Iran-Russia Relations after the Geneva Nuclear Deal
No. 1 2014 January/March
Kayhan Barzegar

Head of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University. He is also Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS) in Tehran.

This article was written before the recent political development in Ukraine. It was first published in Russian on February 19, 2014.

The Geneva nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 and the possibility of rapprochement between Iran and the United States has provoked the debate that under the new circumstance Iran-Russia relations would not be as warm and expanded as in the past. But improved Iran-U.S. relations will not necessarily be at the expense of the traditional Iran-Russia ties; they may rather trigger some new potentials for these ties.

Those who speculate about possible reduced relations between Iran and Russia in the coming years mainly argue that the priority of Iran’s foreign policy during the pragmatic-moderate government of Hassan Rouhani would be to remove economic sanctions, increase the volume of energy exports, and attract foreign investments in order to solve Iran’s economic problems. And since the United States is the main force behind causing these problems by imposing economic sanctions on Iran, therefore it is expected that Tehran would want to prioritize better relations with Washington.

Some other views, especially inside Iran, believe that with Iran-U.S. rapprochement and subsequent diversification of relations with the West, Iran-Russia relations would naturally be rationalized. They argue that Iran expanded its relations with Russia (and China) only in the absence of relations with the United States during the last 34 years and in order to tackle the West’s political pressures and balance its international relations. This situation, especially in terms of Iran’s economic competency, has resulted in an unequal situation in Iran-Russia ties in some fields, such as Iran’s energy exports.

In this regard, the recent news of a possible oil-for-goods swap between Iran and Russia worth $1.5 billion a month, by which Russia would buy up to 500,000 barrels a day of Iranian oil in exchange for Russian equipment and goods to be exported to Iran, has caused the intellectual circles inside Iran to think that Russia is taking advantage of Iran’s oil sanctions situation. Previous such deals with China and India were massively criticized by Iran’s public.

But these views lack a sound understanding of the bases of the current strengthened relations between Iran and Russia. The reality is that the existing increased relations between the two sides are more based on strategic logic and the desire to preserve the states’ security interests rather than increase their economic interests, which of course comes as a second priority. Meanwhile, an Iran-U.S. rapprochement in the new circumstances is more due to tackling economic, political and military threats from the United States, rather than establishing close strategic relations.

Given the past bitter relations between Iran and the United States, it is unlikely that the two countries would establish close and comprehensive political-security relations in the near future. In other words, establishing a strategic alliance with the West is out of the question for the time being. What Iran is aiming at is to establish balanced and non-hostile relations with the United States, for example, like those between Russia and America today, as some analysts propose.

At the same time, Iran’s sources of national power enable the country to follow its own independent path in defining its regional and international relations. Iran favors increased regional cooperation and improved and independent bilateral relations with neighboring countries. It follows the policy of strengthening alliances with friendly organizations and states such as Hezbollah and Syria. It also follows an independent energy policy in the region and has its own version of expanding relations with the East and China. Such policies are not in line with the U.S. strategic goals in dealing with regional issues such as the Syrian crisis or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They are not also compatible with the U.S. designated economic and energy trends in the region.

In contrast, there are some certain regional factors in Iran’s strategic culture leading the country to act in the regional context and expand Iran-Russia relations. Russia appreciates Iran’s regional role and favors a strong and confident Iran that would be able to act as an anchor of stability in its southern borders. Russia also believes in strengthening the state system in the region. At present, the main source of civil wars and states’ disintegration is Salafi extremists and terrorist groups who are anti-Iranian and anti-Russian.

There is also the logic of containing increased attempts by the West and its regional allies to fill the power vacuum in the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. For Iran, Russia is a strategic partner that can sustain and equate the threat of America and its allies in Iran’s security backyard. For Russia, Iran can be a source of equating the threat of America and its regional allies in its Near Abroad region, especially in the Caucasus. The Syrian crisis has shown that Iran-Russia cooperation in resolving regional issues better preserves their interests and has the potential to lead the two countries towards expanded cooperation in a broader Middle East context in the Persian Gulf, the Levant, the Caucasus, Central and South Asia.

While one should agree that the nature of threat perception differs from the Iranian and Russian perspectives, both believe that the degree of the Western role and influence in the region should be clearly defined and limited. For Iran, the concept of military-security threat from the United States is stronger. It is therefore less flexible on the U.S. expanded role in the region. Iran’s responses in Afghanistan and Iraq and its determination to separate itself from the U.S regional policies show this sense of insecurity from America. For Russia, the issue, as was the cases in Georgia and recently Ukraine, is more to limit the Western influence and control subsequent negative implications for the Russian Federation. But the Syrian crisis, because of its political characteristic, has taught both countries that their security interests are better preserved if they stay closer in handling the regional crises.

Iran and Russia successfully convinced the Bashar al-Assad regime to dismantle its chemical weapons. This policy has divided the Western bloc and split the opposition forces inside Syria when it appeared that the possibility of any Western military intervention in Syria is terminated. This development has also triggered a lot of discussions about the necessity of restarting political activities and regional cooperation towards achieving a Middle East without WMD, which benefits both Iran and Russia’s national interests at the top. This development itself has strengthened Dr. Rouhani’s moderate discourse in Iran’s domestic politics. The U.S. double standard regarding Israel’s nuclear and WMD arsenals in the region will weaken the position of Iran’s moderate government in the process of the nuclear talks inside Iran’s politics.

This regional and strategic logic behind Iran-Russia relations will strengthen the traditional form of ties between the two countries which are based on nuclear cooperation and transfer of sophisticated defensive weapons systems, such as S-300 or the substitute system, to Iran, the two items that the West has never been keen to provide to Iran. At present, Iran is interested to advance its nuclear activity installing new nuclear power plants, as well as obtaining sophisticated defensive missile or other weapon systems to tackle military threats from Israel and America. Improved Iran-U.S. relations in another strategic context will strengthen Iran-Russia relations and may lead Russia to play a more active role in the context of Iran-P5+1 negotiations in the path towards reaching a possible comprehensive nuclear agreement. Moscow may realize that Iran’s propensity to have close relations with America could bring about negative implications for its relations with Tehran, not only as regards the nuclear cooperation or its traditional role in the Iran-P5+1 relations, but also as regards the two countries’ close cooperation in regional issues.

The logic of Iran-Russia relations in the P5+1 has so far been based on three strategic principles: implementing diplomacy, removing sanctions, and containing the threat. Of course, there has always been this question in Iran’s public and intellectual circles: Why did Russia follow in the footsteps of the West in imposing sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council? Whatever the reasons behind Russia’s decision to go that way, with the pragmatic-moderate government of Hassan Rouhani in Tehran and genuine will of Iranian people to interact with the international community, Russia will have better justification and motivation to follow the above-mentioned stances in Iran’s nuclear standoff.

In this context, while the two sides have accepted that they have their own specific interests in conducting the nuclear talks, they realize that their increased relations will better serve their economic, political, and security interests. In other words, their relations are somehow based on preserving their strategic needs resulting from the new geopolitical changes in the region and the political atmosphere in Iran. In the triangle of Iran-U.S.-Russia relations, Russia is likely to strengthen its relations with Iran to equate the role and influence of its rival global power in its security backyard and Iran will attempt to stay in its independent track willing to expand relations to the one that accepts its regional role and global status.

The Geneva nuclear deal and the prospective comprehensive agreement might somehow remove the persistent lack of trust between Iran and the United States, but given the independent characteristic of Iran’s sources of power and its ambition for having a global status as a regional power, the country will remain interested to expand relations with Russia. In this context, a pragmatic-moderate government in Tehran and the existence of some modest relations with the West will better provide the grounds for expanded Iran-Russia relations.