by Shireen Hunter
Despite its slogan of “Neither East Nor West, only Islamic Republic” and its labeling of the USSR as the “little Satan,” the Islamic Republic of Iran from its very early days viewed the USSR and the other Eastern Bloc countries more sympathetically than it did the United States and West European countries. This more positive view of the USSR persisted even in the face of the rather shabby way that the latter treated Iran, for instance by essentially siding with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. When Gorbachev began reforms that moved Moscow closer to the West, Iran-USSR relations worsened, despite Eduard Shevardnadze’s trip to Tehran in 1989 and the reaching of an apparent modus vivendi between the two states.
After the USSR’s collapse, Iran continued trying to establish good economic and other relations with Russia, even though Yeltsin and his close collaborators—especially his first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev—saw Iran and its Islamist ideology as a major threat to Russia. By the mid -1990s, when Russia’s romance with the West had begun to sour and Yevgenii Primakov initiated the “doctrine of multipolarity” and started reaching out to China and other Asian neighbors, relations with Iran still remained cool. The interminable time that Russia took to complete the Bushehr power plant and the refusal of high Russian officials to visit Iran, despite repeated invitations, reflected Russia’s deep ambivalence. Unlike Turkey, Iran for its part never challenged Russia in the former Soviet space and maintained an almost pro-Russian stance regarding the Chechen war. And yet, Russian-Iranian relations have not been easy. In fact, on many occasions, Putin humiliated Iran by not visiting it, except very briefly in 2007 and only as a part of the meetings of the heads of the Caspian littoral states. In other words, Putin has never paid a proper state visit to Iran.
The greatest Russian chicanery toward Iran was, of course in regard to Iran’s nuclear dossier. Russia went along with Western sanctions while all the time presenting itself as a more fair-minded player willing to meet Iran’s reasonable demands. In fact, for several years Russia successfully played the Iran card to get concessions from the West. All the while, Iran continued to respond positively to the slightest sign of Russian encouragement at a time when hardliners in Tehran considered even a brief telephone conversation between Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani and the president of the United States to be high treason.
Convergence vs. Confrontation
Russia’s approach toward Iran is understandable, because Russian and Iranian economic, strategic and even cultural interests are competitive rather than complementary. For example, Russia is a rival of Iran in the energy field. Russia does not want Iran’s natural gas to reach Europe because this would limit the market for Russia’s own exports. Russia also competes with Iran over energy markets in Turkey and the Caucasus. A significant flow of Iranian gas and oil to Armenia and Georgia in particular would sharply reduce the leverage that Russia has over these countries through its control of energy resources. Iran also serves as a good transportation alternative for these countries to get their energy to market by rail or through Iran’s Persian Gulf ports. Therefore, recent reports that Iran hopes to build rail and road connections with Russia’s help shows the triumph of hope over experience in Russian-Iranian relations.
Moreover, Russia is not a capital-rich country, especially at the present time. Quite the contrary, Russia needs capital inflows that have now become less secure because of the crisis in Russia-Western relations. Thus, the latest Russian courting of Iran is most likely another Russian exercise in manipulating Iran for its own purposes. For example, Russia essentially wants to use the Iranian market for the export of its own products as one way of easing the economic pain of Western sanctions. The latest Russian moves are also motivated by its fears that Iran might grow closer to Europe and, even worse from the Russian perspective, eventually to the US. So once more Russia is luring Iran with uncertain promises. According to the Persian proverb, Russia is showing Iran the door to the green garden.
Russia is clearly using Iran strategically in Syria and in its relations with the Arab states. Indeed, if the Russians find it expedient they will sell out Iran in Syria and elsewhere. At the moment it is clearly convenient for Russia to have Iran as an ally in Syria. But should Assad survive, Russia will want to curb Iran’s role in Syria. Similarly, if by using the threat of the Islamic State Russia manages to reestablish a presence in Iraq, it will try to expand its own economic and other interests there at the expense of Iran. Such Russian behavior is neither surprising nor outside the norms of state conduct. By acting according to the logic of state, and especially great power, behavior, Russia is looking after its own interests.
What is strange is Iran’s behavior. Despite years of manipulation, Tehran is still willing to believe in Moscow’s promises. For example, despite the Bushehr experience, Iran seems to believe that Russia will eventually deliver the S300 air-defense system. However, Russia is dragging its feet, saying that technical matters have to be resolved before the delivery of a system for which Iran has already paid. As the Bushehr case demonstrates, resolving these technicalities might take years, and in the end the Russians might decide that they are not going to give the system to Iran after all.
There are several complicated reasons why Iran continues to court Russia despite its failures to honor commitments as well as its instrumental use of Iran for its broader regional and international interests. First is the pivotal role of the left in the so-called Islamic revolution. In addition to the so-called Islamic left—best represented by the original incarnation of Mujahedin e-Khalgh (MEK)—many mid- and low-level clerics were in reality more leftist than Islamist. Second, in addition to some members of MEK, some secular leftists such as the Fedayeen joined the Islamic regime hoping to move it in a left direction. They are still within the system, including inside the Revolutionary Guards. Leftist sentiments were also strong among some elements of the Iran Freedom movement. Meanwhile, throughout the 1970s, Moscow pursued a dual policy toward Iran of formal relations at the state level and secret ties with the Iranian opposition to the Shah: hence the soft spot that many elements in today’s Iran still have for Russia. The continued hope that Moscow somehow will align itself with Tehran is the legacy of these past connections.
Finally, and most importantly, Iran is unreasonably obsessed with the US (and Israel). This obsession has produced an unwillingness to establish even limited relations with the US or adopt a more neutral approach on the Arab-Israeli conflict similar to that of the Islamist Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan or most Arab states. As a result, Iran has brought upon itself the active animosity of the West, which has led to its international isolation. Because of this anti-American obsession, Iran has chased after Russia, China, India, and Latin America to form a so-called anti-imperialist bloc. The hardliners within the Iranian establishment in particular have not grasped the fact that the Cold War is over and states act not according to an overarching paradigm but on the basis of their shifting national interests. Consequently, just about every country, from China and Russia to India and even little Turkmenistan, have used and abused Iran.
China, for example, only wants to sell to Iran its inferior goods. It is even copying Iranian handicrafts and selling them back to Iran. There is no Chinese appetite for real investment in Iran. Meanwhile, China is investing heavily in Pakistan, which could potentially turn it into an even more formidable economic and military rival of Iran. For example, China will invest $40 billion in Pakistan, which includes the development of the port of Gwadar. Such investments could make Iran’s Chabahar, which has been languishing since it was first developed in the early 1970s, almost useless as an export outlet for Central Asia. China is also expanding its presence in Afghanistan, which again could work against Iran’s interests.
Still, Iran cannot seem to free itself from its inability to act according to Iran’s national interest rather than in pursuit of outdated, elusive, ill-defined, and destructive objectives such as anti-imperialist struggle. After all, many elements within Iran have no commitment or loyalty to the country. They hardly even recognize such a thing as the nation of Iran. For them, Iran is only a part of the larger Islamic community (umma) and a mere instrument to be put at the service of their revolutionary Islamic goals. Ironically, despite their claims to the contrary, most Islamists in the world want nothing to do with Iran’s revolutionaries.
Despite the fluctuations in Russian-Iranian relations, this time Russia might be more serious about establishing a more solid relationship with Iran. Now economically weaker because of sanctions and the falling price of energy, Russia will not likely see a return of relations with the West to the more amicable state they were in during the Yeltsin or early Putin years. So, Iran might become more attractive as a partner. A Russian-Iranian partnership could have benefits for Russia in the Caucasus and to some degree in Central Asia.
Although a true economic and strategic partnership between Iran and Russia is unlikely for all the reasons discussed above, Moscow could still demonstrate that it’s more serious about cooperation. For instance, it could deliver the S300 to Iran. It could also finally admit Iran to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Another test will be the outcome of talks about Syria. My own bet is that Russia will continue to use Iran without giving much in return. In fact, as long as Iran does not start acting on the basis of its own national interests rather than pursuing some elusive revolutionary goal, and as long as it does not overcome its obsessions about some countries like the United States and Israel, not only Russia but any country than can will use and abuse Iran for their own ends.