On 19 June 2023, the ACRPS Iranian Studies Unit hosted a panel titled “Continuity and Change in Iranian Foreign Policy.” The panel included Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, Senior Research Fellow at the International Security Studies department at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the China-MENA project at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Iran. The event was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Head of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar.
Yazdanshenas began by discussing the broad priorities of the Iranian foreign policy under the Raisi administration, and how they are different from those of his predecessor Hassan Rouhani. The main priority of the current government, according to Yazdanshenas, is the “Look East Policy.” Another important issue that Raisi is concerned with is Iran’s nuclear program. Yazdanshenas mentioned that Iran’s foreign policy apparatus is often considered monolithic, and many often assume that foreign policy decisions are made by the Supreme Leader. While Yazdanshenas did not completely disagree with such perception, she argued that each administration can leave its mark on Iran’s foreign policy based on its ideological and political orientations.
According to Yazdanshenas, two factors influence Iran’s foreign policy: domestic factors (including Iran’s economy, public opinion, and the ability of the administration to build consensus on foreign policy priorities among different institutions and individuals); and external factors, which revolve around the structure of power at the regional and global levels. Considering these two factors, Yazdanshenas sees elements of change and continuity between the foreign policies of Raisi and Rouhani. The Rouhani administration worked to revive the nuclear deal, while Raisi has repeatedly said that the fate of Iran’s foreign policy does not depend on the deal. The Raisi government views Iran’s East policy as more strategically important, and other foreign policy choices are dependent on this strategy. Rouhani, on the other hand, believed that Iran’s nuclear program is the main obstacle to advancing relations with major powers, especially China. Yazdanshenas elaborated that the Rouhani administration saw the balancing of relations with all rising powers, China and Western powers, as important.
Yazdanshenas and Tabrizi both agreed that the Raisi administration’s foreign policy is primarily driven by the “Look East” strategy, but Tabrizi claimed that this comes at the expense of relations with the West. On the current state of Iran’s nuclear deal negotiations, Tabrizi noted that they had been stalled since the summer of 2022 when the Raisi government opted not to proceed with the draft agreement. This was perceived by the US as a decision to withdraw from the deal. This was due to larger considerations in Iran, such as negotiating from a position of strength and accepting a deal that would serve Iran’s interests. “We are currently witnessing a high level of tensions between Iran and the West as a result of Iran walking away from a done deal, internal repression of the recent demonstrations, and Iran’s provision of drones to Russia in its war in Ukraine,” Tabrizi said. Recently, conversations about the nuclear problem, the freeze of Iranian assets, and prisoner exchange have resumed behind the scenes. Tabrizi saw a shift in the calculations of the US and E3, and their interest in resuming discussions with Tehran.
Regarding Khamenei’s recent remarks on collaboration with the IAEA, Tabrizi added that this may be a good sign as in the past he had been reluctant about Iran’s engagement with the West, particularly the United States. What we have observed over the past year is that Iran has maintained diplomatic relations with the international community by engaging with the IAEA, according to Tabrizi. She further added that Iran today perceives itself in a position of power, allowing it to acquire leverage and benefit from negotiations with the West.
Border conflicts and a dispute over water rights have recently heightened tensions between Iran and Afghanistan. Yazdanshenas noted that Iran has taken a pragmatic approach with the Taliban even before its ascension to power in 2021. According to Yazdanshenas, Iran was one of the few countries that resumed diplomatic relations with the country after Taliban seized power. As Yazdanshenas stated, “The water dispute and the complications with the implementation of the Afghan-Iranian Helmand River-Water Treaty have exacerbated the conflict between the two countries.” Yazdanshenas cautioned that climate change and water scarcity have securitized this conflict more than before. She went on to say that based on Iran’s existing “good neighborly” policy, the Islamic Republic would be hesitant to go to war with its neighbors. Taliban’s current priority as well is to establish stability within Afghanistan. Yazdanshenas maintained that both sides will eventually consider de-escalation.
Lastly, Tabrizi analyzed Iran’s relations with Arab countries, in particular with Iraq. After the 2021 Iraqi parliamentary election, Iran thought that its influence and power in the country is in decline. With Mohammed Al Sudani as the new prime minister of Iraq, Tabrizi claimed that Iran is less worried since it does not believe that the new administration would endanger its capacity to project influence and achieve its strategic objectives in Iraq. Despite the fact that Iraq played an important role in talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it was China that mediated the Saudi-Iran agreement. China is seen by both parties as an honest broker, and the Saudis harbored suspicions of Iraq’s links with Iran. Overall, Iran now feels confident enough to think about reestablishing relations with other regional countries in an effort to promote de-escalation.
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