An exclusive interview with Fyodor Lukyanov, columnist for Al-Monitor and editor of the journal ‘Russia in Global Affairs’ by Sara Massoumi
Following the coming to power of the 11th administration in Iran, hope has been created about détente in Tehran-Washington relations. Does Moscow welcome the improvement of relations between these two old enemies? In your opinion, what changes will occur in relations between Tehran and Moscow if Iran and the US move closer to each other?
There are different views in Russia. Some people believe that we have to block any improvements in US – Iranian relationship. For example, they say, the current “special” relationship is based largely on Tehran’s being burdened by the sanctions and having nowhere else to turn but to Russia. But as soon as Iran has other opportunities, it will immediately reorient itself toward more influential Western countries. Of course, there is always the risk that the country that was eager to be “friendly” in times of trouble will turn away as soon as the grip of isolation loosens.
My personal view is that this is a simplistic and short-sighted approach. It is based on the false assumption that Russia is unable to be attractive per se, only in case of emergency. Such a view is very narrow; it considers only mercantilist benefits, not taking into account broad geopolitical and international context. Insightful Russian experts are in favor of lifting sanctions against Iran, and, as you know, that was always the aim of Russian diplomacy, which basically is not keen to use punishment and sanctions as the main leverage. I am sure that a deal between the US and Iran will serve to enhance Tehran’s influence in the Middle East, and Russia, which has already laid the groundwork for good relations with the Iranians, will likely benefit from this. And we firmly believe that Iranian people are wise and generous enough to appreciate cooperation with Russia before and after.
Many in Iran believe that Russia was the winner in Iran’s isolation and the sanctions against this country. Do you agree with such an assessment? With an improvement in relations with the West, do you predict that Tehran would distance itself from its look-to-the-East policy and prefer the European markets to Russia for its energy?
Relationship based on inability of one of the partners to choose cannot be sustainable. Yes, Russia benefits from absence of Iranian oil and gas on certain markets, but it no strategy at all. Russia is facing huge challenges with the need to diversify its economy, to find new markets in the East, and there is not a right approach to rely on expectations that powerful competitors are removed from the market.
Russia was among the countries, which stood against the demands of the western and Arab countries in Syria. Would you consider Moscow as the winner in the policy game in Syria until now? Is Russia playing a more significant regional role now compared to the last two years?
Winner is a strong word, when it comes to sectarian civil war like in Syria now, it is impossible to speak about anybody’s “victory”. What happens there is a tragedy, and all of us share responsibility for what is going on. As for political constellation, it is sure that Russia looks much more solid and consistent in its policy in the region than any of the major powers trying to take part there. This consistency is noticed and appreciated even by those actors who do not share the Russian view. Russian capacity in the region has been enhanced, no doubt about that. But we need to identify our interests and goals for the future. Russia is not the Soviet Union and it will never be it again, so former approaches are senseless.
It seems that Tehran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Moscow and Baghdad have formed a regional coalition to achieve victory in Syria. This is while Russia and the US established a coalition with regard to the elimination of the chemical weapons. Do you think that Russia will separate itself from its regional coalition with Tehran, Hezbollah and Baghdad if its interests are provided in Syria in the long-run?
No, I don’t think so. The chemical weapons issue and settlement of Syrian conflict per se are not the same. Russia found an excellent way to avoid American intervention and saved all parties involved from huge losses and terrible consequences. But Russia will not yield for US or Saudi perception of the Syrian future. Russian interests and views on Syria objectively coincide with those of Iran and its allies. But, of course, it does not mean that Russia will side with the “Shia” community everywhere, Moscow will seek constructive relations with all countries in the region.
Why does Russia insist on Bashar Assad remaining in power? Is the issue Bashar Assad himself or is it Russia’s strategic interests?
Russian strategic interest is to prevent the model of regime change by force to become a way to settle local conflicts. It is not about Assad personally, not about his regime, but about the right of nations and people to decide themselves, without foreign intervention, how to shape their countries. That’s why Russia promotes political dialog inside Syria as a way to come to the new setup of governance.
How would you assess Russia’s role in Iran-P5+1 negotiations? During the past few years, Russia has voted positively for the resolutions against Iran in the UN Security Council. Does Russia believe in Iran’s right to nuclear energy? In your opinion, why should 5 countries at the international level possess nuclear armaments and force others to respect the NPT regulations?
Russia doesn’t deny Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy, on the contrary, Russia hugely contributed to that despite resistance and harsh criticism from the West. As for nuclear armament, there are rules in place banning other countries beyond P5 from having them; we act according to this setup of rules now. Personally I agree with you, that this situation can hardly survive in the 21st century, because it is based on a clearly discriminatory assumption. But this situation should be changed through international negotiation process, how to adapt the Non-Proliferation Treaty to the new reality. In my view, Russia and the US should take lead in launching this debate, but so far I see little signs that they are ready to do it.
Syria was one of the issues on which Tehran and Moscow formed a coalition for their common interests. Are there other issues at the regional level, which could justify this strategic unity between Tehran and Moscow?
We share the Caspian Sea and need to work on this to transform this basin into a space of peace and prosperity. We share responsibility for the development of Tajikistan, which was created in current form with our mutual efforts in 1990s. I believe that Iran should become a full member of SCO as the most important regional player, by the way current rapprochement with the US and lifting of sanctions can contribute to that. Shaping a new Eurasia is our common task.
The Americans will leave Afghanistan in 2014. What is Russia’s strategy for Afghanistan after the US withdrawal from this country? Will Moscow, which has bitter memories from its presence in Afghanistan during the Soviet era, take advantage of the US’ absence in this country?
Due to bitter memories, Russia will be hardly interested to be seriously involved in Afghan affairs. Future constellation of forces there is unclear. Russia will be primarily focused on limiting and countering impulses of instability, which Afghanistan will certainly produce after withdrawal of NATO/US forces. But most attention will be paid to Central Asian security, not so much to attempts to enhance positions in Afghanistan itself.
How would you assess relations between Russia and the US today? Are these two countries still experiencing the Cold War in a covert manner now? Do you believe that US-Russian cooperation in eliminating the chemical weapons and refraining from a military attack against Syria means that the US has accepted Russia’s upper hand in the Syrian scene?
No, I can’t imagine the US to accept anybody’s upper hand, be it in Syria or anywhere else. The US failed to produce a coherent policy in the Middle East, and had to accept the Russian proposal as the way out from the deadlock they created by their own hands. It does not mean Americans will listen to Russia in the future. As far as the broader relations are concerned, I wouldn’t compare them to the Cold War. Yes, instincts are there, but nothing comparable to the systemic structural confrontation of that time is in place. I would suggest that the biggest problem of US – Russia ties is lack of modern relevant agenda. Topics from the past are mostly obsolete, new ones are not emerging. For now our relations are limited to mutual participation in local regional conflicts, bilaterally we don’t have much to discuss.