The government of President Ahmadinejad in the early days of coming to power demonstrated its inclination towards a new direction in foreign policy which was dubbed as “look to the East policy”. Although “look to the East policy” as a specific approach in Iran’s foreign policy dates back to several decades ago, its applied content can take on an original meaning based on the way in which it is defined. Changing International Environment Substantial international developments after the end of the Cold War and collapse of the bipolar system in the world led various countries to redefine their foreign policies. This was of more importance for great and middle powers with global and regional interests. Therefore, it was not accidental that immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the First Bush administration spoke of a new world order and accordingly formulated its new strategy.
A similar development occurred in foreign policies of European powers, especially in the framework of the European Union. Under such circumstances and given the major developments occurring around its borders, the Islamic Republic of Iran as a regional power was inclined to redefine some of its approaches to foreign policy. The policies of "détente" and "dialogue among civilizations" adopted respectively under the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami partially met those expectations. With the coming to power of President Ahmadinejad that coincided with a deadlock in negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 (Great Britain, France and Germany) over Iran’s nuclear program, a tendency evolved in the new government to review foreign policy orientations and to establish closer links with countries in the "East" under the rubric of “look to the East policy”. Although this new approach in Iran’s foreign policy is considered by some experts as tactical and as a sign of protest to arrogant behavior of some Western powers, especially with regard to Iran's nuclear dossier, others argue that this could represent a strategic move in Iran’s foreign policy and thus, it should be studied carefully. With that background, a study on “look to the East policy” began in early 2006 at the Department of Foreign Policy of the Center for Strategic Research (CSR). Since, the subject of the study was a policy not yet defined theoretically and was in its formative stage, it was open to many questions to which several views and interpretations were introduced. As first step, it was necessary to review different stages of the Islamic Republic of Iran's foreign policy in the past.
Various outlooks in foreign policy, including “neither East, nor West” policy, seeking closer relations with the West, particularly European countries and finally “look to the East policy”, constituted major approaches in Iran's foreign policy during the past 27 years. The “look to the East policy” as a basis for a new strategy in foreign policy obviously needed to be examined from different angels. Since; the priorities of foreign policy in every country are formulated and articulated in the framework of long-term strategies; these priorities are usually specified on prevailing conditions, trend of events, probability of success and inferred effects of those policies. Given this assumption, sweeping changes in the international scene made the revision of approaches toward foreign policy and its priorities inevitable. The developments in the international arena after the end of the Cold War especially after the September 11 events and emphasis upon unilateralism by the United States as the last remaining superpower with military-oriented preventive and preemptive policies was encountered with reaction by other great and middle powers including Iran. It seems that those developments were significant in shaping the views of certain policy makers including some in President Ahmadinejad's administration that Iran's foreign policy needed a new direction. It was quite clear from the start that what intensified the efforts for exploring new horizons in Iran’s foreign policy was the impasse in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program with the EU-3, and in general disappointments in reaching any viable agreement with the West on substantial issues. In fact, although “look to the East policy” resulted from the abovementioned conditions, a tendency to look to the East dates back to earlier times. For instance, during the second term of Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency there were some efforts for strengthening existing links with important Asian countries such as China, India and Russia in the framework of a strategic alliance. It is therefore, necessary to find different aspects of the new approach compared with similar policies in the past. Prominence of Asia Nowadays, there is a vivid understanding about the importance of Asia worldwide.
Since many years back, many analysts believed that given the existing situation, if the 20th century could be dubbed as the European century, the 21st century will belongs to Asia. Even some American strategists in their studies concluded that the United States should pay special attention to Asia in its future strategies. The argument followed the line that while the United States had paid special attention during the 20th century to Europe and the Atlantic alliance, the U.S. needed to shift its attention to Asia in the 21st century. It is said that in the age of Asia-Pacific while Europe has reached its peak in economic development, it is Asia that has many potentials yet to be explored and to flourish in the future. Two Asia giants, i.e. China and India, have rapidly growing economies. It is estimated that India's 'middle class' of over 300 million have potential purchasing power of 3000 dollars per month. The World Bank says India will become the third largest economy after China and the US by 2025. Given the existing trends, the future of Asia is very promising. For this reason, most of the great powers have shifted their attention to this continent. Thus, the major considerations in Iran's “look to the East policy” can be defined in the following terms: International Dimension: Major Powers in Asia have shaped the geopolitical environment since the end of the Cold War. Those powers have experienced increasing growth. Some like Japan have already achieved great power status, at least in economic terms. Some others are on their way toward that position. Presently, China and India are considered as the main rising powers in Asia. Regional Dimension: Regional developments, especially after the September 11th events are considered to have foremost effects on certain countries. For instance, major changes have occurred in Iran's neighborhood with wide security implications. As for other regional great powers, especially China and Russia, although they have different approaches toward campaign against terrorism in comparison with the United States, and they are not officially working with the United States on this problem, markedly their firm conviction is to avoid any confrontation with the United States. Also, it is noticeable that despite fundamental differences between China and the United States social systems, it seems that China has well managed the existing opportunities in the “war on terrorism.” to gradually weaken the oppositions in the US for closer cooperation with that country.
Internal Dimension: The coming to power of President Ahmadinejad’s government coincided with the deadlock in nuclear negotiations with the EU-3. Problems arose after EU-3 introduced its proposals on Iran's nuclear issues which were considered by Iranian officials as imperfect and inconsistent with previous negotiations between the two sides. The events leading to a deadlock in the nuclear negotiations caused outrage among many people in Iran. In an apparent move to stave off public criticism, some officials in the new government of President Ahmadinejad suggested imposition of embargo on imported goods from certain countries that voted in favor of a resolution against the Islamic Republic of Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). South Korea and Britain were among those countries. Of course, that proposal was never approved or implemented, but it was interpreted by some as a new tendency in Iran's foreign policy. Some perceived that, finding itself in a sensitive situation due to challenges by the West particularly the United States, while two regional great powers, China and India, were seeking accommodation and resolving their past disparities with the United States, the government of President Ahmadinejad sought a new approach in its foreign policy. But to formulate that policy in practical terms some enduring questions loomed ahead: Essentially, what are Iran’s opportunities in pursuing “look to the East policy”? To what extent the “look to the East policy” enjoys national support? Which tactics were to be applied to implement this policy? Through expansion of bilateral relations or by alliances? Or making alliance with some selected countries such as India, China and Russia? To implement this policy, which leverages or instruments could be used? By resorting to this policy, what would be the reactions of other powers and how probable challenges would be met? Which are economic opportunities and challenges of this policy? Assuming that energy export is one of the main advantages of Iran's “look to the East policy”, to what extent, relying upon this factor is possible? What are the volumes of proven energy resources available for export? It is generally taken that in the framework of the “look to the East policy”, strengthening and deepening bilateral relations with the Eastern countries should be a priority. During the first months of coming to power, the high ranking officials of the government of Ahmadinejad paid several official visits to Asian countries and their visits were mostly reciprocated by their counterparts. However, a review of the content of those visits reveals that Iran has pursued an economic approach rather than a strategic one. In fact, despite a display of interest to make an alliance with Eastern countries, no sign denoting strategic planning was noticeable. From another perspective, the expansion of Iran’s relations with Asian and Eastern countries in the framework of bilateral and regional cooperation is of great importance, because in the framework of regional cooperation, Iran may attempt making strategic alliances such as an alliance between China, India, Russia and Iran. Thus, the question is how it is possible to implement “look to the East policy” in the framework of a regional cooperation? Enhancing Iran’s status in regional organizations such as Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), D-8 group, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), can provide appropriate opportunities for Iran in pursuing “look to the East” policy. On the other hand, economic cooperation with Asian countries especially in energy and transit sectors is considered an important area for Iran’s regional cooperation in Asia. The expansion of transit routes for promotion of trade has been targeted as one of the main areas in regional cooperation.
The North-South Corridor agreement linking Indian sub-continent to Russia and Northern Europe has been signed by Iran, Russia and India, and it was expanded later to other countries in the region. The impending question is to what extent these opportunities could be exploited in the framework of a new regional cooperation? For example, to what extent did Iran's major investment on Bandar Abbas-Serakhs railroad brought the expected outcome in the promotion of regional trade during the past several years? Or, how much is it possible to exploit the East to West railroads including transit routes from Afghanistan and Pakistan to those in Iraq and Turkey, for forging new regional co operation? Another important element in the implementation of “look to the East policy” is the role that rival powers could play in opposing that policy. It is for some time now that the United States is expanding its influence in Asia. The United States has shifted its attention to Asia-Pacific zone and attempts to repeat its successful experience of Trans-Atlantic cooperation in Asia. Therefore, in studying Iran’s foreign policy towards Asia, the impact of U.S. policies and reactions of that country in the form of its policy to contain Iran cannot be ignored. At present time, it is likely that Iran would face U.S. confrontational policy in pursuing its “look to the East policy”, because the U.S's declared policy is to deter other powers to expand their relationships with Iran. Also, it is important to take note of the United States strategic plans for Asia including forging a strategic alliance with India. New Horizons The “look to the East policy” has been advanced when great changes have occurred in the international and regional scene as well as within Iran. At the international level, the collapse of the bipolar system and U.S. efforts to consolidate its status as the only remaining superpower in the world; at the regional level, the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and that of the Ba'ath regime in Iraq; and at the domestic level, the determination by Iran's young, resourceful and dynamic population to take a great leap forward in scientific and economic developments is noticeable. As a result, given the changes that have occurred in the regional geopolitics, Iran has gained a pivotal position in this arena. During the past decades, the western part of the Middle East hosted this central position due to the Arab-Israeli conflict shadowed by the confrontation between two superpowers. The collapse of the Soviet Union and opening of the Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia to the outside world lead to a substantial increase of the geopolitical weight of this region. In that process, geopolitical gravitation has gradually moved from the western part of the Middle East to its eastern edge; consequently, Iran has become the center of the new gravitation of regional geopolitics. Thus, continuation of present policies of Western powers towards Iran risks not only isolation of Iran but more importantly a shift in Iran's strategic orientation towards the East. The present policy of Look to the East although in its early stages suggests that continued exertion of political pressure and sanctions against Iran, even in a covert form, could drive it further away from the West. This makes it essential for the West to adopt a pragmatic policy toward Iran since not only geopolitics has changed in Iran's favor but also investment and advanced technology as the main bargaining chips they hold could be compensated by China and other countries, although not at the same quality and quantity at this stage. Apparently, with that picture in mind, the arguments have advanced by some of the proponents of “look to the East policy” to the effect that the West will be forced to back off some of its policies against Iran.
Obviously, such flexibility on the part of the United States depends on many factors including Iran’s diplomatic dexterity to strike an appropriate balance in its relations with the East and the West, avoiding extremist anti-Western policies. Simply put, tilting toward the East, West, etc. for a country with significant geopolitical stature and potentials for becoming a prominent regional power like Iran fails to meet national objectives and aspirations of this country. There are no good reasons that strategic advantages resulting form a positive relationship with the West should be neglected. A balanced foreign policy suggests that any self- imposed limitations regarding relations with the West or the East becomes counterproductive in securing Iran’s higher national goals. With that in mind, “look to the East policy” can only serve the national interests as far it could remove any kind of dependence on the West and enforces a balanced foreign policy which could also widen Iran's foreign policy options.