How should we read Iran's foreign policy?

Iran calla for Arab rapprochement (photo by Adobe)

Cooperation with the Gulf countries means Iran aims to benefit from opening new horizons with the region. Ahmad Abdel-Rahman explains.

Iran's foreign policy during the era of Ibrahim Raisi's government can be analyzed by the intersection between internal factors and external factors and their impact on the regional balance in the region. What is meant by the internal or regional and international factors are those that all led to the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation and Iranian calls for Arab rapprochement. This is as well as the Iranian movement that began recently in Africa.

Given that foreign policy is the result of internal determinants, several factors have played a role in shaping foreign policy. Among them is the internal transformations that Iran is witnessing, resulting from, among others, economic conditions and from youth.

As for the determinants related to the Iranian economic conditions, because it is not a new phenomenon, the regime has been able to adapt to sanctions and the deteriorating economy. However, their impact has been long lasting, including the recent protests that erupted in September 2022 and lasted for about six months. Tehran also wanted to alleviate the tense internal situation that flared up more recently with the hijab protests. These protests represented the biggest challenges the country had witnessed so far and reminded the regime of the continuous turmoil that Iran experienced during the 60s under the rule of the Shah.

Cooperation with the Gulf countries, especially those that are undergoing economic structural transformations, has made Iran aim to benefit from opening up to other countries of the region. Hence, some economic indicators can be improved, while internal tensions can be eased, especially with the emergence of a new generation that has no ties to the ideology and revolutionary ideas of the leaders of the traditional Iranian regime. This generation is moving towards openness and freedom, especially as it observes the positive social changes and transformations taking place in the Gulf region.

The foreign policy of Raisi's government also requires the balance of power between countries to be maintained. While the goals of Hassan Rouhani's government were based on turning towards the West and opening channels of communication with it, Raisi's government, which is in line with the hardliners' orientations, relies on other tributaries of the economy, including China, Russia and Iran's neighbouring countries. This is called "neighbourhood" diplomacy.

If the foregoing represents some of the internal determinants that have influenced Iran's current policy orientations, the regional component cannot be overlooked. Tehran's attempt to nullify the peace agreements between Israel and some Arab countries, which have failed, have prompted it to work on rapprochement with those countries so that it presents itself as a neighbour and does not represent any threat. This will also disrupt Israel's regional attempts to confront it through its alliance with the countries of the region. Moreover, Iran is working to disrupt any Israeli attempts to put pressure on Washington in order to put more pressure on it instead.

At the international level, we find that Iran is trying to reposition its policy to occupy a privileged position on what it considers a new international order based on multipolarity. Iran aims to strengthen its partnership with China and Russia, and to create a wider margin of manoeuvre for the West and to reduce attempts to isolate it internationally.

These are all factors that prompted Iran to move openly towards the Arab and Gulf countries and the countries of East and Central Asia. Africa is now witnessing visits that have been paid for by Raisi after less movement towards the continent during Rouhani's government.

Iranian foreign policy may reflect activity in the various circles of the movement, but it does not necessarily reflect a change in Iran's vision of its regional role and the role of its rival powers. Will it succeed in dealing pragmatically with these contradictions or not, and for how long will they continue?

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Saturday, 30 September 2023