2023: The Year Iran Would Lean on Russia Even More

The most important lesson of 2022 for all those who are interested in international politics was that nothing is impossible and no prediction even by the most famous of analysts can be taken for granted. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky’s resistance, and the Russian pushback were only part of the unpredictability of last year. The year 2023 will be one of the unpredictable developments too, especially when it comes to Iran for which 2022 was a turning point in both domestic and foreign policy.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine breathed new life into the spirit of Iran’s Look to the East policy and made Tehran determined to stand by Moscow even more. On the first day of the invasion, Ebrahim Raisi in his phone call with his Russian counterpart called the invasion a legitimate Russian response to security concerns over actions by the United States and NATO. Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, in a high-level meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran on July 19 described Russia’s initiative as a defensive act. “Had [Russia] not taken the initiative, the other side would have taken the initiative and caused the war,” Khamenei said.

Infrastructure Cooperation

There have been already two phone calls between the presidents of Russia and Iran in 2023, reflecting that Iran intends to lean more toward Russia in 2023. Raisi and Putin discussed cooperation between the two countries in the fields of energy, transportation, and logistics and exchanged views on the situation in Syria. In recent years, Iran has sought to complete the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) in the hope of actualizing its geo-economic potential, joining the booming international transit market, and finally consolidating its position as a major power in the region by improving its geopolitical position.

According to Iranian officials, the Russian government is interested in participating in the completion of the Rasht-Astara railway in 2023 by providing financial assistance. The North-South Corridor is a 7,200-kilometer route with several hubs that facilitates the movement of goods between India, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Only a 164-kilometer stretch between Astara and Rasht in northern Iran remains incomplete. Last month, Bloomberg announced the investment of $20 billion by the two countries to create an intercontinental trade route. It seems that the purpose of this investment is to create a supply chain resistant to sanctions. After the attack on Ukraine, Russia was subjected to extensive sanctions by the United States and Europe, and Iran embraced the joining of a great power to the club of sanctioned countries and interpreted it as an opportunity.

Another development that shows Iran will have a more pro-Russian foreign policy in 2023 was the approval of taking delivery of 24 advanced Su-35 fighter jets by Iran in two months. Shahriar Heidary, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, confirmed the jets would be delivered to Iran by March. He also added that Iran has ordered a series of other military equipment from Russia, including air defense systems, missile systems, and helicopters. Having these fighters can be a huge game changer not just for Iran, which has now gained the opportunity to upgrade its aging fleet, but for the whole Middle East because no other country in the region except Israel has fifth-generation fighters. As such, this would give Iran an advantage in the field of air defense, increase its deterrence power undeniably, and change regional equations. This turnabout comes three years after the U.S. killed Qasem Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional power; with the deterioration of Iran’s economic situation, Iran’s regional power has been questioned.

A Deal in Limbo?

The fate of the nuclear agreement in 2023 is not separate from Iran’s east-oriented approach. Negotiations were frozen in September 2022, while the two sides talked about resolving major differences and getting closer to an agreement. Recently, officials close to the Raisi administration have announced on different occasions that they are ready to close the deal. It seems that with the deterioration of the economic situation in Iran and the expansion of social protests all over the country, the administration feels the need to lighten the burden of sanctions.

However, while conservatives have consolidated their position in Iran’s political system, reaching a consensus among them regarding the deal is not a viable option as it seems. Saeed Jalili a member of the Expediency Council and Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), has recently said that the JCPOA negotiations will not yield much results. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the revival of the JCPOA is not now on the table as Iran refused the opportunity to come back to the agreement months ago.

Recently, the European Parliament has called for the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group. This action can increase tensions between Iran and Europe and push the parties further away from the agreement. Contrary to the claims of the European Parliament, labeling the IRGC as a terrorist group, rather than being related to the violation of human rights and the recent social protests in Iran following the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish girl Mahsa Amini after being arrested by the morality police, can be related to Iran’s support for Russia and the supply of drones to it during recent months. If this request is approved by the European Council, it will be used as a tool to limit Iran’s support from Russia and as leverage in the probable nuclear negotiations. Considering all recent developments, the revival of the JCPOA at least in the first half of 2023 is unlikely.

Not Overlooking Beijing

Iran’s Look to the East policy will not be only focused on Russia in the current year. In the last days of 2022, China opened its consulate in the strategic city of Bandar Abbas. At the opening ceremony of the consulate, Chang Hua, the Chinese ambassador to Iran, declared that China regards its relations with Iran from a strategic point and would not back off from the resolve to promote a comprehensive strategic partnership with Tehran.

The joint statement of China and the member-states of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, which was published at the end of the Riyadh meeting, raised various discussions claiming that Beijing is changing its long-lasting policy of distancing itself from strategic rivalries in the Persian Gulf and its growing ties with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are coming at Iran’s expense. The statement has asked both Iran and UAE to negotiate and reach a peaceful solution regarding their dispute over the ownership of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa islands. Tehran maintains that its sovereign claim over the three islands is non-negotiable.

While it cannot be denied that China’s economic ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia are far deeper than its ties with Tehran, this does not necessarily mean China is taking sides. The Doha declaration of the seventh Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, which was released in May 2016, also contained the same articles. China is still the main importer of Iran’s crude oil. According to Reuters, Iran’s oil exports hit a record in the last two months of 2022 and showed a strong start in 2023. Iran pursues multiple goals from the 25-year agreement such as guaranteeing crude oil exports to China in the long term, attracting China’s investment in the reconstruction of the energy sector, and connecting Iran to the international transit network. But Iran also knows very well that it cannot attract Chinese FDI as long as the sanctions are in place. However, merely guaranteeing the purchase of Iran’s oil can give Iran the lifeline it needs in the current situation.

2022  was a difficult year for Iran. In the last two months of the year, widespread internal protests questioned the legitimacy of the political system like never before. The Iranian diaspora in Europe, the United States, and, Canada organized massive demonstrations, condemning human rights violations in Iran. Nuclear deal negotiations have stopped, foreign pressure on Iran has increased, and Iran and Russia have become closer than ever. Although the future cannot be predicted, it can be said that taking all of this into consideration, 2023 will be a challenging year for Iran’s foreign policy.