Could Russia Get Its Persian Gulf Port?

Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani

by Shireen T. Hunter

As tensions in the Persian Gulf have been mounting over the last several weeks, the activities of major international players in the region have also intensified. A major focus of these activities has been the development of joint naval forces by the United States and European states for the purpose of ensuring the safety of shipping and trade routes through the Strait of Hormuz, and in particular deterring any action by Iran to interfere with the naval traffic.

Meanwhile, for its part, Russia has intensified its own diplomatic and other activities so as not be excluded from whatever might transpire in the region in the coming months. At the diplomatic level, Russia has made several proposals regarding potential collective security arrangements in the Persian Gulf with the participation of all regional states and with the supervision of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. In addition, Russia has proposed a security framework for the region along the lines of the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Furthermore, Russia has been subtly promoting itself as an intermediary between Iran and the Arab Gulf states. Some Arab news sites recently have opined that Vladimir Putin would be the ideal mediator between Iran and its Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, since he has good relations with all of them.

Iran as Russia’s Gateway to the Persian Gulf

Russian activities in the Persian Gulf have not been limited to diplomacy and making reasonable-sounding proposals for collective security. Parallel with diplomacy, Moscow has taken more concrete measures to insert itself into Persian Gulf affairs and to carve out a place for itself in the region and a role in future decisions regarding regional security together with other great powers, notably the United States and the European Union.

In this context, Iran has been a key part of this more assertive Russian strategy in the Persian Gulf. Iran already has close, albeit highly unequal and one-sided (in Russia’s favor), relations with Moscow. In the Syrian civil war, Iran has demonstrated its usefulness for Moscow by supporting Bashar al-Assad, and at least on one occasion Tehran allowed Russian aircraft to use its air base for its operations in Syria.

Following a trip to Moscow approximately two weeks ago by the commander of the Iranian navy, Daryadar Hossien Khanzadi, it was reported in the Iranian press that Tehran and Moscow have signed a secret military agreement, the details of which are as yet unknown. Regardless of whether such an agreement has been reached and what it exactly entails, Khanzadi’s trip to Moscow had one concrete result—Iran and Russia will conduct joint military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf by the end of the current year.

But this is not all. In an article in Oil Price.com, Simon Watkins claimed that Iran has agreed to provide basing rights for Russia at its ports of Bandar Bushehr and Chabahar. He also claimed that Moscow intends to position sophisticated weaponry at these ports. Other reports have claimed that Moscow wants to establish a submarine base in Iran’s Chabahar. Should these reports prove to be right, it would mean that Vladimir Putin has finally realized Peter the Great’s dream of reaching the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. However, several factors argue against Iran’s willingness to grant Russia permanent basing rights. First, Iran’s constitution prohibits such an act. Second, the Islamic Republic prides itself in being independent of all great powers. Allowing a Russian presence at its ports would undermine its credibility as an independent state.

Still, such a possibility cannot and should not be ruled out completely. Iran is reeling under the heavy burden of U.S.-imposed sanctions and is feeling fearful of a potential U.S. military attack. Therefore, it might decide to forgo the niceties of independence and use a stronger Russian presence as a deterrent against the U.S. Iran saw that the introduction of the Russian military into Syria contributed considerably to U.S. unwillingness to launch a full-scale military operation against Bashar al-Assad. The situation in the Persian Gulf is quite different, and it is unlikely that Russia would be willing to come to Iran’s defense should there be a confrontation with the United States. Nevertheless, a more pronounced Russian naval presence in the region could change somewhat U.S. calculations about the potential risks of war with Iran.

Exploiting U.S. Hostility Toward Iran

Regardless of whether Russia manages to fulfill its long-held desire for a Persian Gulf port, it is clear that the United States’ excessively hostile policy towards Iran has opened opportunities for Moscow to increase its influence in Tehran and thus also its presence in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, while Washington does not have any real communication with Tehran, over the last few years Moscow has been steadily expanding and improving its relations with Gulf and other Arab states. Therefore, it is not farfetched to envisage a day when Putin might emerge as the Grand Conciliator in the Gulf.

It is, however, not too late for the United States and Europe to prevent the realization of such a scenario. A softening of U.S. policy towards Iran, return to the 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), easing and eventually lifting sanctions, and encouraging Arab-Iranian reconciliation across the Gulf would greatly reduce tensions and thus diminish Russia’s ability to expand its regional presence. More important, by pursuing such a policy, the United States would retain its position as the only arbiter of Gulf affairs.

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Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is a University Associate with Georgetown University. From 2007 to 2014 She was a Visiting Professor and from 2014 until July 2019 she was a Research Professor at the School of Foreign Service. Her latest publication is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, June 2019.

SHOW 11 COMMENTS

11 Comments

  1. I doubt very much that Iran would allow ANY foreign basis on its territory and I also am not sure Iran is afraid of the USA. I think that the only contribution Russia can have, now that it is not perceived anymore as a Atheist country, as it was in the Soviet Union, it is to act as go between with the Arab Gulf countries,
    After 8 years of decimating war in Syria, 4 Years of deadly Yemen war, the Gulf Arabs are coming to realize the destructive and divisive influence of the USA in the region while Israel is uniting and blooming. The UAE has already made the realization that a good relation with Iran can only benefit it and have taken a different position on Yemen. Saudi Arabia is under siege by Turkey whose aim is to take over Sunni leadership in the region. It is loosing its reputation in the failed war in Yemen and appears to its own citizens as caving to the USA and Israel in a demonstration of weakness.
    Saudi needs to make peace with Qatar and Iran to confront Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions in the Arab world.
    Iran has never shown any territorial ambitions and could be Saudi Arabia good neighbours is some one establish the right connection.
    Russia should play that role and in view of the obvious stupidity of the USA’s foreign policy, it can very well succeed.

  2. ” joint naval forces by the United States and European states”
    and exactly which EU states are participating in the naval forces? That lii’ kingdom is about to leave EU. and the united kingdom, may even become the lil’ dis-united has been.

    “Iran has demonstrated its usefulness for Moscow by supporting Bashar al-Assad,”
    frankly, what is to be said for such baseless statements…..

    “an article in Oil Price.com, Simon Watkins claimed ”
    Ms. Hunter, if you are offering a geo political analysis, then why base it on hearsay? If it is propaganda, one would hope Lobelog not to be the place for such ad hominem.

  3. EB Hadi

    Yes this could be the most pragmatic suggestion from an expatriate orientalist. But in my opinion this is what Iranian call “Layee” meaning only a one of. I bet this a tactic to keep the past runaway readers to read her again so she can be more effective on spreading propaganda analysis commissioned by her backers where she gets grants from. Her One time layee and your comment which is pragmatic is the reason I bothered to read this new post of her. Like JR she is well trained in art of propaganda. Don’t believe it is just a tactic suggested from above.

  4. Iran was the crossroads of civilization, up until the Europeans and the UK in particular sailed to India. When railways were being built in India, Iran was not allowed to build tracks from Caspian to the Persian Gulf. The Brits did not want the Russians and later the USSR to have a toe warm water. And then when the Brits wanted to connect India via Iran, the Russians objected. Iran then was a point of conflict, and so the major powers agreed to not argue over Iran. It was only in the second world war that the allies got to agree with the USSR to have Iran’s first railway built. That is why Iran never joined the industrial revolution happening all over the world. Now we have the Chinese interested in building a massive port. So I am sure the US will somehow intervene to prevent it all happen. If Iran is well connected it will be the most powerful nation in the world because it is at the centre of the world.

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