Thursday, 7 September 2023, marked the final day of the conference “Iran’s Look East Policy,” organized by the Iranian Studies Unit of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. The first day, 6 September 2023, focused on the conceptual framework of Iran’s Look East policy, its impact on the Arab world, and Iran’s relations with Russia.
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, moderated by Aicha Elbasri. 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,” which was moderated by Steven Wright. 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, which was moderated by Omar Ashour. 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,” moderated by Ayat Hamdan, 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.
The final panel of the conference, “Look East Policy Risks and Challenges,” was moderated by Emad Kaddorah. 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.