Eastern promise: Ayatollah shifts towards China and Russia, as Iran’s patience with West wears thin
‘In foreign policy, the top priorities for us today include preferring East to West’
Iran’s supreme leader has signalled a decisive shift in favour of relations with China and Russia, indicating that patience is running out with efforts to improve ties with the West.
One of the most popular slogans during the 1979 revolution was “Neither East nor West”, a defiant vow that Iran would no longer favour either of the world’s major forces at the time – American-style capitalism or Soviet Communism.
It was therefore striking to hear its current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declare on February 19 that: “In foreign policy, the top priorities for us today include preferring East to West.”
Analysts say this does not change the basic idea that Iran refuses to fall under the sway of outside powers.
But it does suggest that the latest attempt at detente with the United States – represented by the 2015 nuclear deal in which it agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of sanctions – is running out of steam.
“Khamenei has repeatedly outlined that the 2015 nuclear deal was a test to see if negotiations with the West could yield positive results for Iran,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Khamenei’s comments come at a critical moment, with US President Donald Trump threatening to tear up the deal and reimpose sanctions unless Iran agrees to rein in its missile programme and “destabilising activities” in the Middle East.
Even before Trump, Iran felt Washington was violating its side of the bargain as it became clear that remaining US sanctions would still hamper banking ties and foreign investments, even blocking Iranian tech start-ups from sharing their products on app stores.
Tehran argues this violates a clause stating the US must “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran”.
“From day one, the US, the Obama administration, started violating both the letter and the spirit of the agreement,” said Mohammad Marandi, a political analyst at the University of Tehran.
He said Khamenei’s latest statement recognised the simple fact that relations with eastern countries were much stronger, particularly since Iran and Russia allied over the Syrian war.
“It’s a very different world now. Iran’s relationship with Russia and China and an increasing number of Asian countries is much better than with the West because they treat us much better,” he said.
“We are partners with Russia in Syria. We are not subordinate.”
Anger over foreign interference was a key driver of the 1979 revolution after more than a century of intrigues, coups and resource exploitation by the United States, Britain and Russia.
But despite being depicted by critics as dogmatic and uncompromising, the Islamic republic that emerged after the revolution has been surprisingly flexible in its foreign policy.
“At certain moments since 1979, Iran has taken a pragmatic approach to dealings with the United States when necessary or in its interest,” said Geranmayeh.
She highlighted the infamous Iran-Contra arms deal in the 1980s and co-operation in Afghanistan in 2001, as well as the nuclear deal.
Yet many hardliners in Washington refuse to accept that Iran has ever been serious about rapprochement.
The American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank, this month released a series of articles calling for “a more confrontational policy toward Iran”, including the threat of regime change.
Its main justification was that “the men who run Iran’s foreign policy have no interest in a better relationship”.
But speaking in April 2015, three months before the nuclear deal was finalised, Khamenei explicitly said it could lead to a broader improvement in ties.
“If the other side stops its usual obstinacy, this will be an experience for us and we will find out that we can negotiate with it over other matters as well,” he said in a speech.
Iran’s oil sales have rebounded since the deal, and it has seen an uptick in trade with Europe.
But the threat of US penalties has helped deter many foreign investors and major banks from re-engaging with Iran.
European firms and governments remain far more vulnerable to pressure from Washington than their Chinese and Russian counterparts.
“If the Europeans don’t have the courage to stand up to the US then they shouldn’t expect to be partners with us,” said Marandi.
“If some doors are closed and some doors are open, we are not going to wait outside the closed doors forever.”