by Mark N. Katz
Prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014, Washington’s relations with Moscow were never worse than Washington’s relations with Tehran after the 1979 revolution. Indeed, occasionally in the 1990s and 2000s Russian-American relations seemed to be improving while Washington’s ties to Tehran remained poor. But since Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran in August 2013, and especially since the onset of the crises over Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, an unusual situation has developed: the possibility of improved Iranian relations with America and the West has increased while Russian ties with America and the West have sharply deteriorated.
Both Russian and Iranian commentators have discussed the implications of this new trend. Several Russian observers have warned that Russia could lose out if Iranian ties with America and the West improve. Several Iranian observers, for their part, have noted that many Russians fear just this. It is not surprising, then, that Moscow has stepped up its efforts to court Tehran.
Since the beginning of 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has met half a dozen times with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. In addition, several high-level Russian delegations have visited Tehran. In October 2014, the deputy director of Rosatom (which builds atomic energy plants) and the secretary of the Russian Security Council went to Iran. The following month, the chairman of the State Duma and the minister of economic development made the same trip. The Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, visited Tehran in January 2015 and signed a military cooperation agreement with Iran. Supreme Leader Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser and former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati met with President Vladimir Putin himself in Moscow in January 2015.
Moscow and Tehran have also announced ambitious plans to boost trade. Moscow has increased its food imports from Iran after drastically reducing what it buys from Europe in retaliation for EU economic sanctions resulting from Russian actions in Ukraine. Moscow has also agreed to build two more nuclear reactors for Iran (it recently completed one, though this took many years), and hopes to build more still.
There has also been an effort to revive Russian air defense missile system sales to Iran, which then-President Dmitri Medvedev suspended in 2010. This move greatly angered Tehran since it had not only signed a contract to buy Russian S-300s but had also paid Moscow for them. In addition, Moscow has reportedly agreed (in the Putin-Velayati meeting) to promote Iran from observer status to full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at its July 2015 summit. Further, Moscow is pushing for a $20 billion barter trade agreement with Iran whereby Moscow would buy up to 500,000 barrels per day of Iranian oil in exchange for Russian equipment and goods.
Moscow and Tehran share several common interests. Both want to exclude any outside (especially American) presence in the Caspian Sea, which Russia and Iran border. Both also fear what the withdrawal of Coalition forces will mean for the future of Afghanistan as well as Central Asia. Indeed, this concern may be the impetus for the current members of the SCO (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) to seek Iran’s inclusion. In addition, Moscow and Tehran are the primary supporters of the Assad regime in Syria. Both of them have also taken steps to help the Baghdad government combat the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Iraq.
In the ongoing P5 + 1 negotiations with Tehran over the Iranian nuclear issue, Moscow has sought an agreement that prevents Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Russia, though, has advocated a more accommodating approach toward Iran on this issue than the Western states.
On top of their longstanding distrust of America, Moscow and Tehran obviously have many incentives for mutual cooperation. They could clearly help sustain each other if the ongoing nuclear negotiations fail and Iranian relations with America and the West turn hostile once again.
The problem for Moscow, though, is that it cannot control the trajectory of relations between America and the West. If Iran on the one hand and America, the UK, and France on the other reach a settlement on the nuclear issue, Russia is not in a strong position to block it. If Moscow tried, then Iran and the West could simply ignore Russia and go forward with an agreement on their own, thus demonstrating Moscow’s lack of influence.
Further, there are several disagreements between Moscow and Tehran that may not be resolved even in a climate of deteriorating relations between Iran and the West. Although Russia and Iran agree that external powers should be excluded from the Caspian, they have not been able to resolve their longstanding disagreement about how its waters—and mineral resources—should be divided among the bordering states.
In addition, although Moscow’s relations with the West as a whole are poor, its relations with Israel are quite strong. This may serve to limit Moscow’s willingness to resume air defense missile systems shipments to Iran. Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and a member of the Russian Defense Ministry’s public advisory board, told The Moscow Times that “Russia has a secret obligation to Israel not to deliver S-300s to either Iran or Syria.”
There is a strong sense in Tehran that Moscow can cancel any Russian agreement to provide arms to Iran if and when it reaches an understanding with America and its allies to do so. Indeed, Iranians see both the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement of 1995 (which was also supposedly secret, but whose terms were well publicized) and Medvedev’s 2010 cancellation of the S-300 contract (to encourage the U.S. Senate ratification of START 2 and accommodate Israel) as prior instances of unreliable Russian behavior.
Further, America and the West have on occasion supported, or at least didn’t oppose, the interests of Russia and Iran. In this era of low oil prices, Western firms are not exactly rushing to develop oil and gas deposits in the Caspian. Although America and its Coalition partners are drawing down their forces from Afghanistan, they too want to prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the Kabul government or expanding into Central Asia. Like Russia and Iran, America is also working to combat IS in Iraq. And although America and the West disagree with Russia and Iran about whether Bashar al-Assad should continue to rule Syria, all agree that IS and other Sunni jihadists must be prevented from coming to power in Damascus.
Although Russia and the West are deeply divided over Ukraine, Iran doesn’t pay much attention to this issue. Like many other non-Western governments, it has largely avoided getting involved.
Finally, there is one arena in which Russian and Iranian interests diverge sharply: they are competitors in the oil and gas market. With many in the West decrying the degree to which Europe is dependent on Russia for natural gas in particular, Iranian leaders have made clear their willingness to sell both gas and oil to Europe. This is not likely to occur, though, unless an agreement over the Iranian nuclear issue is reached that allows for the reduction of international economic sanctions against Iran. However much the Kremlin would publicly blame America and the West if the Iranian nuclear negotiations fail, the continuation of the sanctions against Tehran that prevents the export of Iranian oil and gas to the West would provide considerable private consolation for Moscow.
Perhaps the best Moscow can hope for, then, is that if the nuclear negotiations fail and Iranian-Western relations once again grow hostile, Iran will see Russia as its preferred partner in opposition to America and its allies. Moscow, though, is not in a position to prevent an improvement in Iranian ties to the West. And even if the nuclear talks do not succeed, longstanding Iranian friction with Russia will serve to limit the extent to which Tehran is willing to cooperate with Moscow against the West—especially when Tehran continues to share with the West a common interest to contain IS in Iraq and Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Furthermore, if relations between Russia and the West deteriorate even further over Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, Moscow may actually distract the West’s attention away from Iran or even provide an incentive to be more accommodating toward Iran due to the need to focus the West’s resources on what it considers to be a much more dangerous enemy in the Kremlin.
The author is grateful to Yulia Krylova, a Ph.D. student in political science at George Mason University, for her research assistance for this article.