Iran’s New Asia-Focused Foreign Policy Is a Fantasy

The country lacks both the wherewithal and resources to recalibrate its standing in Asia.

By , a journalist and Asia Times correspondent.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian attends a news conference in Tehran on Oct. 27.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian attends a news conference in Tehran on Oct. 27.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian attends a news conference in Tehran on Oct. 27. Meghdad Madadi/ATPImages/Getty Images

Since taking office, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and other top officials in President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration have repeatedly floated their new “balanced foreign policy” approach that prioritizes developing closer ties with neighbors and bolstering alliances with Asian countries.

Shortly after his confirmation as the nation’s top diplomat in August, for instance, Amir-Abdollahian wrote on his Instagram page that he would pursue “a balanced, active, dynamic, and smart foreign policy based on mutual respect, prioritization of relations with neighbors and Asia, development of balanced relations with all regions of the world, and the strengthening of the role of economic diplomacy and international trade.”

These are certainly pragmatic goals in charting a novel foreign policy vision, particularly if they lead Iran to play a more constructive role in the neighborhood and rein in its extraterritorial adventures.

Since taking office, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and other top officials in President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration have repeatedly floated their new “balanced foreign policy” approach that prioritizes developing closer ties with neighbors and bolstering alliances with Asian countries.

Shortly after his confirmation as the nation’s top diplomat in August, for instance, Amir-Abdollahian wrote on his Instagram page that he would pursue “a balanced, active, dynamic, and smart foreign policy based on mutual respect, prioritization of relations with neighbors and Asia, development of balanced relations with all regions of the world, and the strengthening of the role of economic diplomacy and international trade.”

These are certainly pragmatic goals in charting a novel foreign policy vision, particularly if they lead Iran to play a more constructive role in the neighborhood and rein in its extraterritorial adventures.

But the stumbling block to the fulfillment of these objectives is that Iran doesn’t actually have any concrete plan of action, nor does it currently have the wherewithal or resources to reanimate diplomacy with its neighbors and recalibrate its standing in Asia as a historically indispensable player and the inheritor of one of the continent’s oldest civilizations.

A handy indicator of Iran’s alienation from Asia, despite being part of its historical and geopolitical fabric for at least 5,000 years, is that it doesn’t maintain any diplomatic or official representation in the form of embassies, consulates, or trade offices in a number of large and smaller Asian countries; and those nations similarly have no representation in Iran.

Notwithstanding varying levels of trade, there are no Iranian embassies in Bhutan, Cambodia, East Timor, Laos, Maldives, Macao, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal and Singapore, and no counterparty representatives in Tehran, either (though Mongolia and Nepal have honorary consulates in Tehran). Making a bad situation worse, since 2016, Iran hasn’t had embassies in two major neighboring countries, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

The Islamic Republic depends on nonresident missions to facilitate relations with some of these countries, such as a nonresident embassy to Nepal stationed in New Delhi, or a Hanoi-based nonresident mission to Laos. But these sketchy liaisons haven’t staved off a litany of consular and business-related challenges Iranian citizens and their peers in these nations have experienced—for instance, when the latter wish to travel to Iran.

But while a lack of embassies doesn’t necessarily equal the complete absence of diplomatic ties, it does speak volumes about the size of Iran’s diplomatic network, its priorities, and its will to put its money where its mouth is. When countries don’t work with each other through embassies, commerce offices, and other formal representatives, the connotation is that there are serious missing links in their relations, if not outright divisions.

Indeed, even in the past, Iranian attempts to “pivot to Asia” usually translated into beefing up trade, security, and political engagement with China, not diversified cooperation with Asia as a broader geographical construct.

The Iranian leadership believes it has enormous interest in cementing its relationship with China, both as an anchor of the state’s security and as an economic lifeline in times of crisis. China is virtually the only nation that purchases Iran’s oil, albeit through workarounds to steer clear of U.S. sanctions. Though China suppressed its crude shipments when then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran started, it is now importing on average 500,000 barrels per day from Iran.

Against this backdrop, some more cynical foreign policy experts have described China’s treatment of Iran as de facto colonization. The Asian powerhouse gets discounted Iranian oil, at least $6 cheaper than the Middle East benchmark, yet it doesn’t pay in cash, because even Chinese banks aren’t willing to embrace the high risks of getting involved with Iranian financial institutions under sanction.

Instead, a barter arrangement has been set up: In return for the cut-rate oil, China floods Iran’s commodity market with cheap, low-quality products to preempt the collapse of the sanctions-stricken economy. Home appliances, electronic gadgets, cosmetics, children’s toys, shoes and garments, stationery supplies, and foodstuffs are some of the staples Iran is importing from China in droves in the absence of viable alternatives, and customers reluctantly acquiesce to paying for them.

That China is privileged to obtain Iran’s premium crude with significant markdowns and reciprocates by dishing out its substandard products to the Iranian market has fueled acute anti-Chinese sentiment among Iran’s middle class. Iranians have also been complaining about frequent power outages caused by the operation of several Chinese bitcoin farms across the country, which use subsidized electricity tendered by the Iranian government.

Yet even such generous concessions haven’t persuaded China to include Iran in its sphere of strategic allies. In 2020, the value of China’s individual trade deals with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Israel each surpassed China’s business with Iran. The Islamic republic, with a combined trade volume of $14.9 billion, was China’s 43rd-largest trading partner in terms of export sales.

Meanwhile, Iran has stripped itself of almost every other viable choice of commercial partners and political allies. Among the 27 European Union member states, Iran has no friend with which it has been able to forge a long-term alliance. In North America, a shadow of estrangement has long fallen upon relations with the dominant powers Canada and the United States, and with several others diplomatic relations don’t exist at all. In Latin America, other than a few typical confidantes, Iran hasn’t achieved much in creating new, sustainable links. The vaunted idea of close ties with Africa has not transcended the boundaries of wishful thinking, and in the Asia-Pacific, successful integration continues to be a bumpy road.

India silently pivoted away from Iran in the wake of the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, and the reinstatement of sanctions halted almost all Indian oil imports from Iran, despite the two countries traditionally being faithful partners.

India forewent its huge interest in the expansion of Iran’s Chabahar Port off the coast of the Gulf of Oman, a project to which it had dedicated an investment worth $500 million. The development of the strategic port would have facilitated India’s connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia, enabling it to bypass bitter rival Pakistan. But U.S. sanctions were so insurmountable that India found compliance and over-compliance more advantageous than continuing to work with Iran. The country also dragged its feet on completing its plans to develop the profitable Farzad-B gas field, despite a $400 million investment it made to kick off the project, and was finally replaced by an Iranian contractor.

With South Korea, Iran is embroiled in a corrosive kerfuffle over the approximately $7 billion in frozen Iranian assets Seoul has declined to repatriate, citing U.S. sanctions. The leaders of the two countries have been openly trading barbs for several years now, and a relationship that has historically been amicable is degenerating into antipathy.

Things are not better with the other Asian giant, Japan. In 2017, during the heyday following the implementation of the JCPOA, bilateral trade amounted to over $4 billion. In 2019, a year after the deal was nixed by Trump, trade plummeted to just over $1 billion and continues to shrink.

When it comes to rebuilding ties with neighbors, Iran is similarly hampered by a plethora of geopolitical, ideological, and security disputes. The Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war is now deemed a perfect example of a classic regional rivalry. With the United Arab Emirates, a mélange of economic collaboration and political friction has spawned a rollercoaster ride in relations. As to the complex history of Iran and Bahrain, neither government sees any point in observing the principles of good neighborliness, and tensions are soaring. In the north, a lengthy honeymoon following Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991 has been supplanted by vehement feuding, with media in both countries demonizing the other.

Kuwait and Iraq are arguably the only Arab neighbors Iran has not completely alienated, but even they have occasionally insinuated that their patience is wearing thin with Iran’s regional escapades.

If Iran is determined to initiate a new era of Asian alliances, it cannot rely solely on China. Rather, it must allocate real resources and develop a realistic roadmap for cooperation with all Asian countries proportionate to their capacities. However, such cooperation will be heavily contingent on the negotiated settlement of the nuclear dilemma and the removal of sanctions that have incapacitated the Iranian economy—because evidently, even countries in Iran’s proximity will not do business with it unless the United States terminates its wide-ranging, indiscriminate sanctions regime, which penalizes any sort of financial and trade transaction involving Iran except for what happens in the black market. In terms of ties with neighbors, Iran is in dire straits, and inviting Qatar’s foreign minister to Tehran every month for consultations cannot be construed as reliable, robust regional coaction.

Unless Iran gives priority to pragmatism and decides it wants to be a constituent of the international community and cash in on the dividends, including sound trade and political links, of being a responsible player, the maxims of “neighbors first” and Asian integration will remain nothing but pipe dreams.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist and Asia Times correspondent and a former Chevening scholarship recipient. He is an alumnus of the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship by the East-West Center, a 2021 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow, and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. He was a finalist for two Kurt Schork Awards in international journalism in 2020 and 2021, and his writings have appeared on the National InterestopenDemocracyResponsible StatecraftMiddle East Eye, and the New Arab. Twitter: @KZiabari

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