by Shireen T. Hunter
During his visit to Japan last month, President Donald Trump suggested some softening of American position regarding Iran and indicated that the United States welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s mediation between Tehran and Washington. Soon after, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Rybakov paid a visit to Tehran on May 29. He told Sputnik News that the purpose of his visit was to discuss matters related to the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA).
The timing of the softening of American tone towards Iran and the Rybakov visit might have been mere coincidence. And Rybakov might simply have gone to Tehran to talk about the JCPOA. Moscow, like other European capitals, is not happy about the potential risks to the nuclear deal. It is concerned that Tehran might finally lose patience and, faced with the unpalatable choice of either abject capitulation or going nuclear, choose the latter option. Russia would find this prospect highly worrying. Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier had stated that he told the Iranians to stay in the JCPOA even if sanctions continue or Europe fails to ease Iran’s economic and financial problems.
However, Moscow has long been concerned about a real reconciliation between Tehran and Washington, and Russia has derived strategic benefits from Iran’s post-revolutionary isolation. As such, Rybakov’s visit might have had other more sinister purposes, like urging Iran to stand firm vis a vis America and refuse any compromise.
Moscow the Winner in Iran’s Islamic Revolution
The 1979 revolution in Iran was a significant strategic gain for Moscow and a clear strategic loss for the United States. Although outwardly the new regime claimed to follow a policy independent of both superpowers, its hostility toward America was much stronger and deeper than any misgivings about the USSR and later Russia. For example, former prime minister (and now reformist) Mir Hussein Moussavi, in an interview during the early years of the new regime, said that in the previous 50 years Iran had not suffered as much from the USSR as it had suffered from America. He clearly ignored Russian efforts to dismember Iran by setting up puppet republics in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in 1940s. Most notably, Ayatollah Khomeini had a visceral hatred of America because of what it represented—all that was wrong with modernity. Thus, his dislike went beyond mere policy differences. Furthermore, all leftists , including the so-called Islamic Marxists, were sympathetic to Moscow and also had connections with Soviet security and other organizations. Moscow had sympathizers within the clerical establishment as well, because the KGB had infiltrated the religious schools as part of Moscow’s dual strategy toward the monarchical regime: official cordiality and hidden sabotage.
During the hostage crisis of 1979-1981, pro-Moscow elements contributed to the prolongation of the crisis. For example, Noureddin Kianouri, the leader of Iran’s Stalinist Communist party, the Tudeh, rightly opined that as long as the hostage crisis continued there would be no improvement in U.S.-Iran relations. During Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, the left sabotaged his efforts at reach out to Washington. When Muhammad Khatami became president, Moscow’s anxieties about a reconciliation between Washington and Tehran intensified. During a trip to Moscow in 1999, I heard a Russian expert at a panel discussion at France 24 openly say that Russia did not favor U.S.-Iran reconciliation.
Russia’s Iran Card
From a geopolitical perspective, Russia’s position makes perfect sense. Iran’s isolation because of its strained relations with America has essentially eliminated it as a competitor to Moscow in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, despite Iran’s deep historical and civilizational roots in both regions. Iran’s isolation has also eliminated it as competitor in the energy field. Were Iran reintegrated into the international economy, Russia’s ability to use its energy supply to blackmail Europe or increase its influence in Turkey would be considerably undermined.
Throughout the 1990s and in the following decades, Russia has used Iran as a bargaining chip in its relations with the West and has abandoned Iran at every juncture whenever its interests have required it. Today, the Kremlin is pursuing the same practice in Syria, regarding Israel, and even in dealings with the Persian Gulf Arab states. It is using Iran to appear as the peacemaker and the great conciliator while also peddling its military wares to the Gulf Arabs and whoever else is willing to buy them. But Russia has not helped Iran in this regard. Most recently, Putin refused to sell Iran S400 air defense system. All Iran has gotten from Russia have been empty and/or broken promises.
Despite the benefits of manipulating Iran, Russian leaders, notably Vladimir Putin, do not trust the Islamists and dislike their ideology. Iran’s cautious approach toward Russian Muslims has somewhat eased Moscow’s concerns. But the basic mistrust remains. Iran potentially could be a competitor to Russia in a region stretching from the Caucasus to Syria, especially if it resolves its problems with America.
What Explains Iran’s Deference toward Russia?
While Iran’s top leadership fears Western culture, it does not consider Russia a cultural threat. Russia also has a support base within the Iranian system, including the Revolutionary Guard and possibly even the army, while American policy toward Iran has consistently weakened elements in Iran that want reconciliation with the West. Finally, this excessively hostile American policy has left Iran with few options for partners. Russia is one of the few states that at least is not openly hostile to Iran.
Even today, and despite the oil wealth of the Gulf Arabs, Iran is the strategic prize in southwest Asia. When America in the late 1970s treated Iranian events with complacency, it suffered a major strategic loss after the 1979 revolution. Hostile relations between Iran and America ever since have limited Washington’s strategic options in a region from Afghanistan to Yemen. In fact, it has made Washington a prisoner of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s paranoiac view of Iran and allowed Pakistan to undermine Washington’s efforts in Afghanistan.
America will not be able to recover completely from the loss of Iran. But a more nuanced and long-term policy toward Tehran that looks beyond the current configuration of the country’s political forces would go a long way in checking Russian ambitions and increasing America’s strategic options in the region. Most important, American pressure should not reach a level that antagonizes those Iranians otherwise positively disposed toward the United States.