by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
There is an ongoing and lively debate in Iranian media and in the parliament on the nature of Iran-Russia relations. The recent summit between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, where both leaders praised Israel and vowed to cooperate on Syria and where Putin also made a strong defense of the Iran nuclear deal, has further fueled this debate by giving fresh evidence for both the pro-Russia and Russia-skeptic camps.
Russia skeptics, in commentaries mainly in the reformist media, cite a number of recent Russian actions, such as siding with Saudi Arabia on the OPEC oil increase, giving a tacit green light to Israel’s air strikes at Iranian targets in Syria, and pressuring Iran to quit Syria. Writing in the reformist daily Shargh, Ali Khorram, a highly respected former diplomat and adviser to the Foreign Ministry, lambasted Russia for “backstabbing” Iran and recommended focusing on reaching a fair deal with Europe to save the nuclear agreement. Pre-Helsinki anxieties over a potential Putin deal with Trump over Iran have not been entirely put to rest, however, given how much went on behind closed doors at the summit, including a parallel meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Thanks to the sheer depth of US-Russia tensions, no meaningful breakthrough on any major topic including the arms race, NATO expansion, and Middle Eastern affairs was likely reached, and the two sides remain too far apart geopolitically for Moscow to tamper with its hitherto healthy and strategically important relations with Tehran.
Indeed, this might explain Putin’s willingness to host a high-profile meeting on the eve of the Helsinki summit with Ali Akbar Velayati, the special envoy of Iran’s Supreme Leader. The meeting put to rest most, if not all of, Iran’s aforementioned anxieties, some of them fueled by the Israeli media boasting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successful trip to Moscow. Arriving before Velayati, Netanyahu was purportedly there to convince Putin to protect Israel’s security from any Iranian threat inside Syria. Velayati has dismissed this as Israeli propaganda and assured his Iranian audience that Putin is firmly committed to continued “strategic cooperation” with Iran in Syria directed against both terrorists and the US military presence, but not against Israel.
According to Mahmoud Shoori, a senior Russia specialist at the Center for Strategic Research, a Tehran think tank, Russia and Iran can never achieve an optimal strategic partnership because of a complex mix of both convergent and divergent interests. Therefore, Iran’s Russia policy must be based on its own national interests. But it must also be in tune with the ebb and flow of Russian foreign policy, given Putin’s priority of economic growth and détente with the West.
In fact, over the past few years, Iran and Russia have deepened their strategic connections, expanding Russia’s influence in the Middle East. Their tripartite partnership with Turkey for peace in Syria through the so-called Astana initiative has been fairly successful. According to Velayati, both Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are due in Tehran in the near future for yet another summit on Syria and regional affairs. Also upcoming is a summit of Caspian Sea littoral states where both Russia and Iran seek to nip in the bud the US and NATO’s efforts to gain a foothold in the Caspian through Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Both Iran and Russia, moreover, face punishing US sanctions and have sought to enhance their bilateral trade relationship as well as their regional ties through Iran’s recent Free Trade Zone agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Yet some Iran commentators view even Russia’s offer of expanding bilateral ties with cynicism. An Ebtekar Daily editorial, for example, lambasts the Russian offer of “food for oil” as reminiscent of Iraq’s oil-for-food fiasco. It also cites a Russian energy official’s statement discounting Velayati’s claim of Russia’s impending multi-billion dollar investment in Iran, thus casting doubt on the veracity of Velayati’s account of his two-hour meeting with Putin.
According to a Tehran political scientist who wishes to remain anonymous, “Russia and Iran have definitely moved beyond a marriage of convenience tactical alliance and are in a quasi-alliance relationship for the foreseeable future.” In other words, nearly all is well between the two countries and there’s no cause for alarm. The Tehran professor adds that even Russia’s current pressure to keep Iran away from Israel’s vicinity is “good for Iran’s own sake because the closer we get to Israel the more we get entangled in the Arab-Israeli conflict. After all, when Revolutionary Guards General Qassem Soleimani went to Moscow three years ago and convinced Putin to get involved in Syria it was all about the Islamic State and terrorists and that is how it should be.”
On the other hand, Iran considers its ability to pressure Israel through Syria and Lebanon important leverage vis-à-vis Washington. Any qualitative improvement in Russia-US relations over Syria may come at the expense of Iran’s strategic interests, or so the thinking goes in Iran policy circles. At the same time, such an improvement may also better position Putin as an interlocutor between Washington and Tehran, which lack a venue for dialogue after the US exit from the nuclear deal. Still, few analysts in Iran are willing to bet on any proximate improvement in US-Russia ties, given the fact that the United States continues to arm Ukraine, plans major exercises in the Baltic Sea, has slapped major sanctions on Russia, and is pressuring Germany to exchange its gas link to Russia for US energy exports.
In other words, Washington and Moscow are trapped in a zero-sum relationship, which gives Tehran a measure of comfort about the durability of its ties with the Kremlin. In part, this stems from Russia’s principled stance on the nuclear deal, as Putin made clear at the Helsinki summit:
We also mentioned our concern about the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Well, the U.S.—our U.S. counterparts are aware of our posture. Let me remind you that thanks to the Iranian nuclear deal, Iran became the most controlled country in the world. It submitted to the control of IAEA. It effectively ensured the exclusively peaceful nature of Iranian nuclear program and strengthened the nonproliferation regime.
Moscow has consistently maintained this position since Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal, repeatedly accusing Washington of seeking to “settle political scores with Tehran” and of “protectionism in disguise.” At the recent meeting of the JCPOA’s Joint Commission, Russia and China joined the other signatories in expressing regret about the unilateral U.S. exit and signed on to an impressive, yet-to-be-implemented 10-point agreement to preserve the deal. Whether the JCPOA minus the US can be realized depends to a large extent on Europe’s ability to provide the deliverables. Should Europe fail this crucial litmus test of its independence and political will, however, Russia and China will likely fill the void in the Iranian market. And this will be yet another sign that all is well in relations between Moscow and Tehran despite some incidental squabbles.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team and the author of several books on Iran’s foreign affairs, including Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (with Nader Entessar).