Studies 29 February, 2024

Why Has Iran’s Looking East Policy Failed?

Shireen Hunter

​Shireen Hunter is an Honorary fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, with which she has been affiliated since 2005 as a visiting fellow, visiting Professor, and Research Professor. Prior to that, Hunter was the Director of Islam Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), with which she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 30 books and monographs and hundreds of journal articles and book chapters.

Iran introduced its policy of “Look East” or “Negah beh Sahragh” nearly two decades ago. The policy sought to prioritize relations with Asian countries, especially China, but also with Russia and Central Asia. But it has only been vigorously pursued in the last few years, especially since the hardline government of President Ebrahim Raisi came to power in 2021. During the presidency of Hassanacrobat Icon Rouhani (2013-2021), a moderate politician, Iran, though it did not ignore Asia, was more focused on resolving its disputes with Western powers, particularly the controversy over the nuclear program. Nevertheless, the groundwork for the twenty-five-year-old partnership agreement with China was completed during Rouhani’s term in office and it was signed in the final year of his administration.

To some extent, Iran’s growing interest in Asia and its rising powers, notably China, but also India, was expected. These states have become important global economic and political powers. Therefore, they could be important economic and trade partners for Iran as well as sources of investment. They, especially China, have also become significant players in the Gulf and the Middle East. It was thus a logical step for Iran to bolster its ties with them. Meanwhile, Russia and Central Asia are close to Iran geographically, meaning developments in the region and shifts in the policies of Moscow and some Central Asian states directly affect Iran’s security interests. However, these were not the only reasons behind Iran’s Look East strategy. Two other factors also contributed to this shift: differences within Iran’s leadership regarding the direction of its foreign policy, especially the nature of its relations with the West, and Iran’s disappointment with the West, which had been unresponsive to Tehran’s overtures.