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Iran: Part of an ‘Axis’ or a Middle Power in (Eur)Asia

  • Geopolitics
  • 15 d ago
  • 5 min read
Iran: Part of an ‘Axis’ or a Middle Power in (Eur)Asia | Dr. Deepika Saraswat - Associate Fellow,  MP-IDSA

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi. (Handout via AFP)

Deepika Saraswat
Deepika Saraswat - Associate Fellow, MP-IDSA

The power of such ‘geopolitical scripts’ lies in how they can present messy realities of international politics in an apparently common sensical, matter-of-fact way that is accessible to common publics. Instead, what is required is a nuanced understanding of how Iran as a second-tier power is seeking to play the role of a middle power in shaping the emerging geopolitical order in (Eur)Asia, roughly the geographical extent of the members and observer states of the SCO.

Geopolitical Scripts

Over the last six months since Hamas’ incursion into southern Israel resulted in the Israeli invasion of Gaza, there has been a renewed focus on the Iranian led ‘Axis of Resistance’ – including Hamas, Hezbollah, Houthis, Syria and several Iraqi Shi’i groups – challenging the Israeli and US interests in the region. Iran’s allies have militarily engaged Israel on different fronts, while Tehran has led an intensive diplomatic campaign condemning the humanitarian fallout of the Israeli campaign and seeking a ceasefire. The tit-for-tat missile strikes by Iran and the US in Iraq and Syria in recent months once again underscored the continued risks of direct conflict between Iran and the US. Further, new reports emerged last month claiming that Iran has not only supplied drones to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine, but also transferred several hundred surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. Amidst these developments, the role China played in restoring Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia last year and Iran’s admission into key multilateral groupings such as the SCO, BRICS alongside both Russia and China have given rise to intensive debates whether there is an emerging China-Russia-Iran axis marked by mutual aid and hostility towards the West.

The power of such ‘geopolitical scripts’ lies in how they can present messy realities of international politics in an apparently common sensical, matter-of-fact way that is accessible to common publics.

In a context, where India’s ties with Iran, despite its vaunted role as ‘gateway’ to Afghanistan and wider Eurasia, have remained stymied because of ‘the US factor’ and given New Delhi’s wariness of China’s geopolitical footprint in continental Asia, the China-Russia-Iran axis (plus Pakistan for some) risks finding an easy purchase among the strategic community.

Instead, what is required is a nuanced understanding of how Iran as a second-tier power is seeking to play the role of a middle power in shaping the emerging geopolitical order in (Eur)Asia, roughly the geographical extent of the members and observer states of the SCO.

Iran after the fall of Kabul

In August 2021, as the US withdrew forces from Afghanistan and Taliban ascended to power, in Iran conservative Ebrahim Raisi was elected as the new president. In a departure from his moderate predecessor Rouhani, when the most important task of the Foreign Ministry led by Javad Zarif was to negotiate with the Western powers on the nuclear agreement, Raisi announced an ‘Asia oriented’ foreign policy. President Raisi’s first foreign visit was to attend the SCO Summit in neighbouring Tajikistan, where Iran was approved to be admitted as the ninth full member of the organisation. Raisi’s address at the Dushanbe summit outlined the role Iran will seek to play in post-American (Eur)Asia. He argued that in the face of international and regional challenges, Iran will actively participate in regional multilateralism, while preventing the meddling of external powers from the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf. Middle powers advocate multilateralism to craft a role for themselves in the key issues of their interests and to level the playing field vis-à-vis major powers.

On Afghanistan, Iran considers the Foreign Ministers of the Neighbouring Countries of Afghanistan as the key forum for engaging Taliban on regional security issues of terrorism, drug-trafficking, humanitarian situation and the issue of forming an inclusive government in the country. At the same time, Tehran, since 2018 has used regional multilateralism to engage India, Russia and Central Asian States in the NSA Dialogue on Afghanistan, much to the consternation of Pakistan and China. Similarly, in South Caucasus, Iran favoured the so-called 3+3 format including Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, plus Russia, Turkey and Iran on matters of peacekeeping and regional connectivity with the aim of limiting the role of Turkey and the OSCE Minsk Group.

At a time when Russia and China have largely welcomed the so-called Zangezur corridor across Armenia as a direct overland east-west corridor to Turkey and Europe, Iran together with Armenia has actively engaged India in a trilateral format and increasingly within the framework of Persian Gulf- Black Sea transit and transport corridor.

Analysts see the new corridor as a tool of ‘soft balancing’ the growing cooperation between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan, and secure Armenian territorial integrity. 

East-West Bridge

Second, Iran is projecting itself as the ‘bridge’ linking the key infrastructure connectivity projects in the region. While Iran is the crucial land bridge in the North-South Transport Corridor connecting Russia with the Indian Ocean, it is also a founding signatory of the Ashgabat Agreement for connectivity between Central Asia and Persian Gulf. Notably, in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war and Western sanctions impacting Russia’s role in transit to Europe and Iran’s membership of the SCO, Central Asian States have been more willing to engage Iran to diversify east-west transit routes to Europe. For instance, Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway, operational since 2014 as north-south railway is now being used by Central Asian States to reach Europe via Turkey. Also, Uzbekistan is undergoing an economic liberalisation drive, giving a new fillip to connectivity within and via Central Asia. In June 2023, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev became the first Uzbek leader to visit Iran in 20 years. The visit ended the period of stagnation in bilateral ties and focussed on strengthening cooperation in trade, transit but also science, technology and tourism.

Iran is interested in linking the Iranian-built Khaf-Herat railway line with Uzbek-built Hairatan-Mazar-e-Sharif railway line as a much more feasible option than the proposed Trans-Afghanistan railway going to Pakistan’s Karachi port. Further, as Beijing is seriously considering the long-mooted China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad, Iran would like to enhance its own transit role in a southern branch of east-west rail corridor to Europe. Iran is therefore emphasising its geographical centrality and role of a civilisational cross-road in the historic ‘Silk-Roads’ to simultaneously participate in various trans-continental connectivity projects.

Apart from maximising its transit role, Iran by projecting itself as the bridge between the INSTC and the BRI is seeking to make itself relevant to the three major Eurasian actors Russia, China and India, while also fostering a unified (Eur)Asian geoeconomic space that is balanced rather than hegemonically centred on China. Iran’s cautious view of growing Chinese influence in Central Asia’s energy markets and development of transport linkages is because of how it has negatively impacted Iran’s bargaining position in the region.

Notably, Iran was among the first countries to engage with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, signing an interim agreement in 2018. Also, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, BRI’s flagship project, is in direct competition with Chabahar, Iran’s only deep-sea port where it has a long-standing cooperation with India.

Civilisational State

Third and most important is Iran’s self-image of a civilisational (Islamic-Iranian) actor which translates into a vision of geopolitical pluralism in (Eur)Asia. Iran routinely uses the civilisational framework in bilateral contexts with China and India to emphasise the equality of status as successors to historical civilisations on the Asian continent. At the 2023 SCO summit, Raisi described the SCO as a “great family of civilisations” drawing on the historical dialectic of interactive relations between different civilisations and cultures in support of a contemporary vision of horizontal regional cooperation as opposed to a hierarchical vision that may be harboured by Beijing.

The crucial point is that during the ongoing transitional phase in international and regional politics, while Iran continues to counter US influence in West Asia, in (Eur)Asia, it is behaving like a middle power utilising multilateral diplomacy, its geographical centrality and sources of ideational power to shape not only a post-Western but also a post-hegemonic geopolitical order.


     

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