At the culmination of the 15th BRICS Summit in South Africa, the world’s largest emerging economies took a significant decision to expand their reach and influence, announcing that six more nations have been invited to join the alliance.
From 1 January 2024, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been invited to join as full members.
While extending memberships to multilateral alliances is not uncommon, a glance at the newly invited members raises questions, most notably regarding the impact on India’s prided-upon non-alignment foreign policy and the shape BRICS will now take.
By doubling the number of members from five to eleven in a single go, the BRICS group has gained significant position as a global alliance. More importantly, the choice of bringing in four major ‘Middle East’ nations: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and significantly, Iran, into the grouping is a powerful message to the Global North and the United States.
However, for India, the inclusion of Iran marks the first in a number of key decisions it will have to take as it navigates multiple conflicting relationships with the likes of Beijing, Moscow and Washington, while maintaining a perceived policy of non-alignment.
Within this group, there are five democratic countries, three authoritarian regimes, two autocratic monarchies, and a theocracy. But most notably, among these nations are historical rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose enmity persisted until recent months.
India's Ties with Iran
India and Iran have a rich history of interactions spanning millennia, as highlighted by India's Ministry of External Affairs. Presently, their relations are characterised by frequent high-level exchanges, robust commercial collaboration, enhanced connectivity, cultural affinities, and strong people-to-people ties.
Economically, India relies significantly on Iran as its second-largest supplier of crude oil. In turn, India stands as a major foreign investor in Iran's oil and gas sector.
Geopolitically, while the two nations exhibit divergent stances on key foreign policy matters, this hasn't hindered their cooperative efforts. A testament to this is the joint venture in constructing the Zaranj-Delaram Highway and the collaborative financing of the Chabahar port.
Both countries actively engage on the global stage, participating in multilateral forums such as the United Nations and regional initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, and the Asian Parliamentary Assembly.
Prime Minister Modi and President Raisi have also forged a personal relationship. Their first meeting occurred during the SCO Heads of State Summit in Uzbekistan in September 2022, just before Iran's formal induction into the SCO. During this encounter, they underscored their dedication to bilateral cooperation, particularly in trade and connectivity.
Additional discussions transpired at the BRICS Summit in South Africa, coinciding with Iran's official acceptance into the BRICS alliance.
Here, the leaders explored avenues for bolstering trade, cultural ties, and collaboration in energy and connectivity sectors.
Notably, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi conveyed Prime Minister Modi's congratulations to Iran on its BRICS membership.
The leaders maintained their dialogue through a recent phone call, delving into various bilateral issues. This ongoing interaction exemplifies the earnest commitment of both nations to foster a strong and multifaceted relationship.
What Does Iran Hope to Achieve?
By joining BRICS, Iran hopes to weaken the regime of sanction against it imposed by the US and breathe life into an ailing economy. Its intent to join the alliance was piqued after China’s President Xi Jinping invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to deliver a speech via video conference at the 14th BRICS Summit held in Beijing, and Iran officially submitted its intent to join in June 2022.
Raisi emphasised that Iran could place itself at the intersection of trade, transit, energy, security and science by working with fellow BRICS members.
The country also seeks to expand its reach into wider markets across Asia and the Global South.
Moreover, China’s presence and support at BRICS meant access to the ancient Silk Road trade route, which operates as a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and allows them to penetrate trade routes of Central Asia. Incidentally, Iran also recently signed several agreements which boost ties with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
Inclusion Push from China & Russia, Did New Delhi Have an Option?
Iran’s inclusion in the BRICS alliance, alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia and UAE, shows that regardless of instances of infighting and a slight lack of cohesion, the alliance has successfully posed itself as an attractive grouping for the Global South.
The invitation to Iran, a country with strained relations with the US, would not have come through without the support from Russia and China, who remain on opposite sides of global geopolitics.
Among the five members of BRICS, India was reportedly the most reluctant to rapid expansion and believed that such a move would complicate an already complicated strategic balance between its blooming relationship with the US and the West and the decade-old friendship with Russia.
Moreover, India cannot hope to antagonise a global power like Russia or China in the same year that they host the G20 summit. However, India’s stance regarding expansion at BRICS has changed in the lead-up to the summit.
Previously, New Delhi had staunchly opposed the inclusion, amid fears that it would dilute the group's core objectives and the consensus built among its existing members.
Regardless of their earlier opposition, PM Modi clearly supported the group’s expansion and re-affirmingly said, "India has always believed that adding new members will strengthen BRICS as an organisation.”
Moreover, officials say that India took the lead in drafting membership criteria for BRICS and included a proposal that required members not to be the target of international sanctions, which would have ruled out Iran’s chances.
The inclusion of Saudi Arabia in a group with Iran is beyond normal, and the re-establishment of their broken relationship was brokered by China, taking up a role that would traditionally be occupied by the US. Moreover, the addition of new members, especially those close to Beijing, dilutes India’s vote within the group and also makes gaining a consensus a harder task.
While some experts have claimed that India’s motivations behind expansion come to achieve an economic agenda, many have said that India went along with the move despite their concerns, fearing that they would face backlash.
The move to include Iran is also a way for them to move away from US-imposed sanctions, and their inclusion is a win for Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, taking the ‘non-western’ BRICS alliance farther from the West. They prevailed over the more cautious approach of the other members, who preferred to portray the group as non-aligned.
However, the decision to include new members, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, further highlights the heterogeneous grouping of the BRICS alliance, which is relatively less restrictive when compared to Western alliances like QUAD and NATO.
Rather, the BRICS are singularly bound by a desire to rework the global financial and governing system, and make it less subject to the US’ politics and the dollar.
However, one can only wait and see whether it is tangibly feasible for India to engage in the Quad, while also maintaining close ties with the BRICS.