A stronger Iran as a result of Iran-US rapprochement would suit Russia’s regional interests, particularly Russia’s tendency in foreign policy to prefer strong partners without wishing to meddle in foreign affairs. Iran-US rapprochement has wrongly given the impression that this will create tension between Moscow and Tehran. In the context of constant change on a global and regional scale, this report analyses the current state of affairs in the Middle East through the prism of Iran-Russia and Russia-US relations. It seeks to interpret the logic of behaviour of each with regard to their geopolitical position and regional interests. It also predicts the possible future of Iran-Russia relations related to the economic and political cooperation in the Central and South Asian region.
Iran’s emergence from isolation is another twist in the events that have engulfed the Middle East in recent years. The post-1979 Islamic Revolution stagnation of Iran-US relations has given way to tremendous and thorough transformation as well as warmer relations. American positions in the region are rather unsteady and require a fresh look, whereas for Iran re-entry into the game is the most favourable choice with no alternatives given current circumstances.
Under normal circumstances, Iran is typically portrayed as a Russian ally. Some experts tend to view Moscow-Washington-Tehran relations as an eternal triangle in which Iran is only allowed one of these partners. This is a fallacy stemming from a now-out-of-date twentieth century interpretation framework. The framework theorizes that rivalry between major powers for the purpose of world dominance necessitates ousting other deities from the political Olympus. Until recently, this concept has undeniably served as a firm theoretical background. However, it is doubtful that such a potent regional power as Iran seeks to be swayed by either Moscow or Washington. Besides, antagonism between Tehran and Washington is so deeply rooted that in forthcoming years a diametrical turn of both powers is hardly plausible.
As for the Russian stance, post-1991 foreign policy is drastically different from the Soviet type of dominance in which confrontation was the only practiced method of interaction with the US. Though a sizeable sector of elites is still apt to consider America as their main geostrategic opponent, practically speaking there are no pretensions to jostle for recognition in the Middle East in the post-World War spirit.
Thus, the question whether Iran is inclined to cooperate with the United States at the expense of Russia on other issues is fundamentally inaccurate. Each party is able to work on an elaborated mechanism of interaction to meet the interests of one another. The right question is whether Iran and the US are actually ready to cooperate so closely that it results in teaming up against Russia. It is in fact quite the opposite, for a certain warming of Iran-US relations would suit Moscow’s interests because it would mean the presence of a stronger ally coupled with calculated behaviour and intelligent tactics.
In this vein, this report analyses the current state of affairs in the Middle East through the prism of Iran-Russia and Russia-US relations. It seeks to interpret the logic of behaviour of each with regard to their geopolitical position and regional interests. It also predicts the possible future of Iran-Russia relations related to the economic and political cooperation in the Central and South Asian region.
Uniting against old allies?
It is implausible that the US genuinely seeks to consolidate its forces with Iran against its conventional partners such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. (1) Just a few years ago, loosening of the Iran-US knot was inconceivable. The most intemperate players insisted on strengthening sanctions and even considered an air strike on nuclear facilities, resulting in a scenario of continued and long-standing conflict.
The Arab Spring has entangled seemingly stable relations of the States with their allies. Attempts to make friends with the new democratic leadership in Egypt failed with July 3, 2013 military coup. Muddled Libyan intervention and refusal to attack Syria further damaged US relations with their allies. The Saudis symbolically took offence by rejecting a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council in a diplomatic demarche against what they deemed unfair in the political world order.
Absence of any relations with Iran – along with inconsistency in the reaction to the Arab awakening – turned out to be one of the deficiencies of American policy. The regional situation ripened to such an extent that it needed a radical solution. The US was faced with taking the step towards normalisation, following the lead of Israel by insisting on the Iranian threat, or taking a laissez-faire attitude and leaving things as they had been for many years.
Plans for a full-fledged land operation against Iran or even an air strike on its territory were dismissive and unrealistic. Had the US chosen this route, this would have affected all the Shia-dominated parts of the Gulf and Levant states as well as Russian buffer zones such as Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. The only party that clings to the threat of nuclear or non-nuclear Iran is Israel. This was recently manifested in an Israeli lobby group that pushed the US government for toughening sanctions. Even with Obama’s milieu opposing the counterproductive measures, Israel Economics Minister Naftali Bennett was dispatched on a mission to Washington with a message aimed at bendingg congressmen to approve tougher sanctions and cutting out Iran’s oil exports.
Common sense seems to have prevailed over “war-mongers’” appeals. As White House adviser on energy to the former president George W. Bush, Bob McNally, put it, “The only thing stronger than love for Israel in Congress is aversion to another military conflict. There is a concern about tightening sanctions so much that it would lead to a conflict.” (2)
Confrontation with Iran began in 1979 practically excluded the United States from a large sector of Middle Eastern politics implemented by the Shia establishment. However, this weakened the structure of traditional US coalitions. The decade of war in the Middle East, Bush’s democratisation initiatives and chaotic reaction to the Arab revolutions left the US “lame in both legs.”
Accumulated fatigue from endless clashes, a combination of circumstances and ideology guiding the White House instead of rationality, exorbitant and unreasonable military expenditures in the face of domestic economic troubles and the inability to manage and direct heterogeneous regional processes have all pushed the American government to revise its methods of cooperation with the Arab world. (3) It is positive that American desire to reconcile with ostracised Iran is not dictated by ambitions to continue brave and risky “adventures” in the Arab world in a fashion similar to that of the previous neoconservative administration. The American public seems to have realised the crucial necessity of climbing out of the quagmire of collisions that have drained the US and set it at odds with the Muslim world. (4)
Likewise, Iranian society is tired of the ceaseless encounters with the Western world. Economic sanctions seriously limit the potential of the Islamic Republic and curb its economic growth. The 1979 Islamic revolution completely usurped pro-Western elites. The 1980s war with Iraq strengthened hostility towards the West because it took the side of Saddam Hussein. To this effect, president Ahmadinejad became the hero of his time. The logic of events during the period of his presidency made his persona the most suitable for that time’s atmosphere, particularly as neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan were blazing under the fire of American military campaigns. As a main regional rival counterbalancing Iraq, Iran raised its role and reputation in regional affairs as a result of the 2003 American invasion.
Sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme were unjustifiable given that Israel and South Korea were – and still are – permitted to develop their respective nuclear capabilities. Ahmadinejad will also be remembered as one the few local leaders who actually denounced the occupation of Palestine. All of this made him appear brave to both Sunni and Shia groups; however, such statements and stances resulted in corresponding retaliatory actions on Tehran by the US and the international community.
At the current time, Iran, like the US, is exhausted with the continual confrontation. Last year created a time to melt the ice of frozen conflict for both and elites signalled their readiness for cautious rapprochement. However, this does not suggest a decision by the Islamic Republic and the US to conspire against the remaining world powers, including Russia, in the short-term.
Moscow, Washington and Tehran over Damascus
From its inception, a part of Russian establishment tainted by experiences of the Colourful Revolutions viewed Arab Spring with suspicion. Russia itself went through the two changes of polity during relatively short period, in 1917 and 1991, and its apprehension of revolutions is almost instinctive. This does not mean that Moscow put their stakes in counteracting political transformation in the Arab world, including Tunisia, Egypt or Libya. Yet, the intentions of Western powers and their allies to decide about the organisation of other states and impose their will by what Russia sees as explicit material and ideological help to rebels caused strong objections by Moscow in Syria.
The Syrian regime – as well as the former Egyptian regime – comfortably allowed Americans to orchestrate Middle Eastern politics for many years. With this new dynamic, the US administration began frantically searching for “the right side of history” and calling the world to overthrow “bloody dictators.” Unfortunately, the right side keeps changing, with Egypt as a prime example, and opponents and tyrannical governments sometimes begin to act in the same manner. On the other hand, the absence of an official ideology in Russia allows it to cooperate with any government that comes to power in any post-revolutionary state. For instance, in February 2014 Putin wished success in the Egyptian presidential race to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during his productive visit to Moscow. Less than a year ago, in April 2013, Moscow welcomed another Egyptian president, the deposed Mohammad Morsi.
With constant political transformation in the region, the US has been forced to prepare itself for further change. In recent decades, the use of force has been the primary mantra of America’s foreign policy. It was successful when the target was military elimination of an enemy. However, the Iraqi and Afghan cases demonstrated that military occupation of a state with further moulding of its domestic organisation is ineffective. The policy of relying on natural rifts and contradictions between the actors malfunctions when traditional balances of power are failing. It is key to note the Syrian regime turned out to be a teammate of the worst enemy, while the least democratic American ally, Saudi Arabia, supported manifestation of the people’s will in Damascus. Counting on regional conflicts to exclude the rise of an excessively influential hegemon is a complicated response to the popular uprisings.
The Russian position on Syria has been perceived rather negatively. Many consider that Moscow’s support of Bashar Al-Assad has been caused by the desire to preserve “the last ally in the Middle East,” to maintain control over the Tartus base or retain commercial contracts. However, others argue that it is not the regime the Kremlin protects. The foreign ministry, which has been maintaining contacts with Syrian opposition throughout the conflict, considers that fighting groups should compromise among themselves without overseas political pressure. (5)
This position coincided with Iran’s great unwillingness to bend further under the regional bloc headed by the US. Unlike dictators swept away by the tide of the revolutions in the Arab world, Iran hosts true elections, allowing certain political diversity and outpouring of popular will. Its economic, technologic and political potential is very different from its reputation as a pariah on the international scene. For Iran, preservation of the Shia-friendly Syrian regime is not the only objective. Iran is like Moscow – it is aware that the future regional and global structure of power depends on the outcome of the Syrian crisis.
It should be noted that the rift between Washington and the Iran-Russia axis is not as large as the media portrays. Washington could have bombed Syria, but it hesitated to meddle and use military force for a number of reasons. The US had no real interest in the Syrian campaign – defending democracy with Al-Qaeda mercenaries fighting against Assad as well would have bought it nothing. Net gain of hypothetical intervention to Syria would have been comparable to the profit of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. American support for democracy is often selective – for example, there was little American comment on the crushing of the Bahrain uprising. Moscow believes that Saudi Arabia and France, old allies, pressured the US to act in Libya and Syria. Moscow also believes that is why the US was so eager to cooperate with the Kremlin on chemical disarmament and the Geneva II peace talks.
Iran-Russia: common grounds and perspectives
The position of Russia as a dominant world power was lost when the Soviet Union fell. While there has been some interest in its markets, the Kremlin maintains it has no intentions to dominate the Middle East. Even arms exports to the Middle East are inferior as compared to contracts with Southeast Asian states, in particular India, China and Vietnam. Not only does Russia lack the capabilities to operate as a superpower, but it also has lacks the willingness to assume responsibility for the actions of potential clients. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian presence on the world scene significantly reduced to that of a local player with limited ambitions and resources.
This feature of the Kremlin’s policy known as “Russian pragmatism” is supposed to secure stability and safety for the country without involvement in risky and costly ventures. Immunity in exchange for stable development is the key idea behind Russian foreign policy. However, the size of Russia along with its Soviet heritage and its status as a UNSC permanent member and a nuclear power necessarily make it significant participant in world politics.
Bilateral relations with Iran should be examined in this context. First of all, Iran had never been close to the USSR in the post-revolutionary years – communist ideology was incompatible with Islam according to Ayatollah Khomeini. The détente of the 90’s and the ongoing pressure on Iran from the West drew Tehran closer to Moscow. The cooperation was forced – growing tensions with the US and its allies and the Cold War victory threw outcast Iran into the arms of a young Russian state still suffering from an inferiority complex of a defeated superpower. Russia then took over construction of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, something no other state could undertake.
Practically speaking, Russian interests in the region are not based on ideological premises although Iran is still rendered an ally. For instance, following the UNSC decision introducing tougher sanctions on Iran in 2010, Russia refused to fulfil the contract on the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system delivery. The abrogation initiated by the then-president Dmitry Medvedev was surprising both in Russia and overseas, for the UN sanctions that had banned certain arms exports were not meant to affect the deal with Moscow. In response, Iran lodged a $4 billion lawsuit in a Geneva arbitration court against Rosoboronexport, an arms exporter. Iran continues to insist on the delivery of the S-300s. Overall, Medvedev’s support of the sanctions and his statements on the nuclear threat demonstrated that Russian pursuits had little to do with a standoff against America.
On the other hand, Russian economic cooperation with the Middle East, including Iran, leaves much to be desired. Over the last 20 years, economic, military and political cooperation have been rather scanty. The Russian export-oriented economy depends on hydrocarbons trade, and the government does not pay any serious attention to the development of other sectors.
The significance of ties with Iran is strategic. Apart from a resolution of the Syrian conflict and progress of peaceful nuclear energy projects, there are a number of activities requiring participation of powerful actors. Some of Moscow’s vital interests directly linked to Iran are delimitation of the Caspian Sea, participation in the Shanghai Security Organisation (SCO) and concerns about troublesome neighbours such as Afghanistan or Tajikistan. Experts agree that Iran’s position on the international scene will be reinforced if sanctions are lifted; in turn, they predict this would have a positive effect on regional affairs. (8)
In the 1990s, Iran’s participation in ceasing the civil war in culturally-close Tajikistan has caused it to cooperate with Moscow to settle the country’s conflict. Iran was an intermediary of the intra-Tajik peace negotiations. In 1997, Iran became one of the guarantors of the General Agreement on the Establishment of Peace and National Accord in Tajikistan. (9) The potential of Iran’s influence is great due to its historical and cultural proximity. Unlike China and other regional players, stability of the Central Asian region for Tehran is more than just market considerations. Nor can the US, located on the other side of the world, be a guarantor of peace and accord.
In this respect, Iran’s participation in the SCO shall have a positive impact on regional stability. (10) The well-being of Central Asia, known as Russia’s underbelly, is essential for Moscow because its economic and political integration is a top strategic priority of the Kremlin in the coming years. Since 2005, Iran has held observer member status in the SCO. Lifting UN sanctions would allow it to become a permanent member. Participation of such a powerful new member is alluring for Moscow because it will counterbalance China’s influence in the organisation. The Asian region is a relatively new world centre whose prominence will be increasing on a global scale. According to some prognoses, the role of the US as a world and regional power is expected to decrease after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This would amplify the rise of other powers – other observers such India and Pakistan intend to join the SCO as permanent members as well.
Limitation of trade under the international sanctions blocks development of bilateral Iran-Russia cooperation in the economic sphere. Payment operations are hampered and large Russian companies avoid the Iranian market in order not to lose business contacts with the US. In particular, Gazprom and Lukoil gave up oil field explorations due to the sanctions. The oil and gas sector in Iran suffers from a lack in investments and the government can only cover a third of the needed $250 billion. (11) In the beginning of February 2013, a message on the upcoming Iranian-Russian deal linked to sanctions removal was released. A broad memorandum on economic cooperation could be signed as early as this summer. It proposes swaps of Iran’s oil in exchange for Russian commodities and investment in the second nuclear power plant in Busher. In the event the agreement on oil delivery to Russia is implemented, the shipment will be sent through the Caspian Sea. (12)
Delimitation of the Caspian Sea is a chronic regional problem that will not be solved without Moscow and Tehran collaboration. Russia opposes plans of delimitation, for pending status of the sea precludes the countries of the eastern cost from expanding the routes of hydrocarbon supply to Europe, Russia’s exclusive partner. Iran lays claims to one-fifth of the Caspian, which is considered an excessive demand.
It is unlikely that Iran can challenge Russia as a fuel supplier to Europe. In the better days of the Brussels-sponsored Nabucco project, Iran was promoted as a potential contributor to gas pipeline capacities. These plans turned out to be implausible due to international sanctions. Today there is no functioning or projected European oil and gas infrastructure that could involve Iran. Even if the sanctions are lifted, South Asia and Southeast Asia are the faster-growing markets. Their governments are interested in attracting more energy resources. For several years, Iran has been competing with Turkmenistan over construction of a pipeline to Pakistan and India.
In sum, easing Iran’s political and economic isolation would allow Moscow and Tehran to exercise more control over the regional political and economic affairs, especially coordination on policies in the Asian region which promises continued reinforcement of the partnership.
Beginning with the fall of the Soviet Union, close cooperation between Moscow and Tehran grew out of demystification with the US and other superpowers. Iran felt constricted, with the only available path leading to Moscow. Current and slow normalisation of Iran-US relations gave birth to speculations that Iran will trade friendship with Moscow for Washington’s preferential treatment in Arab politics. However, this is hardly possible for a number of reasons.
First and foremost is the very nature of politics. An unpredictable and unstable environment complicates reliable long-term policy-making. In the meanwhile, steadfast alliances of the twentieth century have disappeared. The status quo no longer works, demonstrated in the manifestations and fluctuations of the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt and Syria. World powers and potential leaders with solid experience manipulating, bankrolling and bullying have failed to subdue multidirectional flows of events. Under these circumstances, Iran, a regional power in and of itself, is not prone to be fashioned in a manner suitable for either Kremlin or the White House. Feelings of self-respect and national pride will not allow Tehran to come under American influence after decades of confrontation. Despite his moderation, reformist Hassan Rouhani was an eyewitness to the Iran-Iraq war and possesses rich experience with Iran’s foreign policy.
Secondly, the US is unable to dupe its traditional regional allies. Pro-Israeli lobby in the US government would not tolerate an about-turn of the administration to Tehran. The internal contradictions bereave Americas of an opportunity to build a long-term strategy based on complete reconciliation with Iran.
Historical superiority of Iran and its ambitions are obvious. The centre of Shia culture and politics with rich pre-Islamic and Islamic statehood experience, its reinforcement in would balance the weight of the Sunni-oriented regional alliances in Moscow’s eyes. Lifting sanctions would inevitably widen the circle of Iran’s potential partners, something Moscow does not seek to limit.
Kremlin strategists assume that it is better to be a desired partner rather than a hopeless friend. At times Moscow afforded pressure and disbalance in decision-making. But common ground and understanding the advantages of cooperation outweigh the disparity. Thawing of Tehran’s relations with Washington would benefit strategic partnership with Moscow in political and economic spheres. This includes SCO membership, coordination of policies in the Caspian, Central Asian and South Asian regions, regulation of gas markets and management of the energy resource channels. To advance bilateral relationships, Moscow would prefer to see an independent and strong ally although this will also require genuine adjustability and flexibility from Moscow itself.
*Karina Fayzullina is a researcher specialising in Russian affairs.
(1) Russia Today, “Unwilling Friendship: Israel and Saudi Arabia Unite Against the US,” 12 December 2013, http://russian.rt.com/article/19623.
(2)T. Gardiner, “U.S. senators seek to cut Iran's oil sales in half – again,” Reuters, 29 October 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/30/us-usa-iran-sanctions-idUSBRE99T00C20131030.
(3) The Voice of Russia, “Fyodor Lukyanov Interview: US and Iran Need a Break,” 30 November 2013, http://rus.ruvr.ru/2013_11_30/Fedor-Lukjanov-I-SSHA-i-Iranu-nuzhna-peredishka-v-otnoshenijah-9390/
(4) S.T.Hunter “The US-Iran Deal Could Lead to a More Stable Middle East and South-West Asia,” Huffington Post,” 12 March 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shireen-t-hunter/the-us-iran-deal-could-le_b_4379098.html.
(5) Foreign Ministry of Russia, “Interview with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov,” 10 February 2013, http://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/newsline/02EBC66354EF10E544257B0E0045AD41.
(6) See the UN Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
(7) Foreign Ministry of Russia, “Interview of Sergey Lavrov to the Egyptian Newspaper ‘Al Ahram,’” 5 November 2012, http://www.mid.ru/bdomp/brp_4.nsf/e78a48070f128a7b43256999005bcbb3/14fc5941c3f3147d44257ab0003cfb19!OpenDocument.
(8) Fyodor Lukyanov, “Iranian-American Game – The Main Intrigue of 2014,” RIA Novosti, 2014, http://beta.rian.ru/analytics/20140108/988167002.html.
(9) Lena Jonson, Tajikistan in the New Central Asia: Geopolitics, Great Power Rivalry and Radical Islam. Vol. 2. (London: IB Tauris, 2006), 45
(10) V. Trubnikov, “The Times Call for India to Enter the SCO,” Russian International
Affairs Council, 25 October 2013, http://russiancouncil.ru/inner/?id_4=2575#top.
(11) A. Roknifard, Y. Sveshnikova, “Midstream of Russian-Iranian friendship,” Russian International
Affairs Council, 2013, http://russiancouncil.ru/inner/?id_4=2049#top
(12) M. Tisheyar, “Russian-Iranian Cooperation in Oil Sector,” InoSmi, 1 February 2014, http://inosmi.ru/world/20140201/217084854.html, originally published in IRAS.