Event Summary: What strategy has Iran adopted in response to the changes in US-China relations?
A brief summary of the seminar by Dr. Sara Bazoobandi (German Institute for Global and Area Studies) for our “China and the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present” webinar series.
On November 9, Dr. Sara Bazoobandi (German Institute for Global and Area Studies), together with Professor Enrico Fardella, held an online seminar on Iran’s strategy in the context of growing US-China competition. This was the fifth installment of the “China and the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present” webinar series, organized by ChinaMed Project in collaboration with the University of Naples “L’Orientale” and Durham University's al-Sabah Programme.
We are delighted to provide a summary of this insightful seminar:
Multipolarity’s Impact on Regional Policymaking
After providing an overview of the debate on if the international system is multipolar or not and on the role of “middle powers”, Dr. Bazoobandi delved into the current situation in the Middle East. While acknowledging the region’s diversity, she noted the existence of a widespread feeling of political and socio-economic uncertainty. This unease is further exacerbated by the environmental ramifications of climate change, the risk of nuclear proliferation, ongoing conflicts, the constant wrestling among the great powers, and the pervasive influence of propaganda, misinformation and “bad media”.
According to Bazoobandi, in this dynamic milieu, both external and regional powers are intent on advancing their political and strategic interests. MENA states, in particular, are actively reassessing their strategies and devising new policies. These include diversifying their strategic, economic, and diplomatic partnerships; reducing their reliance on external actors when taking strategic decisions; and attempting to maximize their benefits by playing great powers off one another.
State of Affairs in Iran: Looking East and Re-revolutionizing
As outlined by Bazoobandi, Iran, driven by its strong ideological fervor and geopolitical ambitions, has actively adjusted its policies in light of this new multipolar context. Departing from its previous stance of "Neither East nor West," policymakers in Tehran have adopted a “Look East” policy, aimed at cultivating robust partnerships with China and Russia.
Concerning China, Iranian policymakers are primarily interested in economic cooperation and sanction circumvention, with the hope to expand this partnership to technology and military cooperation in the future. For Bazoobandi, Tehran is quite confident in its alignment with Beijing as despite oil exports to China breaching the sanction regime in broad daylight, Washington has been unable to do anything about it.
In its collaboration with Russia, Iran emphasizes military cooperation and arms transfers, seeking to gain visibility and relevance in the global strategic calculus. Besides Moscow being unable to offer anything economically (even before recent sanctions), this approach is also rooted in the strategic understanding the two states have forged, especially at senior levels, through their concurrent involvements in the Syrian and Ukrainian wars.
Another distinctive element of Iranian strategic thinking is that of “re-revolutionizing” Iran. Bazoobandi developed this concept through her analysis of resistance in Iran, noticing the resurgence of the word “jihad” in Iranian policy documents and speeches. This is notable, as Tehran for a time eschewed this term in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Currently, the regime is reintroducing revolutionary concepts with religious connotations like “jihad,” “martyrdom” and “victory through fear”; reinforcing traditional gender roles for women (Iran’s female labor force participation rate is the lowest in the Middle East); and encouraging a new generation of loyal political elite, commonly known as “young jihadi managers.”
Multipolarity’s Impact on Iran’s Geopolitical Vision
For Bazoobandi, multipolarity is at the basis of the geopolitical vision being formulated in Iran. Alongside re-revolutionization, the conviction that the US is in decline, the global structure is in flux and that middle powers have to actively carve out their position is steering Iranian policymaking. This vision is echoed by key figures in Iranian leadership, including the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the former head of the Office of the Supreme Leader, and Supreme leader Khamenei himself.
As an example, Bazoobandi delved into an academic article by a scholar from Imam Hossein University, an institution affiliated with the IRGC, whose alumni now populate President Raisi's cabinet. This well-tailored scholarly work, grounded in ideological and religious reasoning and citing Western commentators, scholars, and policymakers, posits that the US is destined for military, economic, and social decline and that Iran should align with “the right side of the story” to contribute to this transformative shift.
Bazoobandi further examined Iran's worldview, according to which the intensification of the US-China rivalry heralds the imminent end of unipolarity and that alignment with China and Russia can help bring about this change. In addition, for Tehran, the defeat of the “Zionist regime” and the decline of the US will allegedly bring peace and security to the world.
Iran’s Foreign Policy
In this context, Bazoobandi identified three main foreign policy strategies being pursued by Iran. The first is deepening ties with China. Despite the potential benefits of normalizing relations with the US and European states to address the economic challenges arising from US sanctions, unstable GDP growth, and high rates of inflation and unemployment, Iran has chosen to prioritize its partnership with China. This alignment is grounded in the vision of US decline and multipolarity, even though Beijing may not fulfill all of Tehran's desires.
The second is revising foreign policy in the Gulf region. This shift became evident during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Riyadh for the China-GCC summit in December 2022. Iranian state media focused on Xi's remarks on strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia, omitting the summit’s final statement, which questioned Iranian sovereignty over three islands in the Gulf. Another example of this shift can be noted after the normalization of ties with Riyadh, when Iranian state media wiped photos of the Saudi embassy in Tehran being torched by protestors, to instead begin celebrating positive developments in Saudi-Iranian relations, like how an Iranian diplomat participated in a traditional Saudi sword dance during Saudi national day celebrations in Tehran.
The third policy is projecting power through military cooperation with Russia in its war in Ukraine. Bazoobandi noted that Iran has allocated substantial resources to enhance its defense capabilities, despite the country’s ongoing social and economic issues. These investments include acquiring technology through spying and fostering home-grown expertise. The Russian invasion of Ukraine serves as an occasion for showcasing these investments on the international stage, highlighting Iran's position as a relevant middle power. Bazoobandi posited that after Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, Tehran is likely to extend its efforts to project power in the region directly through its Middle Eastern proxies.