In a recent interview, the eminent geo-strategist Ian Bremmer suggested that a “nuclear-armed Iran” is inevitable because, in an emerging “G-Zero World” where no single bloc of countries can dominate international affairs, the emerging powers can frustrate the West’s efforts to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
There are basically two underlying assumptions to his argument: first, that the rising powers have the will and the capacity to ameliorate Iran’s growing isolation; and second, that Iran is willing to push its nuclear frontiers at any cost.
What we are witnessing is a major shift in Iran’s international position.
However, recent years given lie to these assumptions. Not only are many emerging powers beginning to distance themselves from Iran, but also Tehran itself—facing the prospect of an economic meltdown—is beginning to re-examine its nuclear calculus.
Clearly, emerging powers are explicitly prioritizing their ties with the West at the expense of Tehran, while the moderates and pragmatists within the Iranian leadership are pushing for a diplomatic compromise to diffuse rising tensions.
Iran’s Post-American Foreign Policy
Prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the United States occupied a central position in Iran’s foreign policy. America was Iran’s most important external ally, as well as a key source of technology, investment, and trade. However, after the 1979 hostage crisis, everything changed.
Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has had to contend with tremendous economic pressure (beginning with America’s trade and investment embargoes) and constant external threats, culminating in Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980. So naturally, an isolated and vulnerable Iran had to rely on the Eastern powers such as China and Russia to enhance its national security and retain a semblance of a functioning international life.
After the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, a more pragmatic Tehran prioritized reconstruction and recovery under the leadership of President Hashemi Rafsanjani. As Iran pushed forward with a more moderate foreign policy, the 1990s underscored a period of Iranian rapprochement with the West, ushering in more than a decade of burgeoning economic and political relations.
Simultaneously, Iran stepped up its trade and investment relations with leading Asian economies, from China to South Korea and Japan, while enhancing its security partnership with Russia and normalizing relations with proximate Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. Soon after, East Asian states turned into Iran’s leading trading partners, alongside the European Union (EU) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Iran even flirted with the possibility of normalizing ties with Washington, although ultimately to no avail.
Tilt to the East
In early 2000s, Iranian-Western relations faced a new period of crisis. Despite Iran’s constructive role in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks—from assisting anti-Taliban operations in 2001 to acquiescing to the Iraq invasion in 2003—the discovery of purportedly “clandestine” enrichment facilities in Natanz and Arak alarmed Western powers.
Initially, the Iranians agreed to concrete confidence-building measures (for example, implementing an Additional Protocol (AP) and imposing a temporary enrichment freeze) to contain the brewing crisis, but the situation dramatically escalated when hard-liners took over the Iranian state in 2005.
The new leadership, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, upped the nuclear ante by pushing the boundaries of Iran’s enrichment capabilities, reversing prior agreements with the West and ignoring repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for greater transparency and cooperation from Iran. Gradually, Iran faced not only political isolation but also economic isolation as European companies withdrew from key economic sectors such as manufacturing and energy.
In response, the Iranians sought greater support from traditional allies such as Russia and China, while offering increased access to Asian companies to tap into Iran’s huge hydrocarbon reserves and burgeoning consumer market. Although Korea and Japan, close U.S. allies, intermittently tempered their immersion in the Iranian economy, other emerging powers—especially China, Brazil, Russia, India, Turkey, and South Africa—deepened their presence in the country’s telecommunications, energy, consumer, and infrastructure sectors.
Iran’s explicit alignment with rising powers accomplished two objectives. First, it allowed Tehran to dampen the impact of sanctions and its growing isolation within the Western order. And second, it increased the stake of emerging economies in the stability and growth of Iran, thus providing Tehran with more international support amid intensifying external pressure over its nuclear program.
Continued on the next page … the Brazilians and the Turks brokered a “nuclear swap” deal