By Mohsen Shariatinia
University Professor & Senior Expert at The Center for Strategic Research (CSR), Tehran
The change in Iran’s foreign policy under President Hassan Rouhani is often associated with the agreement that Tehran reached with world powers for the resolution of its nuclear crisis. However, since Rouhani came to office, especially in the months that have followed the conclusion of Iran’s nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Islamic Republic’s relations with Eastern countries have undergone major developments as well. A recent trip to Iran by the South Korean president, which came after similar visits by heads of state from China and Vietnam, followed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran have been collectively construed as the most important symbol of a major change in Iran’s interactions with the East; a development, which can be considered as the second stage of Iran’s “Look to the East” policy.
Of course, looking to the East has been always of importance to Iran’s foreign policy, but it was first brought up as a foreign policy approach under the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. At that time, China, India, Japan and South Korea turned into Iran’s most important trade partners, but international sanctions, which were later imposed on Iran, complicated the two sides’ relations, created important barriers on the way of those relations, and dissuaded Iran’s public opinion about further expansion of ties with Eastern countries. Today, however, under conditions which have come about following the conclusion of the JCPOA, a new phase of the Look to the East policy has started. What are the most important features of the second phase of the Look to the East policy?
The changing role of the United States
Relations between Iran and important Asian countries in the past decade have not been simply bilateral relations, but have been actually trilateral relations and the United States, as a third party, has played an important role in shaping those relations. Therefore, the first and most important factor, which differentiates the current phase of Iran’s look to the East from the past is the changing role of the United States. Under Ahmadinezhad, although Iran’s common interests with these countries were expanding, the United States had greatly limited the two sides’ interactions through multilateral and unilateral sanctions, which were imposed on Iran. South Korea and Japan rapidly moved to limit their relations with Iran within framework of the United States’ sanctions, India gradually adapted to those sanctions while China tried to maintain a minimum level of interactions with Iran in order to use them as leverage in strategic bargaining with the United States.
In post-JCPOA conditions, however, the United States has shown no sensitivity about Iran’s expanding interactions with key countries in Asia and this issue has practically removed the biggest obstacle that existed on the way of the expansion of bilateral relations. Despite this change, ambiguities about future outlook of interactions between Iran and the United States have still overshadowed Iran’s relations with these countries. Whether Iran and the United States move toward reduction of tensions or escalation of tensions in the future will have profoundly different effects on the future perspective of relations between Iran and major Asian countries as well.
The changing role of oil
The second factor, which differentiates the new phase of the “Look to the East” policy, is the changing role of energy resources, especially crude oil. During recent months, unlike the tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, global oil market has undergone profound changes and international oil prices have taken a nosedive. Therefore, oil is not an important factor in determining Iran’s relations with these countries as it was before. This is why all sides are trying to come up with other issues as key areas for cooperation. Turning the megaproject of the Silk Road economic belt into the most important field of cooperation between Iran and China, focusing on the issue of investment as the most important area for cooperation between Iran and South Korea, and possibly the development of Chabahar port and its turning into the most important field of cooperation between Iran and India can be considered as symbols of multilayered cooperation between these countries. Although oil is still an important factor in the “Look to the East” policy, unlike past years, it is not a determining factor anymore.
In time of sanctions, Asians, especially the Chinese, were unrivaled in the Iranian market. However, under post-JCPOA conditions, firstly, Asian countries have turned into one another’s rivals and secondly, European states, especially the French and Italians, are currently trying to reclaim their past position in Iran. The high level of European technology, better understanding of Iran by European countries, and the positive attitude that Iran’s private sector has towards the European companies will certainly turn them into staunch rivals for Asian countries.
Iran’s changing approach
During the sanctions period, Iran cooperated with Asian countries under special international conditions, but now it is trying to expand its relations with them through a new approach. Of course, there is no difference among Iranian elites about the importance of the expansion of relations with the aforesaid countries, but top economic officials of Iran have said frequently that they don’t want the country to turn into a mere market for industrial products of other countries, because they give priority to promoting joint production of industrial products. Through this change in approach, Iran is actually trying to change its interactions with key Asian countries from the simple model of oil for goods to more complicated models of economic partnership. This change will, on the one hand, make implementation of bilateral agreements possibly more complicated, while on the other hand, push both sides toward some sort of mutual dependence; a form of dependence which makes the two sides sensitive and vulnerable to possible cessation of exchanges.
The second phase of the “Look to the East” policy is rapidly moving ahead, though it has received less attention from mass media. Such factors as common economic interests between these countries and Iran, absence of political obstacles, and the growing position of key Asian countries in global economy provide powers in this region with important opportunities to maintain their status as Iran’s major partners in trade and investment under post-sanctions conditions. All told, it is possible that a large part of the JCPOA’s achievements for Iran would finally come through the Islamic Republic’s interaction with Asia, not the West. And even more importantly, at the end of the day, neither Iran nor the West, but Asian countries may be the main winner of conditions both before and after the JCPOA.
Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD) http://www.irdiplomacy.ir/ Translated By: IranReview.Org