Can Russia and Iran Still Be Friends after the Nuclear Deal?
Mark N. Katz
July 7, 2016
Russian observers have long understood that Iranian-American hostility has been a factor motivating Tehran to seek close ties to Moscow, despite lingering Iranian resentment regarding czarist and Soviet interventions in Iranian affairs and ongoing differences over numerous policy issues (including the delimitation of the Caspian, oil production levels and Russia’s cooperation with Iranian adversaries in the region). Even areas of Russian-Iranian cooperation—such as Russia’s completion of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor and weapons sales to Iran—have proved contentious due to delays, disputes over contract terms and even cancellation of agreements (such as when President Dmitri Medvedev announced that Moscow would not deliver S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran in 2010 even though Tehran had already paid for them).
Many Russian observers, then, have expressed concern that if Iranian-American relations ever improved, this would lead to an overall Iranian turn toward the West and away from Russia. As progress was made toward the achievement of the Iranian nuclear accord (which was a high priority for the Obama administration in particular), some Russians believed the time they feared had come, when Iranian-American rapprochement would soon result in less Russian influence in Iran. Some had called for Russia to somehow derail the talks, but others pointed out that so long as Washington and Tehran wanted to achieve a nuclear accord, any effort by Moscow to stop it would only lead to an agreement being reached without Russian participation, and that would make Moscow appear weak and unimportant.
By now, though, it is clear that the coming into force of the Iranian nuclear accord has not resulted in an overall Iranian-American rapprochement. Nor is it likely to any time soon. This being the case, there has not been the attenuation of Russian-Iranian relations that many in Moscow feared the Iranian nuclear accord would lead to. Indeed, Russian-Iranian cooperation has increased recently.
One factor contributing toward Russian-Iranian cooperation is the joint fear on the part of their top leaders that America and the West seek to topple them through supporting “color revolutions” against them. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has placed a prohibition on expanding Iranian-American ties beyond nuclear cooperation. In an article published in the National Interest on May 3, 2016, the Iranian dissident author, Akbar Ganji, wrote that “in Khamenei’s view antagonism toward a common enemy, the United States, is the basis for unity between Iran and Russia.”
Moscow and Tehran, as is well known, have also been pursuing the common goal of protecting the Assad regime in Syria against the domestic opposition that arose against it during the onset of the “Arab Spring” in 2011. Before September 2015, forces from Iran (as well as Iranian allies from Hezbollah and various Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias) undertook the main burden of defending Assad while Russia played more of a supportive role in supplying arms to Damascus. But with the Assad regime losing ground during the summer of 2015 despite their support, Putin decided to ramp up Moscow’s role by sending Russian air force units to Syria, where they launched a bombing campaign that not only put a stop to the Assad regime losing ground, but to its regaining lost territory from its opponents. Russian and Iranian press accounts stated that joint planning for the Russian intervention began months in advance. Further, the combination of Russian air power and Iranian (plus allied militia) ground forces has proven highly effective.
Other forms of Russian-Iranian military cooperation have also increased. In April 2016, TASS confirmed that Russia had begun supplying S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran. Moscow had originally agreed to do so in 2007, but President Medvedev had then canceled the deal in 2010, perhaps as part of his effort to secure U.S. Senate ratification of New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty)—the subject of much Russian-Iranian contention afterward. In April 2015, President Putin announced that progress on the Iranian nuclear accord allowed Russia to lift the ban on selling S-300s to Iran. In addition, TASS also announced in April 2016 that Russia might supply radiolocation and electronic warfare systems to Iran. Trilateral security cooperation among Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran also advanced.
In addition, Russian-Iranian economic cooperation has expanded recently. Majles Speaker Ali Larijani declared that Iran will give Russia priority in any industry it wants to invest in. A top Russian customs official announced that Iran had promised to replace Turkey (whose ties to Russia have soured dramatically after the shoot down of a Russian military aircraft by Turkish forces in the vicinity of the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015) as a supplier of perishable foodstuffs. In addition, Moscow and Tehran signed a memorandum of understanding on railway development, and have discussed Russian investment in Iranian transportation infrastructure (including seaports). Moscow and Tehran have also agreed to explore for underground sources of water in Iran. And the two sides are working on expanding Russian-Iranian educational cooperation.
On the diplomatic front, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif expressed hopes that Russian-Iranian cooperation could lead to progress on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute as well as delimiting the Caspian Sea. Moscow has also been pressing the case for admitting Iran to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but could not persuade China to allow this at the most recent SCO summit.
Russian-Iranian cooperation, then, did not just remain strong after the Iranian nuclear accord was agreed upon, but has actually increased since then. Nevertheless, ties between Moscow and Tehran are not completely harmonious. The Iranian press frequently refers to longstanding Iranian grievances against Russia, including the loss of territory to czarist Russia in the early nineteenth century, czarist and Soviet interventions in Iran in the twentieth century, Soviet support for secessionism in Iran’s northwest after the two world wars, and Soviet support for Baghdad during the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War. Akbar Ganji has noted five more recent grievances: (1) Russia’s failure to veto UN Security Council resolutions against Iran over the nuclear issue; (2) the lengthy delay in Russian completion of the Bushehr nuclear reactor; (3) Russia’s failure to sell weapons (including fighter aircraft, tanks and various missiles) that Gorbachev said Moscow would sell to Tehran; (4) Russian pursuit of aims in Syria “which may sometimes be against Iran’s”; and (5) Russia’s close relations with “Iran’s archenemies,” Israel and Saudi Arabia.
A recent episode suggested that Moscow is not quite as committed to working with Tehran in the security realm as Iranian leaders would like. Ali Akbar Velayati (currently foreign policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, and a former Iranian foreign minister) in early February 2016 declared after a visit to Moscow that there are “prerequisites” for the creation of an alliance between Iran, Russia, Syria and Hezbollah. Soon thereafter, though, a Russian Foreign Ministry official described Velayati’s statement as “speculative,” and declared that “there are no plans of creating such an alliance.”
There are also limits to Russian-Iranian cooperation in the economic realm. In the same interview in which Majles Speaker Larijani said that Iran will give priority to Russian investment, he also admitted that “Iranian businessmen traditionally work with Europe.” Further, while Russia and Saudi Arabia both expressed their willingness to join with other oil exporters in freezing production in order to support oil prices, Tehran refused to do so and insisted that it would expand its oil production to levels that it had reached before the imposition of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. To the extent that Iran’s actions serve to increase the overall supply of oil, of course, they serve to keep oil prices low for all oil exporters, including Russia. Further, at the same time that Iran is taking advantage of poor relations between Russia and Turkey to increase Iranian exports to Russia, Iran is also seeking expanded economic ties with Turkey.
With regard to Syria, Moscow seems more eager to arrange a negotiated settlement between the Assad regime and at least some of its opponents than Iran does. In addition, while Russia has been supportive of Syrian Kurds as well as their hopes for a “federal solution” that would allow them autonomy inside Syria, Iran has sided with Turkey in opposing these Kurdish aspirations. Turkey and Iran, of course, both fear Kurdish secessionism within their own borders too.
While Russia’s support for Iran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization may appear as a sign of closer Russian-Iranian ties, the SCO is not a military alliance and its members are not bound to come to one another’s defense. Indeed, if reports that Moscow has long favored Iranian membership in the SCO while Beijing has not are true, then Iran’s future admission, should it occur, may be more a sign of warming Sino-Iranian ties than Russo-Iranian ones.
Further, while Moscow’s finally delivering S-300s to Tehran is clearly an indication of improving Russian-Iranian relations, it must be noted that these are not the more advanced S-400 air defense missile systems, which Russia is deploying to protect its own forces in Syria. Finally, in reaction to Putin’s March 2016 announcement that he was withdrawing the “main part” of Russian forces from Syria, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin immediately sought—and reportedly received—assurances from Putin that this would not result in Iran and Hezbollah being in a stronger position to threaten Israeli interests. Such reports must have left Tehran wondering whether Moscow had previously made the case to the Netanyahu administration that the Russian presence in Syria served to restrain Iran and Hezbollah from undertaking actions detrimental to Israel. Just as America’s Arab (as well as some other) allies are frustrated by Washington’s close ties to Israel, Iran is frustrated by Moscow’s close ties to the Jewish state.
The Iranian nuclear accord has not led either to an Iranian-American rapprochement or a diminution of Russian-Iranian cooperation. If anything, Russian-Iranian cooperation has increased since the accord came into effect. Nevertheless, while Moscow and Tehran have shown that they can cooperate effectively on common concerns, neither feels the least compunction about pursuing policies that the other does not approve of when their interests diverge.
So far, they have agreed to disagree on issues where their interests diverge and not allow these disagreements to affect their cooperation on those issues where their interests converge. This seems likely to remain true, unless their interests sharply diverge on issues that are of great importance to either or both. These might include Russia becoming more willing to accommodate Sunni Arabs in a Syrian peace settlement than Iran is, increased Russian support for Kurds in Syria and (more ominously for Iran) elsewhere, or a strong improvement in relations between America and the West on the one hand and Russia or Iran (but not both simultaneously) on the other. None of these or other such contingencies, though, seems likely to emerge at present, and so the current pattern of Russian-Iranian cooperation on some issues, and lack of it on others, appears likely to continue.
The fact is that every nation and government pursues what it considers to be its national interests and expediency. To do so, every government uses everything in its disposal, including conspiracy, spying, deception, infiltration, etc. Thus, even friendly nations do not completely trust each other. Recall that the U.S. eavesdropped on leaders of many Western European nations.
But, the problem is that Khamenei speaks as if only the United States, Israel and their Western allies try to gain influence in Iran, or pursue policies that are not in Iran’s national interests. At the same time, Khamenei has been presenting a completely positive image of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Yet even a glance at Iran’s history over the past two hundred years indicates that Russia has harmed Iran repeatedly including, for example, by imposing the Treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) on Iran, forcing it to cede large parts of its territory in the Caucasus region. Khamenei is also pursuing expanded relations with Russia to form a united front with it against the West. This requires not only a glaring double standard, but the breach of one of the main slogans of the 1979 Revolution, namely, “neither West nor East.” How did this come to be?
Khamenei, the Novel Reader
Khamenei likes to read Western novels, which I discussed in a previous article. He has also read many Russian novels, and considers himself well informed on the history of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia. In fact, some aspects of that revolution represent models that he thinks he should follow.
In a meeting with artists and cultural officials of the state in July 1994, Khamenei complained about the intellectuals, poets and writers in the pre-Revolution Iran, claiming that none of them joined the 1979 Revolution. He then turned to the Russian Revolution, and while conceding that it was very brutal and violent, “It attracted a large number of Russian intellectuals and first-rate writers and poets.” He mentioned Aleksey Tolstoy (1883-1945), the Russian writer—“whom I like very much”—and the fact that up until 1925 he was even a counter-revolutionary who had left Russia, but after he returned home, he wrote a “great novel” about the Russian Revolution that described beautifully its events. Khamenei then mentioned another Russian writer, Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-1984),who wrote And Quiet Flows the Don. Initially, Russian officials did not even allow publication of the epic novel, Khamenei said, but, “Unfortunately, [our] intellectuals, poets, and musicians did not support the Islamic Republic.”
Ali Larijani, the current Speaker of the Majles [parliament], headed the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic [the state-controlled national networks of radio and television] for 10 years, beginning in 1992. In a confidential letter to him, Khamenei wrote,
“If you read and watch the Russian novels and plays, you would know that they did their utmost to produce the best works, such as, for example,The Mother (a novel) and Vassa Zheleznova (a drama), both by Maxim Gorky;And Quiet Flows the Don, and tens of other novels and plays. They picture Russia both before the Revolution and the sacrifices made by the people and leaders after the Revolution. But, the work that has been done [in Iran] in this regard ever since the Revolution has been close to nothing. It is your duty to recognize this great responsibility and try to make up for it by serious and sustained work. You should report to me on the progress that you make” [Via Larijani’s ten-year memoirs, posted on the website of Jaam-e Jam, the website close to him].
To Khamenei, Russians’ use of music to encourage people to take part in wars is a model that should be emulated. In another meeting with cultural officials and figures in July 2011, Khamenei said,
I have heard that during World War II in Russia, the music played by Habil Aliyev [known in Iran as Aliyev’s Shur], the well-known music that you gentlemen know, but I do not and have never listened to, had the greatest effect on the people for exciting them to join the war efforts and go to the fronts. This means that the music was deployed for achieving people’s goals. Naturally, this is expected of any [true] artist in any nation. Thus, how can we be indifferent about this, while the enemy uses it?
To Khamenei, resisting the enemy is very important, which is why he said in September of 2005,
War and Peace of Leo Tolstoy is about the incredible resistance of the Russian People against Napoleon’s army, and the great movement of people of Moscow in order to defeat Napoleon. But, I believe the greatness of the book has its roots in the resistance spirit of the Russian people.
American Reform and Soviet-Style Collapse of the Islamic Republic
When the reform movement began in Iran after Mohammad Khatami was elected President in May 1997, Khamenei was deeply worried that the Islamic Republic would collapse in a way akin to what happened to the Soviet Union. He claimed that the Soviet collapse was an American plot using the weaknesses in the Soviet society, such as deep poverty, repression, bureaucratic corruption, ethnic and national tensions, and “deceived people,” such as Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as the mass media and culture. He then claimed that the United States intended to do the same in Iran.
In a long speech to senior officials in July 2000, Khamenei said that the Americans changed the meanings of Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika in a way that was acceptable to them. Then, Khamenei said, Boris Yeltsin entered the political arena, claimed that the pace of Gorbachev’s reforms was too slow, and accelerated them. Gorbachev was no longer useful to the Americans, Khamenei claimed and, thus, the Americans began propping up Yelstin through a “suspicious coup.” Yelstin was elected Russia’s President in 1991, and only seven months later the Soviet Union collapsed. “Through an intelligent 3-4 year plot, spending some funds, buying off some people, and using propaganda, the Americans could destroy the Soviet Union over the last 6-7 months [of its existence],” Khamenei concluded. His speech was shortly after Putin had been elected President in May 2000.
Khamenei also said that the goal of the United States was to transform Russia into a third-rate power, but the plot failed, “Because Russia is a powerful nation, and has people with a strong race. They have also made considerable progress in science and nuclear [technology], and their scientists and their research have made great strides.” Khamenei predicted at the time that Russia would make considerable progress, and he turned out to be correct. The Russian economy has grown at an average annual rate of 4.7 percent since Putin took over in 2000.
Khamenei claimed that the Americans have the same plan for Iran, but that they cannot succeed because,
First, they [the Americans] said that Khatami is like Gorbachev, but he is not.
Second, Islam is unlike communism [in the Soviet Union]. Russian people did not believe in communism, but Iranian people believe in Islam.
Third, the Islamic Republic is not a proletarian dictatorship [in the Soviet Union mold] that did not have [true] elections for 70 years, Even Western democracies, such as those in France and the United States, are not as popular as the Islamic Republic.
Fourth, Iran is a unified and homogeneous nation, unlike the Soviet Union that was a collection of various nationalities that had been glued together.
Fifth, the Soviet Union lacked the type of supreme leadership [a reference to himself] that the Islamic Republic has. If it had, then, when a leader like Yeltsin entered power to accelerate the reforms in an irrational and abnormal way, with people’s support the supreme leader could have dismissed him.
All parts of the bureaucracy must confront Yelstin-type reforms, and do not allow an ambitious, deceived and negligent leader to deviate the [reform] movement from its righteous path, as if it is a race [toward the end of the Islamic Republic].
Khamenei, acting as the Supreme Leader, did not allow Khatami to carry out his reforms, and now he has even been expelled from the power structure. Khatami’s image has been banned, and he is not allowed to speak in public, give interviews, cannot travel abroad, and has even been prevented from private gatherings on such occasions as weddings and funerals. Khamenei has treated similarly former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, two leaders of the Green Movement. Thus, he has demonstrated how he views the reformers.
Khamenei’s views in the foreign-policy arena are similar. The West must be viewed with suspicion, because it supported Saddam Hussein and his regime during the war with Iran in the 1980s. Thus, his motto is “yes to diplomacy, no to trusting the enemy.”
Khamenei’s View of Russia
During a ceremony marking the anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini death in June 2006, and six years after Putin had taken over control of Russia, Khamenei said, “We have good relations with Russia. The Russians are well aware of the consequences for them if a pro-American regime comes to power in Iran. We have common interests with them in Central Asia and in the Middle East.”
Thus, in Khamenei’s view antagonism toward a common enemy, the United States, is the basis for unity between Iran and Russia. When in January 2007 Igor Ivanov, Secretary-General of Russia’s National Security Council, met with Khamenei in Tehran, he thanked Ivanov for Putin’s written message delivered by Ivanov and said,
Our two countries can be partners in political, economic, regional and international affairs. The Islamic Republic of Iran desires expanding its relations with Russia. We believe that we can go well beyond the current level of relations between our countries.
Khamenei added that the United States wants to dominate the region, but has not achieved its goal and “cooperation between Iran and Russia on regional affairs within a well-defined framework will prevent the U.S. domination.” After pointing out that Putin had also emphasized the same in his message, “Particularly regarding the completion of [then under construction] Bushehr light-water nuclear reactor,” Khamenei expressed his hope the cooperation and carrying out the mutual obligations will accelerate.
Putin has met with Khamenei twice. The first time was in July 2007, when he visited Tehran to convince Khamenei to take a constructive approach to the [then ongoing] nuclear negotiations with the P5+1. In that meeting Putin said,
The national interests of Iran and Russia are tied to Iran being a powerful and effective voice in international arena. Moscow has no limitations in its relations with Tehran, and will move along this path [of cooperation] without any hesitation.
Khamenei welcomed Putin’s statement, and then criticized the United States for its “illegitimate interests” in region, saying,
Just as an independent Iran serves Russia’s interests, an independent Russia also serves Iran’s national interests. We have a good image of the Russian nation in mind, which is due to the excellent resistance [against foreigners] that it has demonstrated at various times.
Putin’s second meeting with Khamenei was in November of 2015. The two met for two hours, during which Khamenei praised Russia’s role in regional and international affairs, and said,
The long-term plan of the United States is against the interests of all nations, particularly our two nations, which can be thwarted by closer cooperation between our two countries.
Khamenei referred to Putin as a “distinguished leader” in today’s world. Pointing to the close working relation between Tehran and Moscow on political and security affairs over the eighteen months prior to their second meeting Khamenei said, “The Americans always try to neutralize their competitors, but you have prevented that.”
Khamenei said Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria has increased the credibility of Russia and Putin in regional and international affairs, adding,
The Americans’ long-term plan for dominating Syria and the Middle East is meant to compensate the historic vacuum [that exists] in their domination of Western Asia. This plan is a threat to all nations, particularly Iran and Russia. The Americans and their allies want to achieve at the negotiation table what they could not through military means [in Syria and the Middle East]. We must be alert about this and prevent it.
Khamenei also said that Bashar al-Assad is the legitimate and legal President of the Syrian people and that the United States cannot make decision for them and decide who should be Syria’s president. “The United States and its allies have aided, directly and indirectly, such terrorist groups as Daesh [also known as ISIS or ISI], which is why we [Iran] will not negotiate with them on bilateral issues, except in the nuclear arena,” Khamenei added.
According to Khamenei’s website, Putin supported expanding the bilateral relationship with Iran, and asked for Iran’s cooperation in the regional and international affairs. The key point that Putin made was,
We view you [Iran] as a reliable ally in the region and the world. We are committed [to our relations] and unlike others we do not stab our friends in the back, we do not do anything behind their backs, and if we have differences, we resolve them through negotiations.
Putin said that the views of Tehran and Moscow regarding Syria are close, and that the problem there only has a political solution that can be achieved through participation of all ethnic groups and accepting the votes of the Syrian people. Emphasizing that Russia’s military attacks on terrorist groups in Syria will continue, Putin said that cooperation between Tehran and Moscow is necessary. He then gave Khamenei one of the oldest copies of the Quran as a gift.
A Quran Instead of Commitments
Khamenei and his supporters greatly exaggerated the significance of Putin’s second meeting with him. Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and current senior foreign-policy adviser to Khamenei, said, “As someone who has worked in the foreign-policy arena for thirty-four years I can say that ever since the Revolution there has never been a meeting with such quality and importance in which various strategic issues were discussed,” adding that the president of a nation whose people are mostly Orthodox Christians gave the leader of a Muslim nation a copy of the Quran as a gift.
Iran has tens of millions of copies of the Quran. Iran’s problems and difficulties have nothing to do with lacking copies of the Quran. The Quran that Putin gave Khamenei had its origins in the historic Levant region during the Umayyad Dynasty. Thus, let us consider what Putin and Russia have done for Iran that deserves such praise.
First, Russia has voted for all the key United Nations Security Council resolutions against Iran. For comparison, the United States vetoes practically any resolution against Israel.
Second, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had signed agreements with Germany to build two light water nuclear reactors in Bushehr, in southern Iran. But, by the time 75 percent of the work had been done on one reactor, and 60 percent on the other, the Revolution ended the work. In 1994 Iran signed an agreement with Russia for completion of the first unit, which was supposed to come online in 2000, but the reactor came online only in September of 2011. The delay was caused by concessions that Russia had made to Israel and the United States.
Third, in June 1989 then president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visited Russia. In his memoirs Rafsanjani wrote, “During negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev we were told that the Soviet Union will sell us MiG-29 fighters, T-80 tanks, SA-5 missiles, sea-to-sea missiles, etc.” But, Russia did not deliver on most of those promises.
It was announced in January 2009 that Russia will sell to Iran the S-300 missile system, which is a defensive weapon. The agreement for selling the system was worth $800 million, but so far Russia has refused to deliver the complete system, even though their sale would not violate any UN Security Council resolution. It was only in March 2015 that Putin cancelled the ban on selling the missile system to Iran.
While according to the annual report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, published a while ago, $1.676 trillion was spent on weapons during 2015, including $87 billion by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s military expenditure has decreased by 30 percent between 2006 and 2015, and was only $10.3 billion in 2015. In 2015 alone the United States sold $33 billion worth of weapons to the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf area. During the same period Russia exported $15 billion worth of weapons, it still has not delivered all of Iran’s missile system.
Fourth, the IRGC chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari said in March that “given the current ceasefire there has not been any change in Russia’s policy toward Syria, and it is completely coordinated with the Resistance Front [Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and Syrian government]. Capturing Palmyra is the evidence of full coordination between Russia and Syria.” But, the fact is that Russia pursues its own interests in Syria, which may sometimes be against Iran’s.
Fifth, Russia has close relations with Iran’s archenemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It pursues its own national interests.
One cannot, of course, rebuke Putin for pursuing Russia’s national interests. The problem is Khamenei’s double standards whereby he views the United States and President Obama completely negatively, while heaps praise on Putin and Russia. This cannot be justified by any sort of rationale.
The Obama era was, and still is, the best period for resolving the issues between Iran and the United States. The President’s successor, even if it is the Democrat Hillary Clinton, will be a more difficult period, given Clinton’s tough positions toward Iran. Putin will continue playing games with Iran and Khamenei for Russia’s interests. He will give Khamenei another old copy of the Quran in his next meeting with him.
Akbar Ganji is an Iranian investigative journalist and dissident. He was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006, and his writings are currently banned in Iran.
This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.
/18/”>Image: Khamenei inspects the Quran Putin gave him. Khamenei.ir.
Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Lidia Kelly
When Iran took delivery of the first parts of an advanced Russian air defense system this month, it paraded the anti-aircraft missile launchers sent by Moscow to mark Army Day.
Tehran had cause to celebrate: the Kremlin’s decision a year ago to press ahead with the stalled sale of the S-300 system was the first clear evidence of a growing partnership between Russia and Iran that has since turned the tide in Syria’s civil war and is testing U.S. influence in the Middle East.
But the delay in implementation of the deal also points to the limitations of a relationship that is forged from a convergence of interests rather than a shared worldview, with Iran’s leadership divided over ideology and Russia showing signs of reluctance to let the alliance develop much more, according to diplomats, officials and analysts interviewed by Reuters.
Some Iranian officials want a strategic alliance, a much deeper relationship than now. But the Kremlin refers only to ongoing cooperation with a new dimension because of the conflict in Syria, in which both back Damascus.
“We are continuously developing friendly relations with Iran, but we cannot really talk about a new paradigm in our relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month.
Russia agreed to sell the S-300 system to Iran in 2007 but froze the deal in 2010 after sanctions were imposed on Tehran over its nuclear program.
Moscow lifted the self-imposed ban in April last year as Iran and world powers got closer to the deal that led eventually to the nuclear-related sanctions being lifted in exchange for Tehran curbing its atomic program.
Russia is now weighing the financial and diplomatic benefits of arms sales to Tehran against the risk of upsetting other countries including Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel, or seeing Iran become too powerful.
“There is a military-economic aspect to this alliance which is beneficial to both sides,” said Maziar Behrooz, associate professor of Mideast and Islamic history at San Francisco State University, who has studied Iran’s relationship with Russia.
BACKING FOR DAMASCUS
The relationship, long cordial, appeared to reach a new level last September when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a military intervention in Syria in support of Iran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad.
Iran had already deployed its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), who had rallied Assad’s troops to check the opposition’s momentum. But it took Russian air power to break the stalemate and give Assad the upper hand.
Militarily, the two powers proved complementary. Iran brought disciplined ground troops who worked well with their local allies, while Russia provided the first-rate air power that Iran and Assad lack.
Diplomatically, the joint operations have made Tehran and Moscow central to any discussion about the regional security architecture.
That is important for Putin as he has sought to shore up alliances in the region and increase Moscow’s influence since Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a Russian ally, was killed.
How well Moscow will fare when it comes to winning lucrative business contracts now the nuclear-related sanctions have been lifted is less clear. There is little sign so far of Russian companies making new inroads into Iran.
This is partly for ideological reasons. The Iranian establishment is divided, with President Hassan Rouhani’s faction more interested in trading with the West than struggling against it, even if many U.S. policies are still condemned.
Russia has little incentive to join the mostly Shi’ite “Axis of Resistance” to Western interests in the region which is championed by the more conservative Iranian faction as this could ruin its relationships with other Middle Eastern powers such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Russia’s first big intervention in the Middle East since the Cold War followed months of secret meetings in Moscow between Putin and Iranian officials, including IRGC commanders and Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A close and exclusive alliance with Russia would suit Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful figure, who has blamed Western influence for Iran’s troubles and pushed hard to implement his “Look East” policy.
But it runs contrary to the policy of Iran’s government, led by Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who have courted Western delegations on an almost weekly basis since the nuclear deal was reached with world powers last July.
The Western-educated Rouhani is less inclined toward Russia and has an uneasy relationship with Putin. Last November, during his first visit to Tehran in eight years, Putin went straight from the airport to meet Khamenei, rather than seeing Rouhani first as most visitors do.
“Rouhani and Putin don’t get along that great,” an Iranian diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Some Iranian officials are also wary of getting too close to Russia, which fought Britain for domination of 19th century Iran and occupied the country during both World Wars.
“Russians have always used us as a tool in their foreign policy. They never stayed committed to their alliance with any country,” Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, who served as spokesman for former President Mohammad Khatami, told Reuters from Tehran.
Putin has worked hard to improve relations with Iran. During the November visit, he presented Khamenei with one of the world’s oldest copies of the Koran, which Russia had obtained during its occupation of northern Iran in the 19th century.
The intervention in Syria has served as a distraction from economic problems in Russia, deepened by international sanctions on Moscow over its role in the Ukraine crisis which have forced Moscow to seek new trade partners.
Trade with Iran was only $1.3 billion in 2015, according to Russian data, though there are signs cooperation could pick up.
Russia says it is ready to start disbursing a $5-billion loan to Tehran for financing infrastructure projects. A deal is also being discussed for Russia to send oil and gas to northern Iran, where supply is scarce, and for Iran to send oil and gas from its southern fields to Russia’s customers in the Gulf.
But the prospects for cooperation may be limited, sector analysts say, as, to update its energy sector, Iran mainly needs technology and equipment which Russia is also in need of.
Russia is also in talks to help upgrade Iran’s dilapidated air force by selling it Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets but the deal would need the approval of the United Nations Security Council and could further strain Moscow’s relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
(Editing by Sam Wilkin, William Maclean and Timothy Heritage)
Iranian official: US will remain our enemy despite emerging nuclear deal
A senior Iranian military official said Sunday that despite the emerging nuclear deal between Iran and the US-led P5+1 group of world powers, America will remain Tehran’s enemy.
Iranian Ground Force Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan said that even if a nuclear deal comes to fruition in Vienna, where Iranian and western negotiators are currently trying to reach an agreement by a Tuesday deadline, Tehran and Washington will not become friends.
“The US might arrive at some agreements with us within the framework of the Group 5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Britain and France plus Germany), but we should never hold a positive view over the enemy,” Iran’s Fars News Agency quoted Pourdastan as saying.
A senior Iranian military official said Sunday that despite the emerging nuclear deal between Iran and the US-led P5+1 group of world powers, America will remain Tehran’s enemy.
Pourdastan’s comments came as differences still remained between the two sides over the country’s disputed nuclear program ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for a final agreement to end a 12-year-old dispute.
The deal under discussion between Iran and the powers is aimed at curbing Tehran’s most sensitive nuclear work for a decade or more, in exchange for relief from sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
The United States and its allies fear Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Iran says its program is peaceful.
Washington is negotiating the deal as part of a group of major powers that also includes Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. It is a major initiative both for the administration of US President Barack Obama and for Iran’s pragmatic elected President Hassan Rouhani, both of whom face skepticism from powerful hardliners at home.
Reaching a deal would be the most important milestone in decades towards alleviating hostility between the United States and Iran, enemies since Iranian revolutionaries captured 52 hostages in the US embassy in Tehran in 1979.
An Iranian official told the semi-official Tasnim news agency that the talks could continue until July 9, echoing some Western diplomats. Kerry said negotiators were still aiming for the July 7 deadline, which the negotiators set when they missed a June 30 deadline last week.
Kerry and Zarif held a string of meetings on Sunday, trying to overcome remaining differences, including how to lift United Nations sanctions and what advanced research and development Iran may pursue. Foreign ministers of the other powers started to return to Vienna on Sunday to help push for a swift deal.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that reaching an agreement is possible this week if Iran makes the “hard choices” necessary, but if not, the United States stands ready to walk away from the negotiations.
Reuters contributed to this report.
By INU staff
INU – Ever since Hassan Rouhani was appointed as the president of Iran, and ever since negotiations began between Iran and six other nations over the Islamic Republic’s disputed nuclear program, there has been speculation about the possibility of Iran fully entering the global diplomatic community alongside the democratic nations of the world. Iran’s simple willingness to talk to the US and its allies has given the impression of its leadership turning the corner, and it has led to partial relief of economic sanctions, the reopening of British embassies in Iran, and even occasional signs of rapprochement between Iran and its principal regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, perennial critics of the Iranian regime, have warned that the apparently friendly tone coming out of Tehran is unlikely to signify anything other than a change of strategy. They tend to argue that the regime is willing to make superficial changes to try to limit its crippling international isolation, but reliably refuses to make actual concessions that might weaken the mullahs’ hold on power.
Such critics have been at least partly vindicated by the latest developments – or lack thereof – in the nuclear negotiations and loosely related IAEA probe into the past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei welcomed the latest round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 by reiterating the country’s unacceptable demands for limitless uranium enrichment capability. Meanwhile, the IAEA has called for more Iranian cooperation following its latest visit to Tehran, pointing out that formerly promised transparency measures have never been carried out in full.
In general, relations between Iran and much of the world seem to have been characterized by initial optimism and disappointing follow-through. The dichotomy suggests that future relations are presently up in the air. They will depend, no doubt, on a variety of factors, including to what extent Iran persists in its nuclear intransigence, how much the West is willing to put up with that intransigence, and whether the US sees itself as being in need of Iranian help in the conflict with the Islamic State.
Already, one of the positive outgrowths of Iran’s policy change has fallen apart, partly due to the situation with ISIS. The apparent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been spotty and short-lived. Saudi Arabia may have formerly felt obligated to open up to its historical adversary because it realized it couldn’t compete politically or militarily against an Iran that had the support of Western powers. But with Iran now working to leverage the IS conflict in its favor, Saudi Arabia likely feels that it cannot avoid competing with its adversary, for fear that Iran will only grow more dangerous the longer the West looks away.
One aspect of this escalating danger relates to Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria – a regime that gives Iran a strategic foothold on the Mediterranean. Just as Iran has been unwilling to relinquish its own enrichment capacity, it has been unwilling to let go of its support for Assad, even as newfound US efforts in the region serve to strengthen the moderate rebel groups that formerly threatened Assad’s hold on power. Iran has repeatedly criticized US-led bombing campaigns on ISIS targets in Syria, arguing that they should have been carried out only in coordination with the Assad regime. Claiming that the multinational coalition against ISIS is ineffectual, Iran has been intent on convincing foreign powers to adopt the Islamic Republic’s own pro-Assad strategy in that same conflict.
To date, the US and Iran have reportedly been ignoring each other in Iraq, the main ISIS battleground, and thus the US has not seriously pushed back against Iran’s demands for strategic compliance. But the same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia, which publicly called upon Iran to pull out of Syria on Monday. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal issued this statement in a joint news conference with Germany Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, suggesting the possibility that the latest pushback against Iranian regional influence may have some support from Germany, one of the six members of the negotiating group discussing Iran’s nuclear program.
It remains to be seen whether other nations will join in Saudi Arabia’s public call for a reduction in Iran’s regional influence. Much will depend upon the United States. To date, Iran’s criticism and demands have clearly been based in large part upon Tehran’s belief that the US is unwilling to expand its own investment in the region, and will embrace Iranian help in resolving the conflict, even if that help comes at the cost of greater nuclear concessions and sanctions relief.
But although Ayatollah Khamenei claimed to have received and rejected an offer of military cooperation from the US State Department, the White House has repeatedly said that no such coordination is on the table. Iran’s expectations may thus be based on the widespread optimism that has characterized much of the world’s relations with the Islamic Republic in the last year. But those expectations will only prove realistic if current Western policies are based on that optimism, and not on the disappointing follow-through that has been equally prevalent.