Amid ongoing tensions with the West and a string of crises at home, Iran has been working hard to escape its international isolation. With the 2015 nuclear deal still a zombie accord, President Ebrahim Raisi's government is trying to counter the impact of crippling Western sanctions by expanding its ties within the region and beyond, through what it calls its "Look East" and "Neighbors-First" foreign policy doctrines.
In addition to Iran's agreement with Saudi Arabia in March to restore diplomatic ties, Tehran has improved relations with other Arab states—Egypt, Kuwait, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates—along with Central Asian republics and Pakistan, which together have made Iran appear much less isolated in the Middle East and wider Islamic world. Raisi's recent Latin American and African tours, as well as his trip to Indonesia, factor into Iran's agenda of strengthening its ties with other Global South countries against the backdrop of Tehran's growing partnerships with China and Russia. Then, in July, Iran obtained full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Chinese- and Russian-led bloc.
To seemingly cap it all off, in late August, Iran was among six countries invited to join BRICS—the grouping of emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. In the wider region, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also received invitations to join BRICS as early as Jan. 1, 2024. Politically, the symbolism of BRICS membership is huge in the context of Tehran's tensions with the West, especially Washington.
Iran's entry into BRICS will probably do nothing to help the government deal with its crisis of legitimacy at home.
- Giorgio Cafiero
Iran joining the BRICS bloc "can send a strong signal that despite years of pressure and sanctions, which have only intensified recently, especially since last year, Iran is not isolated on the international stage," Hamidreza Azizi, an Iran expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told Democracy in Exile.
"[Iran] has partners who at least accept it as a party for dialogue and coordination, and also it is increasingly integrated into the emerging global structures," Azizi added. "That's how it's presented by Iranian officials—that the world is not only about the United States, and especially in this time of transitioning in global politics," that the Iranians "have room to maneuver."
Iran's growing alignment with China and Russia reflects an internal debate that has been ongoing for years between the so-called "pragmatists" and "hard-liners" in Tehran. This debate, in foreign policy terms, is about the Islamic Republic's position vis-à-vis the East and West. The "pragmatists" did not at all oppose strengthening Iran's relationships with Beijing and Moscow, but they have also advocated building bridges with the West. Such figures in Iran's political system, including former President Hassan Rouhani, were staunch proponents of the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The "hard-liners" see the West as fundamentally untrustworthy and believe that Iran should invest its resources and energy into relationships with Beijing and Moscow, in order to ultimately strengthen an anti-hegemonic axis that accelerates the world's transition toward multipolarity.
Due to a host of factors—chiefly the Trump administration sabotaging the JCPOA in 2018, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' tightening grip on the Iranian state and economy, as well the election of Raisi in 2021—Iran's foreign policy decision-making has very much been shaped by the hard-liners.
"Iran's new membership in BRICS and organizations in Eurasia is part of a years-long push by hard-liners in Tehran to expand diplomatic engagements with neighbors and 'like-minded' countries in the broader region," said Mehran Haghirian, the director of regional initiatives at the London-based Bourse & Bazaar Foundation. That comes hand-in-hand with "minimizing contact with the Europeans and staunchly opposing any engagement with Washington."
Yet beyond the symbolism, it seems unlikely that Iran will benefit from BRICS membership in any tangible ways in the short term. That could change years or perhaps even decades down the line, depending on the extent to which BRICS can further institutionalize itself and transform its ideas into something more concrete.
"Even though these diplomatic agreements and partnerships will somewhat strengthen Iran's political role in global affairs, particularly in its rivalry and conflict with the United States, it will have minimum positive impact on the country's economy," Haghirian said. "U.S. sanctions on Iran, coupled with the once-again growing list of European sanctions, will continue to inhibit any meaningful economic relationship between Iran and its 'new' partners."
Iran's entry into BRICS will probably do nothing to help the government deal with its crisis of legitimacy at home. The internal opposition to the Islamic Republic is largely about a raft of domestic issues: economic mismanagement, corruption, undemocratic governance, human rights abuses, repression and the lack of tolerance for dissent. Iranians who stand against their government and demand fundamental changes will not start to view the Islamic Republic as more legitimate just because Iran is joining BRICS.
Beyond the symbolism, it seems unlikely that Iran will benefit from BRICS membership in any tangible ways in the short term.
- Giorgio Cafiero
"The linkages between domestic politics on the one hand, and on the other hand, membership in the BRICS, and also in the SCO for that matter, are extremely difficult if not impossible to discern," said Mehran Kamrava, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Qatar.
"Securing membership to BRICS will not help the Iranian government weather the legitimacy crisis it's grappling with at home," argued Kourosh Ziabari, an award-winning journalist from Iran. "Indeed, after its admission was announced, Iranian social media users unleashed a barrage of derogatory, sarcastic comments on the Twitter timelines of government officials, mocking them for being unable to contain the spiraling prices of meat, bread, and dairy products, while pursuing ambitious foreign policy agendas like joining BRICS."
"People continue to be skeptical of the government's grandstanding overseas and frustrated at its increasing authoritarian attitudes, including unrelenting pressure on journalists, civil society and particularly women, who seem to be an easy target for the Raisi administration hell-bent on codifying layers upon layers of restrictions on their personal freedoms," Ziabari said. "Unless the government comes to a modus vivendi with its constituents to protect their human rights and disown repressive measures, political or foreign policy accomplishments of this nature will not impress a jaded populace."
Iran joining the BRICS bloc even has the potential to further deepen divisions within Iranian society, leading to more polarization. "Those who are already supportive of the state and who have internalized its ideological basis of legitimacy are likely to interpret this as yet another signal of the strength, legitimacy and righteousness of the Islamic Republic," said Kamrava. "But those with grievances against the state and outside of its economic and political mobilizational orbit will not be particularly impressed, instead seeing it as another manifestation of the Islamic Republic's misguided policies."