On August 24, Iran and five other countries – Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – were invited to join the BRICS bloc of emerging economies. The announcement was a diplomatic win for Iran, which has been isolated for its crackdown on protesters, nuclear advances and support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. BRICS includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
At the BRICS summit in South Africa, President Ebrahim Raisi heralded the expansion of the alliance. “The world needs convergence to build a just system based on collective interests, and BRICS is considered a symbol of such change and evolution in global relations,” he said at the 15th BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. Iran was eager to support the bloc’s efforts to move away from using the U.S. dollar for trade, he said. Raisi’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, Mohammad Jamshidi, touted Iran’s membership as a “strategic success” and “historical development.”
Since taking office in 2021, Ebrahim Raisi has prioritized improving relations with Iran’s neighbors as well as Asian powers. BRICS membership was a “political feather in the cap of the Raisi administration, which has made the argument that Iran can thrive without focusing on nuclear diplomacy by expanding ties with Asia and the region,” Henry Rome of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told The Iran Primer. The invitation to join the BRICS bloc coincided with a U.S. and European effort to isolate Tehran until it reengages on its advancing nuclear program. “Indeed, the membership invitation underscores the erosion of Western efforts to isolate Iran, which in turn will probably make future endeavors at nuclear diplomacy even more challenging.”
Under Raisi, Tehran has sought new economic partners—from Venezuela to Indonesia —to offset the impact of U.S. economic sanctions reimposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Iran’s invitation to join BRICS followed its admission to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in July 2023. The SCO was a security and economic organization led by China and Russia that also included India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
“Much like Iran’s accession to the SCO, becoming a member of BRICS is at best a political win for Tehran. Iranian leaders can claim that Western governments are failing to isolate the country,” Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, CEO of the Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, told The Iran Primer. “Iran’s trade relationships with other BRICS members, including China, continue to languish under US secondary sanctions. That’s not going to change.”
Raisi is a hardliner, yet he has also reversed years of hostile relations with Saudi Arabia. In March 2023, Tehran restored diplomatic ties with Riyadh seven years after Saudi Arabia cut ties. The addition of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE “suggests that the regional diplomacy underway in the Persian Gulf is mutually reinforcing with the kind of multilateralism that the founding BRICS members want to foster,” Batmanghelidj said. “In that way, membership in bodies like the SCO and BRICS might create some useful guardrails for the regional rivalries between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the BRICS expansion was “historic” and promised to “further strengthen the force for world peace and development.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, who did not attend the summit in-person, pledged to continue “expanding the influence of BRICS in the world.” BRICS is increasingly visible both in international diplomacy and economics. It brings together some of the world’s largest oil and gas importers and exporters.
The United States downplayed the implications of BRICS expanding. The Biden administration did not consider BRICS “as evolving into some kind geopolitical rival to the United States or anyone else,” White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Aug. 22, 2023. He noted that diverse countries had disparate views of the war in Ukraine and other global flashpoints. “We will continue to work on the strong positive relationships we have with Brazil, India, and South Africa; we will continue to manage our relationship with China; and we will continue to push back on Russia’s aggression.”
Nearly two dozen countries applied for BRICS membership before the 2023 summit in Johannesburg. Tehran had applied in June 2022. Iran and the other five countries are due to become members on Jan. 1, 2024.
Brazil, Russia, India, and China formed the first iteration of the group (BRIC) in 2009 and then added South Africa in 2010. Together, the five nations represented approximately a quarter of the world’s economy and more than 40 percent of the world’s population on four continents. The group sought to give more voice to developing countries in international financial institutions, such as the World Bank. BRICS members have long sought to create a common currency to facilitate trade. The following are President Raisi's remarks on joining BRICS.
President Ebrahim Raisi on Aug. 24, 2023: “Without a doubt, the decision of the BRICS members to expand the group is a commendable step that paves the way for global development on the basis of justice. Surely, the benefits of the membership of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the BRICS group will make history and mark a new chapter and a stronger step in terms of justice, fairness, ethics and sustainable peace on the international stage.”
“Dominance, injustice, discrimination and moral crisis have put the world in a complicated and troubled situation. The emergence and spread of problems such as hunger, climate change, limited energy resources, lack of access to health and medical facilities, along with cyber insecurity as well as cultural, value and identity threats, are only a part of these challenges that require everyone's efforts and convergence to deepen the discourse of justice and the foundation of a fair system based on collective interests.
“BRICS is a symbol of such a change in global relations that can help solve the problems of the world community; Especially since the global confidence in the effectiveness of BRICS is increasing. The expansion of BRICS to other developing world powers will make this vision more coherent and global.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has significant political and economic cooperation with all five members of the BRICS, and in the recent period, we have clearly witnessed the leap and deepening of this cooperation.
“Various strategic cooperations between Iran and BRICS members, including in the fields of transit, energy and trade, in the BRICS global agenda support this point of view and bring sustainable economic benefits to our nations and the world. The Islamic Republic of Iran firmly supports the successful efforts of BRICS in the direction of de-dollarization of economic relations between members, as well as the use of national currencies and the strengthening of BRICS mechanisms for payment and financial settlement.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has unique capacities and is ready to participate in all three main areas of BRICS activities, i.e., political-security, economic-financial and social fields. Maximizing interaction and strengthening multilateral cooperation mechanisms, especially with developing independent countries, is at the center of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In this regard, due to its special transit position and having extensive energy resources as well as high scientific and engineering power in various fields, including industrial production, technology, nano and medicine, we announce our readiness for any cooperation, joint economic action, and investment with the countries.”