Making Friends With Iran

The US has had an incredibly difficult time making friends with Iran. Other countries seem to be having a lot less difficulty.

The primary obstacle to American friendship with Iran is allegedly Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. But the most recent US Nuclear Posture Review, released in October 2022, clearly states that "Iran does not today possess a nuclear weapon and we currently believe it is not pursuing one.”

When the US and Iran attempted to repair their relationship by addressing the nuclear obstacle, Iran remained faithful. They remained in full compliance with their commitments under the hard won JCPOA nuclear agreement as verified by eleven consecutive International Atomic Energy Agency reports. It was the US who betrayed the relationship by illegally pulling out of the agreement.

The implosion of the relationship led to a spiderweb of sanctions that were meant to isolate Iran. But the willingness of other countries, including some very surprising ones, to make friends with Iran has allowed Iran to escape isolation.

Iran’s victory has been both global and regional. Globally, Iran and Russia are now settling trade in rials and rubles instead of dollars and recently announced that they have circumvented the US financial system by linking their banking systems as an alternative to SWIFT for trading with each other. China has committed to a 25-year strategic and economic partnership with Iran worth $400 billion. And Iran and Venezuela have entered a 20-year cooperation accord that covers many areas, including oil, petrochemicals, defense, agriculture, tourism, direct flights and culture.

Iran has formally applied for membership in BRICS. And they are entering the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member. BRICS and the SCO are massive international organizations whose primary purpose is to balance US hegemony in a new multipolar world. BRICS represents almost 41% of the world’s population. The even larger SCO represents 43% of the global population and is the second largest international organization in the world after only the United Nations. That is not isolation. Membership in the SCO unlocks access to top-level contacts and economic cooperation with nearly half the world, including giants like China, India and Russia.

Most recently, in May, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Indonesia where he and Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed a preferential trade agreement that will strengthen economic ties between the two countries and allow goods and services to be traded “without being constrained by scarcity or currency difficulties."

But as significant as the global implications are for these new and enhanced Iranian friendships, their new regional friendships are more surprising and no less significant.

A cornerstone of US policy in the region is the establishment and maintenance of a coalition against Iran. At the heart of that coalition is Saudi Arabia firmly in the US anti-Iran camp. But regional powers are increasingly willing to defy US wishes by turning away from that coalition and engaging Iran. Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute and an expert on Iran, explained this new willingness to me by saying that "There is a sense in the region that the US has no answer on how to handle Iran. Trump pulled out of the JCPOA and replaced that policy with maximum pressure, which produced disastrous results. Biden said he wanted to go back into the deal but is, in essence, pursuing the same maximum-pressure policy. So regional states have decided to take matters into their own hands instead of relying on or waiting for Washington."

And take matters into their own hands they have. Several regional rivals of Iran have turned defiantly to negotiating a settlement with Iran rather than waiting for the US to export a solution to the region. Most importantly is Saudi Arabia. At the core of much of strife in the region has been the enmity and rivalry between two camps headed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Parsi says that "Tehran has long favored improving ties with Saudi Arabia, but the opportunity to do so – with Riyadh agreeing to it – has emerged now as a direct result of the US shifting its focus away from the region and [Mohammed bin Salman] realizing that his goal of reducing tensions with Iran and the Houthis will not occur by simply relying on American power but necessitates direct Saudi-Iran diplomacy."

That direct Saudi-Iran diplomacy, mediated by China, has resulted in a region altering "agreement to resume diplomatic relations between them and reopen their embassies and missions." Iran has been welcomed back, not only into the global community, but into the regional community. Just one month after the signing of the agreement, right on schedule and as promised, they signed an agreement to reopen their embassies and consulates in each other’s countries. On June 5, Iran announced that "To implement the agreement …, Iran’s embassy in Riyadh, our Consulate General in Jeddah and our office to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation will be officially reopened on Tuesday and Wednesday."

Though the most important, the new relationship with Saudi Arabia is not the only important new relationship. In August 2022, the United Arab Emirates announced that their ambassador to Iran would return to Tehran for the first time in over six years. A week earlier, Kuwait announced that they too were returning their ambassador to Iran.

Most recently, Iran has begun to smooth relationships with another Middle Eastern power and enemy. Egypt supported Iraq in the Iraq-Iran war. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was a close friend of the Shah of Iran. Relations with Iran have seldom been good since. But at the end of May, it was announced that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi had agreed to meet. Iran says it wants better relations with Egypt, and the meeting is reportedly to focus on restoring relations. Diplomats and intelligence officials have apparently been quietly talking about normalizing relations since March. The two countries are expected to exchange ambassadors within months.

The US has been unable to repair relations with Iran. But that has not stopped several other countries and international organizations from establishing friendly relations with Iran. That willingness of the international organizations to balance US hegemony and of the several countries to defy the US has opened a door for Iran to make many new friends and escape US sanctions and isolation.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.