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Russia and Iran: old neighbours, new rivals

James Owen
29 March 2006

Russia's relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran are undergoing a gradual change. The last decade has been a period of bilateral bonhomie fuelled by shared commercial interests, arms sales, common views of the threat of Islamist radicalism, and the transfer of nuclear expertise. Indeed, Iran has in this period constituted a crucial part of Russia's overall approach to its Eurasian ("near abroad") neighbourhood. Today, Russia is starting to see Iran as a geopolitical rival. Russia's central role in the crisis over Iran's nuclear-research programmes, currently a matter of intense negotiation in and between the United Nations Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is only the most visible indicator of a relationship becoming more uneasy and competitive.

The history of the relationship has not been smooth. Russia has at various points invaded, annexed and bullied Iran. Persia (as the country then was known) lost all its possessions in the Caucasus to Moscow by 1828 and in subsequent decades became a mere pawn in the "great game" of the period where Britain's protection of its interests in India collided with Russia's ambition to have access to the Persian Gulf.

A century later, an era of separate spheres of influence broke down under pressures of war. The Soviet Union mounted a full-scale invasion of northern Iran in 1941, and after 1945 its refusal to withdraw from the Iranian part of Azerbaijan was one of the cold war's opening gambits. The dispute was a portent: it helped cement a United States-Iranian strategic alliance that was to last (with an interruption during the Mossadegh period and the US-sponsored coup of 1953) until 1979.

The revolution in Iran in 1979, followed ten months later by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and a decade-long war against jihadi militants, did nothing to draw the two countries together. It was only in the 1990s – after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the end of the devastating Iran-Iraq war, Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988-89, and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Union itself at the end of 1991 – that the Russian-Iranian relationship thawed.

The new post-cold-war, post-Soviet era transformed geopolitical realities in the region and fundamentally altered the strategic mindset of Moscow and Tehran. The still embryonic Russian state encountered an Iran still counting the cost of its long conflict with its Arab neighbour. The newly-independent lands between them – from Armenia to Tajikistan – were brimming with ethno-nationalist discontent; the United States, an ideological fixation of Russian and Iranian elites alike, had emerged as the sole global superpower. In short, the conditions were ripe for cooperation.

Also in openDemocracy on the external relationships of Iran and Russia:

Paul Rogers, "Confident Iran" (March 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (October 2005)

Paul Rogers, "Iran in Israel’s firing-range" (December 2005)

Paul Rogers, "The United States, nuclear weapons, and Iran"
(January 2006)

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A blossoming relationship

Iran lacked the muscle to challenge Russian hegemony. It could scarcely influence the secular, nation-building projects of central Asia's new republics (whose predominantly Turkic origins in any case made them wary of Tehran). Iran thus calculated that Russian preponderance there was preferable as a counterbalance to the US and a possible proxy through which to secure Iran's own interests. As a result, it refrained from proselytising political Islam, criticising Russia over Chechnya, or showing any sympathy with the Sunni, jihadi worldview of al-Qaida and other Islamist groups in central Asia (such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU] and Hizb-ut-Tahrir).

Russia and Iran discovered (somewhat to their mutual astonishment) that in face of regional instability and vulnerability to domestic separatism, that they shared common interests and perceptions of broader threats. A honeymoon blossomed.

In the 1990s, Russia and Iran cooperated in the south Caucasus, central Asia and Afghanistan. Iran conformed to the Russian lead on Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-majority enclave inside Azerbaijan that was the occasion of a bitter war between Yerevan and Baku. Together they enforced a ceasefire to end the bloody civil war in Tajikistan. Russia and Iran also aided Ahmed Shah Massoud and the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The defeat of the Taliban – whose hosting of al-Qaida and radical jihadi currents sent ripple effects across the region, making it as much a threat to Russian interests as to Shi'a Iran – presented a further cause for bilateral cooperation: the drugs trade. Russia and Iran combined to combat the trafficking networks that began (after Kandahar's collapse in December 2001) to link Afghan poppy-fields to markets in and via Iran, central Asia and Russia.

But the main stimulant to new bilateral cooperation was trade. The Russian desire to sell in areas where it still produced marketable goods, and the Iranian demand to buy (supported by high oil revenues) developed apace. Moscow has provided consumer goods, foodstuffs, and oil and gas equipment, and has assisted Iran on infrastructural projects. It has also supplied ballistic-missile technology, chemical and biological programmes and a range of lucrative contracts for aircraft, helicopters, submarines, tanks and air-defence missile systems.

Most controversially, it has provided the religious oligarchy in Iran with a nuclear reactor at Bushehr and associated fuel-services technology. On its side, the military-nuclear nexus has served a regenerative economic function, a means for Russia to match capabilities to great-power bravado and to redeploy Soviet expertise in lucrative new ways (the Bushehr contract in 1995 was worth $800 million for Russia and employed up to 1,500 on-site Russian scientists).

The nuclear partnership reflects institutional forces at work in the developing Russian state. It may have been the Pakistani scientist and proliferator of nuclear technology Abdul Qadeer Khan who supplied nuclear material to Iran, but Russia has also played a part in servicing Iran's nuclear ambitions. Vladimir Putin's abrogation of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement in November 2000 (set up to ensure Russian compliance with the non-proliferation treaty [NPT] and the IAEA) sent a defiant message to the US and underlined the importance of the profit-motive in Russian decision-making. It also reflected the sectoral influence of the military-industrial complex on state policy and corruption.

At the same time as these commercial and nuclear linkages were being forged, the praetorians of the oil-and-gas sector were becoming the ascendant force in Russia. This was an early signal that the honeymoon was turning sour.

The most evident arena of tension is the Caspian, where Russia and Iran are becoming increasingly hostile towards each other. Moscow, which views oil and gas as both a strategic asset and an instrument of geopolitics in this region, is at odds with Tehran on two key points: the legal status of the Caspian Sea and the export of its energy resources. When the Soviet Union existed, it controlled the Caspian along with Iran under the legally-codified principle of joint ownership (entailing equality of access and use). In an era when several new littoral states have a stake in the sea and what lies within, Russia supports the view of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that the seabed and its resources should be divided along national lines.

Alongside the Caspian resources issue, Russian-Iranian relations are in flux over energy pipelines. Russia's opposition to the (US-sponsored) Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Trans-Caspian pipelines has receded, while Iran has signed gas agreements with Armenia, negotiated potential export terms with Ukraine, and seeks an edge over Russia as a producer and provider of gas to Turkey.

A different symmetry

The fall of the Soviet Union provided a clear rationale for Russian-Iranian cooperation. Russia and Iran came together in the face of common interests and threats, and to offset United States hegemony. In this context, Russia's relations with Iran underline its rejection of a unipolar world, its sense of itself as a Eurasian state, and its continued avowal of derzhavnost (great-powerness). For most of its life this relationship has been one of asymmetrical balance, involving Russian predominance and Iranian concessions or pragmatism.

Today, an Iran more assertive since the election of Mahmood Ahmadinejad is disruptive to that balance, and incidentally exposes Russia's deep-rooted westerncentric orientation. Russia has pursued a careful line over the Iran nuclear controversy, but where it matters it has tilted towards the United States and European Union ("EU3") side. Russia, after all, cannot avoid a concern that Iran could one day point nuclear weapons in its own direction.

Russia still holds limited influence in Iran. But the failure of the compromise deal it offered over enrichment of uranium for Iran's civil nuclear-research purposes is a further sign of a developing trend. The components of this long, complex relationship may be stuck with each other, but each is looking for new partners.

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