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.