card in its negotiations with Washington – as was the case during the talks for a nuclear civil cooperation between the US and India. The scope of future reductions of India’s oil imports from Iran is also a bargaining chip for New Delhi in its dealing with the Trump Administration. The same dynamics are apparent in China-US relations as well as Russia-US negotiations.
The Islamic Republic’s failure in building a network of multipolar ententes to counterbalance the negative impact of its hostility towards the US could be best explained by the revolutionary dimensions of Iranian foreign policy. Indeed, Tehran has an ability to transform potential partners into adversaries due to a lack of flexibility in defining the interests to be pursued. The partnerships between Iran, China, Russia and India should not be understood as predominantly anti-Western, or viewed as an anti-Western block, but as the manifestation of the will of these countries to appear as independent on the international stage. The aspiration towards international independence further explains the resilience of the three countries in the face of US economic and political pressures aimed at thwarting their cooperation with Iran. At the same time these countries adopt flexible diplomatic approaches that are centered around challenging US unilateral policies; their respective relationships with the Islamic Republic can be tools in achieving this goal.
Implications and potential scenarios
The Iranian clerical establishment is weakening the Islamic Republic’s standing both regionally and internationally, in part, because the Khomeinist worldview is still dominating the decision-making process of the Iranian foreign policy. The Revolutionary ideological dimension remains a formidable hurdle to transforming Iran into a truly emerging country. This also explains the inability of Iranian decision makers to defend the national interests of their country while dealing with non-Western international powers such as China, Russia and India. Because of their anti-US strategy, they are more dependent towards their Asian partners in order to guarantee the survival of the Islamic Republic and to resist US and European pressures for behavior changes regarding its regional policies and ballistic program. Due to the Iranian decision makers’ anti-US strategies, and in order to thwart US and European pressures for behavior change, pursue a ballistics programme and ultimately to ensure the survivability of the Islamic republic, Iranians are pivoting towards their Asian partners now more than ever.
 “Russia receives 1m barrels from Iran in ‘oil for goods’ deal”, Middle East Monitor, 1 December 2017. Other sources are mentioning 100 000 barrels per day or 3 million barrels per month of Iranian oil since the deal was concluded in 2014 in exchange of Russian goods such as power generation, railway infrastructure or agricultural products. See Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Henry Foy and Roula Khalaf, “Russia vows to help Iran counter US oil sanctions”, The Financial Times, 2 November 2018, and “Iran exporting 3 mln barrels of oil per month to Russia under oil-for-goods program”, Tass, 4 February 2018.
 Personal interviews with Russian experts, Moscow, 31 October 2018.