The Iranian Studies Unit of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies held its third annual conference from 6-7 September 2023. The topic of this year’s conference was “Iran’s Look East Policy”.

The conference explored the origins, implications, challenges, and opportunities of Iran’s “Look East” policy, as well as Iranian and other perspectives on the Islamic Republic’s international relations with countries to its geographic east and in the global south more broadly.

The conference addressed these topics in 24 papers distributed among eight panels, in addition to a keynote lecture delivered by Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour, Professor of International Relations at the School of International Relations, Iran, and an advisor to the Iranian Foreign Minister.

Day One

The conference opened with remarks from Mehran Kamrava, Head of the Iranian Studies Unit at the Arab Center and Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar. Kamrava highlighted the significance and timely nature of the conference given that Iran has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member and was recently invited to join BRICS, further necessitating an examination of Iran’s Look East policy. The conference’s keynote speaker, Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour, Professor of International Relations at the School of International Relations, located in Tehran, discussed the reasons behind Iran’s pivot to the East policy, as well as its challenges and opportunities.

The conference’s first panel, “Iran’s Look East Policy,” provided an overview of the Islamic Republic’s orientation and approach toward the East and the possible development of a new world order. Diana Galeeva, at the University of Oxford, examined how Iran’s collaboration with China and Russia under the new policy challenges the “liberal world order,” and how a new world order may emerge from new these alliances. Olivia Glombitza, at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the Open University of Catalonia, discussed the ways in which Iran seeks to build bridges with its neighbors to the east such as Iraq and Pakistan. She discussed some of the main ways in which the Islamic Republic supplements its foreign policy with symbolic politics and tries to build and strengthen ties with others based on a common ideational worldview. Kadhim Hashim Niama, Professor at Baghdad University, presented the merits and challenges of the Look East policy, arguing that the policy will likely continue in the foreseeable future, and, despite the difficulty of predicting its outcome, it is currently the most effective option for managing Iranian foreign policy.

Panel two, titled “Iran’s Look East Policy and the Arab World” tackled the policy’s impact on the Arab region, Iraq and Egypt in particular. Harith Hasan, from the Carnegie Middle East Center, discussed how the “pivot to the East” has become part of the political and intellectual debate in Iraq, and how is it influenced by Iranian policy. He also explained the obstacles the pivot faces, and the nature of geostrategic and economic interests that characterize it. Huda Raouf, Professor at New Giza University, explored internal Iranian motives for pursuing neighborhood diplomacy, and the regional and international contexts that facilitate and hinder its success. She addressed Egyptian-Iranian relations as a model for Iran’s endeavor to benefit from a regional détente and the Egyptian response to these attempts.

The third panel on Iran-Russia relations, began with Li-Chen Sim’s, Assistant Professor at Khalifa University, analysis of Russian-Iranian economic relations and the extent to which Moscow contributes to Iran’s Look East orientation. Abdolrasool Divsallar, from Milan’s Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, offered insights into the perception of Russia inside the Iranian military-industrial complex. He argued that perceptions of Russia inside Iran’s defense sector are largely positive, therefore turning it into a major advocate for a stronger partnership with Moscow. Lastly, Eric Lob, and Mazaher Koruzhde, from Florida International University and Howard University respectively, argued that recurring protests, economic sanctions, and other pressures inside and outside of Iran have made it more risk-seeking in pursuing its geopolitical goals of gaining concessions from the US and its allies and partners in Western Europe and the Middle East.

Day Two

The second day of the conference began with the panel on the role of China in Iran’s Look East policy and the Chinese response to Iran’s approach toward the East. Jonathan Fulton, Associate Professor at Zayed University, tackled the China-Iran bilateral relationship and examined the normative underpinnings of the Sino-Iranian partnership and what this means for order, both in the Gulf and beyond. Niloufar Baghernia, a PhD scholar at the Australian National University, argued that although domestic affairs have affected Iran’s shift toward China, the structure of the international system and the Middle East have been more influential in Iran’s foreign policy preferences. Degang Sun, Professor at Fudan University in China, discussed the China-Iran 25-year strategic agreement and argued that the Western-dominated international system is giving way to a mixed system in which the Global North and the Global South simultaneously play predominant roles. Jianwei Han, Associate Professor at Shanghai International Studies University, explained China-Iran relations from China’s diplomacy perspective, using the method of partner-community framework to analyze China’s cognition and response to Iran’s Look East policy.

The conference also included a panel on “Iran, India, Malaysia.” Chuchu Zhang, Associate Professor at Fudan University, analyzed the evolution of China and India’s involvement in the Middle East, particularly their interactions with Iran, and what it means to the region’s geopolitical landscape. Deepika Saraswat, Researcher at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, presented on the transformation in Iran’s Look East policy, Iran’s idea of regionalism, and how its vision of regional integration has re-contextualized India-Iran relations. Rowena Abdul Razak, teaching at Queen Mary University of London, explored Malaysian-Iranian relations, discussing the role of Malaysian and Iranian politicians and how ties have remained relatively stable despite Shi'i-Sunni tensions and external pressures.

“Iran, Central Asia, South Caucasus” was the focus of another panel. Banafsheh Keynoush, scholar at the Middle East Institute, discussed conflicts in Iran’s northern corridor and their implications for its Look East policy. She argued that turning the northern corridor conflicts into opportunities requires strategic calculations that Iran has yet to develop and the absence of a much needed “Look North” doctrine to complement the “Look East” policy, has resulted in major foreign policy setbacks for Iran.

Bayram Sinkaya, Associate Professor at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University, examined Iran-Azerbaijan relations under the Pan-Turkist challenge and asserted that Iranian perceptions of, and responses to this obstacle will be effective in the future of the regional security complex in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Hessam Habibi Doroh, from the University of Applied Sciences, FH Campus, Vienna, explored the underlying rationale of Iran’s security policy toward Turkmenistan, in order to explain Iran’s broader security approach in its Look East policy under new regional dynamics. Gawdat Bahgat, Professor at the National Defense University, examined Iran’s relations with the major powers in the South Caucasus – Armenia and Azerbaijan – as well as Israel, Turkey, Russia, and Western powers.

Panel seven of the conference, “Economy, Sanctions, Trade, Energy Sector,” looked into Look East policy’s implications on the economy and the energy sector, as well as how sanctions pose a threat to trade relations with Asian countries. Discussing her findings from a survey conducted among Iranian entrepreneurs and businesspersons, in collaboration with the Iran Chamber of Commerce, Zahra Karimi, Associate Professor at the University of Mazandaran, highlighted the impacts of Iran’s orientation towards the East on its economy. Karim Eslamloueyan, Professor at Shiraz University, focused on Iran’s trade ties with South and East Asian countries, arguing that while the Iran-West conflict embedded in economic sanctions only speeds up Iran’s tilt toward the East, it is not the only driving force for its Look East policy. Cyrus Ashayeri, Principal Technologist at Beyond Limits, maintained that under a Look East policy framework, Iran can enhance its energy security by learning from sustainable energy practices in ASEAN countries.

For the final panel of the conference, “Look East Policy Risks and Challenges,” Mahmood Monshipouri, Professor at San Francisco State University, and Javad Heiran-Nia, from the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies in Iran, discussed the risks of Iran’s Look East policy. They contended that Iran’s ties with China are unlikely to serve as a saviour against its isolation by the West, and Tehran’s Look East policy likely risks strengthening its dependency on Moscow. Shireen Hunter, from Georgetown University, stated that the most important barrier to Iran’s Eastward strategy has been its fraught relations with the US and the US sanctions.

In his concluding remarks, Mehran Kamrava, Head of the Iranian Studies Unit at the ACRPS and Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar, thanked the participating researchers, attendees, and organizers of the conference. He provided a summary of the main findings of the presentations at the conference, highlighting the causes and consequences of Iran’s Look policy, and the challenges and opportunities therein for the Islamic Republic.