Iran has ramped up its diplomatic engagements throughout the year in an effort to overcome its isolation, improve its economy, and project a sense of strength.
President Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative leader, has spearheaded this initiative by embarking on visits to China, Syria, Venezuela, and hosting Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat. Additionally, Iran has reached out to other regional rivals, including Egypt, in an attempt to forge new alliances.
The latest development in Iran’s diplomatic surge involves the visit of its Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, to Oman. This visit is particularly significant as Oman is mediating indirect talks between Iran and its long-standing enemy, the United States, regarding Iran’s nuclear program and a potential prisoner exchange.
Sanam Vakil, the director of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program, emphasized Iran’s determination to demonstrate its ability to overcome adversaries. Vakil stated that Iran seeks to exhibit resilience despite facing sanctions and domestic protests, and aims to strengthen international economic and foreign ties to increase economic connectivity and boost internal morale.
The primary focus of these diplomatic efforts is the pursuit of agreements aimed at de-escalating tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and securing the release of American prisoners held in Iran. Analyst Diako Hosseini, based in Tehran, highlights the economic implications of such agreements, as Iran hopes to revive its struggling economy that has been heavily impacted by sanctions, rampant inflation, and a significant depreciation of the national currency, the rial, against the dollar.
Since the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the landmark Iran nuclear deal in 2018, followed by the imposition of extensive sanctions, foreign companies have been hesitant to invest in Iran due to the deterrent effect of these punitive measures. Therefore, any signs of a thaw in relations are viewed positively by Arab countries, particularly those in the Gulf region, which are actively seeking to alleviate tensions exacerbated by conflicts in Yemen and Syria.
Notably, the recent normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, facilitated by China, has sparked a desire among Arab nations to cement or restore ties with Iran. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have also engaged in diplomatic outreach with Iran as part of its “policy of openness.” Iran claims that this policy has contributed to a de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East, although the risk of armed confrontation with its arch-enemy, Israel, remains high.
In parallel, a détente is emerging between Iran and European countries following months of strained relations triggered by nationwide protests in Iran. The protests were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, while in custody for an alleged violation of Iran’s strict dress code for women. In recent weeks, Iran has released six European detainees and engaged in nuclear talks with the three European signatories to the 2015 nuclear agreement: Britain, France, and Germany. However, tensions persist regarding Western accusations that Iran has supplied drones to Moscow and assisted in the establishment of a drone manufacturing facility, allegations that Iran vehemently denies.
Iran is also actively cultivating closer ties with China, as evidenced by President Raisi’s visit in February, the first of its kind in two decades. Despite previous promises, Chinese investment in Iran has remained relatively low, and Iran seeks to rectify this situation. Presenting itself as a pillar of the “new world order,” Iran aims to expand its influence in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central America. President Raisi recently visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, where he denounced “imperialist powers” led by the United States.