BRICS, an association of developing nations including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, is now expanding to the Middle East, with countries like Iran on the invite list. This could be a game-changer for good or ill, either threatening the existing world order or potentially mitigating Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East. Yet, for the Islamic Republic to fully reap the benefits of BRICS membership, it must abandon its confrontational foreign and defense policies. This presents a quagmire for the regime’s hardliners who have little interest in abandoning the revolutionary policies that both brought them to power and also made them international pariahs.

The original acronym, ‘BRIC’, was coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001 to designate a group of high-growth developing nations that would be lucrative destinations for investment. After the first formal meeting of BRIC in 2009, South Africa joined in 2010, thus creating BRICS. The group has the potential to form a powerful economic bloc to rival the West. In 2023, BRICS accounted for approximately 37% of global GDP in purchasing power. The five countries represent roughly 3.277 billion people, making up approximately 41% of the total global population. Russia, China, and Brazil, the three major players, have been spearheading the development of a new currency to be used for cross-border trade by BRICS. The primary goal in developing such a currency is the de-dollarization of the global financial system and an end to the dominance of the US dollar, something that experts view as unrealistic in the short term but that the Islamic Republic has expressed support for.

Facing economic sanctions from the West, the Islamic regime in Iran hailed the prospect of BRICS membership as a game-changer in geopolitical dynamics. Farsi media and the authorities of the Islamic Republic view joining BRICS as a “strategic victory,” and “historic achievement,” in the face of US economic sanctions. They argue that entering the BRICS club would enable the Islamic Republic to effectively bypass US sanctions. Kayhan Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said joining BRICS would enable the regime to conduct transactions with Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa without using American dollars. According to Kayhan, BRICS has the potential to challenge the current dominance of the US dollar in the global financial system. 

In fact, as I have discussed elsewhere, one of the Iranian regime’s long-standing goals is to leverage organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an association of Asian nations, and BRICS as tools to replace the USD in international trade, thereby circumventing Western. sanctions. To further this aim, Tehran has even proposed creating a new currency specifically for transactions with China, Russia, and other SCO members. According to the IRGC-linked Fars News Agency, both BRICS and the Islamic Republic share the same goal of challenging the West and its democratic institutions. Obviously, the Islamic Republic’s hostile stance towards Western nations is the driving force behind China and Russia’s decision to invite Iran into both BRICS and the SCO. However, not all other members of BRICS share the same goal of explicitly challenging the West.

Iran’s accession into BRICS will undoubtedly end the regime’s four decades of political and diplomatic isolation from much of the rest of the world. The Islamic regime’s integration into BRICS is also likely to have significant military implications, with membership strengthening Iran’s military relations with Russia, China, India, and other member countries. This would give Iran greater freedom in arms trading and could bolster its defense industries.

Nonetheless, the path towards these ambitious outcomes is far from straightforward for the regime. Historically, interactions between Iran and current BRICS or SCO members suggest a cautious approach towards the Islamic Republic. These countries have been hesitant to fully engage in trade with Iran due to concerns about violating US secondary sanctions.

For instance, China, the country that has continued to buy Iran’s oil, has complied with US sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Chinese major banks and companies have avoided doing business with Iran because of the high risk of being subject to the US secondary sanctions. Russia, another key player in BRICS, is currently the most sanctioned country in the world due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Consequently, it is unlikely to save Iran’s economy from a total collapse. Thus, although joining these organizations might offer Iran some economic and diplomatic advantages, it’s unlikely to be a silver bullet for bypassing U.S. financial restrictions.

It is also worth considering that joining BRICS could also impose significant constraints on the Iranian regime. BRICS membership could compel Iran to reconsider its regional priorities and refrain from destabilizing activities in the Middle East. This is particularly relevant given that other Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt are also on the invitation list.

Should Iran’s inclusion in the group lead to geopolitical tensions with the West, other bloc members such as Brazil, India, South Africa, and Argentina could become uncomfortable. No BRICS nations except Russia would want to be perceived as explicitly anti-Western or as siding with Iran’s confrontational stance toward the West.

To truly capitalize on the benefits of BRICS membership, Iran must adopt a less confrontational stance and reassess its foreign and defense policies. This includes revising its missile, nuclear, and drone programs, which are viewed as destabilizing factors. Major BRICS members such as China, India, and Brazil may leverage their influence to discourage Iran from jeopardizing the region’s energy infrastructure and security. Even so, the prospect of reform is unlikely to sit well with the regime’s hardliners, such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his office, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). They have little interest in abandoning the destructive revolutionary policies that originally led to sanctions and international isolation.