On November 5, two Iranian naval vessels docked at a port in the Indonesian capital Jakarta for what would be an almost week-long “peace mission” to the archipelagic nation. The IRINS Makran, Iran’s only expeditionary sea base ship, and IRINS Dena, a light frigate, are part of a flotilla of Iranian navy ships circumnavigating the globe on a goodwill tour aimed at extending Tehran’s message of “peace and friendship” to the world.
The visit had all the hallmarks of port-call diplomacy: plenty of photo opportunities, press tours, and official visits to the Indonesian naval headquarters. Iranian sailors also had the opportunity to play sports with their Indonesian counterparts, visit an Islamic center, and go on a city tour of Jakarta.
The substance of official meetings between the two navies wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Both sides discussed the potential for a cadet exchange program and the security of international sea lanes for commercial shipping from Iran and Indonesia.
This isn’t the first time the Iranian Navy has visited Indonesia either. In early 2020, the IRINS Kharg, an Iranian Navy logistics vessel carrying some 300 navy cadets, docked in Jakarta’s Tanjong Priok Port to celebrate 70 years of bilateral relations.
While such visits are ostensibly routine acts of naval diplomacy, it does raise questions about Indonesia’s diplomatic approach to the Sunni-Shia schism as a Muslim-majority country, as well as about Iran’s own interests in Southeast Asia.
To be sure, Indonesia and Iran have their differences. Indonesia is a vibrant democracy and quasi-secular state with the world’s largest Sunni population. On the other hand, Iran is an Islamic theocracy with the world’s largest Shia population. While Indonesia maintains good relations with Washington and is an active participant in building regional norms, Iran has actively sought to erode the U.S.-led world order.
Despite these seemingly stark differences, Indonesia and Iran have enjoyed relatively cordial relations since the 1950s. The relationship has survived both an Islamic revolution in Iran and the democratization of Indonesia. Even today, the relationship continues to grow. Last month, Tehran and Jakarta concluded their sixth round of negotiations on the Indonesia-Iran Preferential Trade Agreement. The deal would see increased business links, a reduction in tariffs, and an easing of financial transactions between the two countries. Indonesia and Iran have also sought to expand cooperation on parliamentary and judicial affairs, with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi underlining the need to expand bilateral relations in a call earlier this year.
To understand why the Iranian navy was in Jakarta, and indeed, why Iran-Indonesia relations endure to this day, it is important to recognize the relative continuity of Indonesia’s foreign policy tradition.
Since gaining independence in 1945, Indonesia has been a champion of the non-aligned movement and has grounded its foreign policy in a principle known as bebas aktif, or “free and active.” Articulated by Indonesia’s first Vice President Mohammad Hatta as “rowing between two reefs,” Indonesia has long sought to avoid becoming ensnared in great power rivalries while also playing an active role in world affairs.
By following what Indonesia has culturally regarded as jalan tengah, or the “middle way,” Jakarta has sought to preserve and maximize its strategic autonomy by playing rival powers off against one another. Much like Jakarta’s approach to great power rivalry during the Cold War and in the current age of strategic competition between Beijing and Washington, Indonesia has always pursued a neutral position when it comes to regional rivalries in the Middle East. Indonesia’s approach to Iran – and by extension Iran’s bitter rivalry with Saudi Arabia – is certainly no different.
While Indonesia has traditionally seen minimal involvement in Middle Eastern politics, its relationship with Saudi Arabia is undeniably important. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 200,000 Indonesians took the haj pilgrimage to Mecca. Millions more are on the waitlist.
The economic relationship is also important. Over a million Indonesians work in Saudi Arabia, sending invaluable remittances back to their families and into the Indonesian economy. Riyadh’s foreign investments in Indonesia can’t be overlooked either. Most recently, Jakarta has sought Saudi money to help fund its ambitious $32 billion project to relocate its capital city from the island of Java to Kalimantan.
Saudi Arabia has also invested billions of dollars in constructing mosques and religious universities and providing religious scholarships to Indonesian students – seemingly to help promote its own conservative brand of Islam. With religious conservatism on the rise in Indonesia in recent years, it appears as though Riyadh’s efforts have paid off to some extent.
But as Indonesia’s relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran demonstrate, the spread of Saudi Wahhabism hasn’t necessarily trickled down into Indonesia’s foreign policy. Bebas aktif has stayed the course.
We can see this clearly when we consider both Indonesia’s willingness to criticize Saudi Arabia and counterbalance the relationship with Iran. For example, Indonesia has long spoken out against the mistreatment of its domestic workers in the Kingdom, even moving to temporarily ban its citizens from working there. When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman visited Indonesia in 2016 as part of a regional tour to promote investment, Jokowi visited Tehran in the same year as a way of balancing out Saudi overtures.
Jakarta understands that Saudi Arabia is largely concerned with Tehran’s small but growing influence in Indonesia. It also understands that Iran is isolated on the world stage and will drop ideological fanaticism over the Sunni-Shia schism in the pragmatic pursuit of strategic trade and economic partnerships. The friendly relationship between Sunni-majority Indonesia and Shia-dominated Iran speaks to this.
Tehran, for its part, has benefited greatly from its relationship with Jakarta. Keeping in line with its tradition of neutrality, Indonesia largely remains silent on Iran’s internal affairs – from the overthrow of the Shah during the Iranian revolution of 1979 to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Indonesia also abstained from a vote to impose sanctions on Iran in 2008 over its nuclear program. In 2020, it abstained from a vote on a resolution that would see an arms embargo on Iran extended.
However, in a testament to Indonesia’s treading of jalan tengah, Jakarta has no qualms about pursuing risks in the relationship – that is, going against Iran’s preferences in the search for a new equilibrium. For example, in 2021, the Indonesian Navy seized an Iranian crude oil tanker suspected of illegally transferring oil in Indonesian waters. Jakarta has also voted in favor of United Nations resolutions seeking to impose sanctions against Iran for its uranium enrichment activities.
The arrival of the Iranian Navy in Jakarta shouldn’t be overstated. It is after all a routine act of naval diplomacy and Indonesia is just one of many stops on the Iranian Navy’s global goodwill tour. What it does highlight, however, is the operationalization of Indonesia’s long-standing foreign policy tradition. Jakarta’s approach to Iran, and indeed its approach to the broader Iran-Saudi rivalry has little to do with the Sunni-Shia schism. Rather, it is foreign policy pragmatism at its best.