A challenging time for Russia-Iran ties

M.K. Bhadrakumar April 6, 2015 10:35 AM (UTC+8)
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Iran’s integration into the international community will significantly impact its relations with Russia. The relationship between the two regional powers plays out on a big canvas spanning several regions and many ‘hotspots,’ stretching from Central Asia to the Caspian and the Caucasus, Persian Gulf and the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

The Russian-Iranian relationship has been historically a troubled one and despite the brave face put on it by both sides, there are strong undercurrents. The very fact that Russian experts have poured cold water on the framework agreement reached between Iran and the world powers at Lausanne last Thursday and are questioning the ability of the U.S. president Barack Obama to weather the upcoming storm in the Congress and have a final deal with Iran wrapped up by end-June as planned, can be taken as both a level-headed assessment of the realities in American politics as well as a message of caution to Tehran to be wary of the pitfalls ahead and a subtle hint of Russia’s continuing relevance.

Almost everything that Russia says about Iran has a double meaning – an intrinsic meaning and a relative meaning. The lack of transparency can be traced back to the heydays of the U.S.-Russia reset when Moscow actively cooperated with the Obama administration circa 2010 to clamp down the sanctions regime on Iran and to help the Obama administration heap unprecedented international pressure to isolate Iran. Russia also dragged its feet on various pretexts in completing the Bushehr nuclear power plant; and, in the unkindest cut of all, under American pressure Moscow withdrew from the military deal to sell S-300 air defense system to Iran at a juncture when the U.S. was holding out open threats of attacking Iran.

The collateral damage inflicted by the U.S.-Russia reset to Russia’s relations with Iran was substantial.  The mending of the fences calls for a determined effort from both sides.

Ironically, Russia had spurned the overtures of the one Iranian president who had been ideologically closest to the world-view that Moscow today espouses – Mohammad Ahmedinejad – whereas, Moscow is today called upon to deal with, arguably, the most ‘western-oriented’ government in Iran in the Islamic Republic’s three-and-a-half decades of history. And this is at a time when Russia’s own ties with the West are at an all-time low point since the Cold war ended.

Suffice it to say, the loci of the Russian and Iranian foreign policies have been moving in opposite directions lately and it poses a challenge for the two countries’ diplomats to reconcile this contradiction. The relationship needs attention at the leadership level.

In many ways, the trajectory of the Iran-Russia relationship in the period ahead will be a reflection of the foreign-policy choices in front of Iran in an unprecedented environment free of sanctions where Tehran enjoys the space and freedom to maneuver like at no time since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Having said that, for Russian diplomacy Iran is by no means a strange country. Besides, there are objective factors at work in regional and world politics today, which Russian diplomacy can be trusted to exploit.

Russia lost no time after the news broke on the framework agreement being reached in Lausanne last week to signal that Moscow could resume implementation of the moribund contract to supply S-300 antiballistic missile systems to Iran once the UN lifts the ban on arms sales to Iran. Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoiglu’s visit to Tehran in January was an important initiative undertaken with considerable foresight to re-launch the military cooperation between the two countries in anticipation of an imminent U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.

In the Russian estimation, even with the integration of Iran into the international community, it is inconceivable that the western powers will begin to supply arms to Iran. Many factors impede such a development, including the longstanding relations between the western countries and the Gulf Arab states and Israel’s sensitivities over transfer of military technology to Iran. On the contrary, Russia is positioning itself as a reliable source of military technology for Iran.

Iran will prioritize its relations with the West in order to attract cutting edge technology for the modernization of its economy as well as for boosting trade and investment. The Iranian middle class and technocrats and business community are known to prefer western partners. The West’s ‘soft power’, especially America’s, holds seamless attraction for the Iranian urban elites. But then, western countries do not transfer high technology very easily. Their preference will be to sell their products in Iran’s big market. (The oil industry is an exception.) This is where Russia comes in.

Russia’s advantage lies in filling in a crucial role as partner in military cooperation or areas such as nuclear energy. Indeed, for an ambitious country such as Iran, Russia makes a ‘natural ally’ insofar as its quest for ‘strategic autonomy’ and its independent foreign policies do not grate on Russia’s strategic calculus.

Significantly, the foreign policy aide to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Akbar Velayati visited Moscow as a special envoy of the Iranian president in early February and was received by President Vladimir Putin. Velayati has been a trusted interlocutor for Moscow for decades. Velayati has been the longest serving Iranian foreign minister (1981-1997) and has been aptly described as “a window into the foreign policy of Iran’s Supreme Leader.”

Velayati is a strong votary of multipolarity in world politics and of an Iran-Russia-China axis to counter the U.S.’ global hegemony. Therefore, it is extremely interesting that Velayati was brought in as Iran’s interlocutor with the Kremlin at a defining moment in Iran’s foreign-policy trajectory. Tehran could not have sent a more convincing signal to the Kremlin of its profound solidarity with Russia.

Why would Iran be interested in the ‘B’ team when it has the West embracing it? First of all, the nuclear deal doesn’t mean that the ideals of the Islamic revolution have become history. The western commentators often speak of President Hassan Rouhani as if he is a dissident tilting at the citadel of the Islamic regime. Whereas, Rouhani is as much a progeny of the revolution as his predecessors have been, and enormous continuity is what is to be expected in Iran’s foreign policies alongside the inevitable fine-tuning geared to optimally exploit the new opportunities to engage with the West.

Second, Iran cannot be under any illusion that the nuclear issue means a relaxation of tensions with the U.S. or even a full-fledged normalization of relations with America. To be sure, the U.S. will continue to peck at Iran’s revolutionary ideals as disruptive and will remain wary of Iran’s ambitions as a regional power.

The heart of the matter is that the deal with Iran doesn’t mean that the U.S. is about to dump its traditional allies in the region. Without doubt, the U.S. will give due consideration to its allies’ anxieties regarding Iran’s potentials once it is unshackled from the sanctions regime.

On its part, Iran will anticipate that no sooner than the deal with Iran has been negotiated, the U.S. will turn attention to offer new forms of security assurances and cooperation to its traditional allies. Without doubt, the Obama administration will do whatever it takes to shore up anxious friends and this, in turn, may even necessitate pressuring Iran to show restraint.

All in all, Iran cannot do without a strategic understanding with Russia. Velayati’s mission to Moscow aimed at revamping the strategic ties with Russia and attuning it to Iran’s emergent concerns as a ‘normal country’. The high probability is that Russia and China will hasten the admission of Iran as a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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