Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei inherited his paranoia of foreign interference from his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini who coined his “Neither East Nor West” strategy which was paired up with another dominant theme of Khomeini’s, “Exporting the Revolution”: “Once again, I announce my support for all movements, fronts, and groups which are fighting in order to escape from the claws of the Eastern or Western superpowers“. Standing up to the “arrogant” superpowers and supporting the “oppressed” people/nations was always at the core of the Islamic Revolution and it remains so today as well under Khamenei’s goal of leading a “Global Islamic Awakening”, a “Century of Islam” and a “New Islamic Civilization”.
For decades, these twin strategies were upheld by Tehran but since the signing of the JCPoA, the hatred for the West and specially the US (the “Great Satan”) has even intensified but Tehran is definitely looking Eastward, specially towards Russia and China, as a means of increasing its power in the region. It also in began looking in other directions: first, South to Africa and Latin America where it’s scouting for likely candidates to “Export the Revolution” to and then to its immediate neighbors, mostly for economic reasons but as a means to gain more power in the region.
Although Khomeini would approve of Tehran’s focus to the South and to the neighborhood, he is probably rolling in his grave over the growing ties with Moscow and Beijing.
Definitely not West.
Following the signing of the JCPoA, Khamenei forbade dealing with the US but allowed President Hassan Rouhani to try to develop diplomatic ties and trade ties with countries in the EU. The initial response from most EU countries was positive and EU trade delegations landed one after the other in Tehran in an effort to capitalize on the huge potential of the Iranian market which was finally released from sanctions. The enthusiasm of the European delegates and governments was dampened by two unrelated issues: 1) The US’s removal of the nuclear sanctions did not clear Iran from other sanctions which are related to terrorism and human rights and 2) the issue of Iran’s horrific record in human rights and its recurring ties with terrorism resulted in a lot of internal objections. For now, European countries and businesses are waiting impatiently on the sidelines until both these issues are cleared and the US isn’t even on the sidelines.
South to Africa and Latin America
A lot of diplomatic effort is being invested to the South, to Africa and to Latin America. These countries hold a lot of economic potential but money is not the main goal here. All the nations in Africa and Latin America are part of the Non-Aligned-Movement (NAM) and most fit Khomeini’s description of being oppressed, at least in the past, by the “arrogant” West – this makes them good targets for “Exporting the Revolution”. Furthermore, at least in Latin America, many nations hold deeply anti-American sentiment which makes them even better candidates to “Export the Revolution” to.
On his African tour, Tehran’s FM Javad Zarif, “offered” each country he visited, to share in Tehran’s experience at “fighting terrorism”. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, this offer sounded hollow since the government of Nigeria cracked down on the subversive efforts of a local Shiite Sheikh Zakzaky who was openly backed by Tehran. Furthermore, Tehran is the current president of NAM (a post which changes every three years) and has used its position to try to mobilize NAM countries to support its agenda.
On Latin America, Zarif made a point of kicking of his tour in Cuba and including in his tour countries with strong anti-American countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. In his visit in Cuba, he made a point of emphasizing the fact that both Iran and Cuba were under American sanctions. Note how this statement echoes Khomeini’s quote at the beginning of the article: “The resistance of the Iranian and Cuban nations has left the hegemonic countries no other choice but compromise and renunciation of their hostile policies even in their words“. Zarif’s LatAm tour is particularly worrisome for many countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay who are suffering from fears of Hezbollah’s growing influence in the region, mixing anti-American sentiment with terrorism and Shiite Islam.
Close by to Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors
Tehran’s involvement in Muslim neighbors such as Syria and Iraq has been in full force for the past few years but following the signing of the JCPoA, Tehran not only extended its overtures to other Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Talks of increased trade were mixed with calls for the unification of Muslim countries in tune with Khamenei’s vision. These potential partners are crucial not only as trading partners but also as a buffer to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to unify all Arab countries against Iran.
But Tehran didn’t stop with Muslim countries – it also began wooing its non-Muslim neighbors. High level meetings between Iran and India, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and others led to many trade agreements and the easing of diplomatic restrictions such as visa requirements. Azerbaijan committed to creating a free-trade zone on the border of Iran while Georgia decided to drop visa restrictions.
All in all, Tehran’s new-found interest in neighbors which had little or no contact with Iran in the past is not strengthening Iran’s power in the region economically and politically. None of these countries have any real powers to “infiltrate” and they might not be likely candidates to “Export the Revolution” to and Khomeini would probably have approved.
East towards Moscow and Beijing
By far the biggest development since signing the JCPoA is the rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow and Beijing. These two local superpowers quickly understood the ramifications of the signing of the JCPoA which brought Iran out of its isolation and Tehran’s continued hatred of the West. For Moscow and Beijing, strengthening ties with Tehran served two immediate purposes: cashing in on the economic potential of Iran’s market as well as weakening the US’s influence in the region and the perception of the US’s influence in the world.
Moscow was the first to jump at the opportunity to fill the vacuum by openly supporting Tehran politically, economically and militarily. Even the issues of the remaining sanctions and the problems of dealing in dollars were easily circumvented as Tehran and Moscow agreed to deal through barters or through local currencies. At the same time, Moscow began supplying Tehran with missiles and joined the Syrian civil war siding with Tehran and Assad. The latest developments in which Russian jets launched air-raids on Syria from Iranian territory exemplifies the nature of the growing partnership.
Beijing was slightly more cautious but quickly understood that if it did not want to leave Moscow in the field alone – there was too much money to be made and weakening the US was an added bonus. Huge deals were signed and Tehran and Beijing are now talking about purchasing Chinese jets.
And suddenly, Tehran became a catalyzer to create a new coalition in the region with Tehran, Moscow and Beijing at its core and other countries in the region as second circle partners. The growing relationships with Moscow and Beijing are still fragile but as long as the money keeps on rolling and the US remains at bay, it will definitely grow and with it one can expect a growing Russian and Chinese influence on the regime and on the lives of Iranians and Khomeini’s “neither East nor West” lost half of its meaning.