Russo-Iranian Relations from Iran's Perspective
Tehran has been trying to capitalize on tension between Moscow and Washington over two central issues: the American missile defense program in Europe and the 2008 Georgian crisis to strengthen economic, political, and military ties with Russia. But recent signs of rapprochement between Washington and Moscow have dismayed Tehran. While Iranian leaders believe that a closer relationship with Russia is essential to mitigate Iran’s political and economic isolation from the West and to confront America’s growing influence in the region, many doubt Russia’s sincerity, reliability, and commitment as a potential strategic partner.
In contrast to the George W. Bush administration’s policy, President Barack Obama’ s policy involves a more conciliatory approach toward Kremlin. “It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia,” said Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in a speech at a security conference in Munich on February 7, 2009. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that Washington wanted to reopen dialogue with Moscow on Iran. The New York Times revealed on March 2, 2009, that President Obama sent a secret letter to Russian president Dmitri A. Medvedev in February suggesting that he would back down from establishing a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Kremlin cooperated on Iran.
While Medvedev immediately ruled out any “tradeoffs” with the United States over Iran, the news alarmed Iranian leaders. “Americans are trying to forge an alliance of European and Arab states against Iran. They are even approaching Russia to dissuade Moscow’s cooperation with Iran’s nuclear program and divide Russia and Iran,” said Yahya Rahim Safavi, former commander-in-chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and now an advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.
Moscow’s recent flirtation with Washington has created a rift between Iranian politicians over how to deal with Russia. Referring to Obama’s letter to Medvedev, Mostafa Kavakebian, secretary general of the Mardomsalari (Democracy) Party and a member of parliament from Semnan province, blasted the government’s policy toward Russia at a parliamentary session on March 4, 2009. “Russians’ continued cooperation with Americans against our national interest is yet another concern for us. . . . Russians have suggested to Americans that a missile defense system be built close to our borders in Azerbaijan rather than in Czech Republic and Poland. This explains the nature of Russia’s friendship with us,” said Kavakebian, adding that the government’s weak diplomacy has allowed Russia to play Iran’s card in dealing with the West.
Hassan Rowhani, head of the Iranian Expert Assembly’s Center for Strategic Research, echoed a similar note. “We have warned that the optimistic policy of relying on the East is not the answer; but they did not listen. We observed that countries in the East such as Russia, China, and India voted in favor of sanctions against Iran.”
Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, however, played down the idea that improving relations between Moscow and Washington could affect Iran, citing that Moscow has pledged to complete the Bushehr nuclear plant by this summer. Iran’s defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, also dismissed the notion that the United States could entice Russia against Iran. “Russian officials are well aware that Moscow, rather than Iran, is the target of Washington’s missile plans,” Mohammad-Najjar said, adding that Washington would finally back off from its missile shield plan for financial reasons.
Iranian leaders are disappointed with Russia for a number of reasons, including Russia’s voting in favor of three rounds of United Nations (UN) sanctions against Iran, procrastinating in completing Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant, and refusing to sell the advanced S-300 air defense system to Tehran. But the statements by Mottaki and Najjar indicate that the Iranian government refuses to criticize Russia publicly. They understand that the Islamic Republic needs Russian support for many strategic purposes.
Why does Iran need Russian cooperation? Iranian politicians believe that Iran and Russia share many economic, political, and security interests. “Naturally, Iran and Russia have to be united and have common interests and viewpoints toward global developments,” President Ahmadinejad emphasized after Medvedev succeeded Vladimir Putin in May 2007. There are four major areas where Iranian leaders seek Russian support.
I. Common Enemy:
One major common Russo-Iranian interest, from an Iranian perspective, is the desire to confront America. The two countries, noted Iranian media, have “a common enemy”: the United States. A commentary in Etemaad points out that the growing influence and military presence of the United States in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf are threatening to Iran and Russia alike, arguing that a partnership between the two countries could help confront American hegemony in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and the Middle East. “The alliance between the Islamic Republic and the Russian Federation can stop U.S. ambitions to conquer the region,” Supreme Leader Khamenei told then–secretary of the Russian Security Council Igor Sergeyevich Ivanov on January 28, 2007, in Tehran.
Anti-American sentiments have even urged Iranian clerics to support improving relations with Russia. In a September 2008 Friday prayer speech, Abbas Ali Soleymani, representative of the Supreme Leader in Sistan-Baluchestan province, described Russia as a “declining power of yesterday and re-emerging power of today” and called for better cooperation and partnership with Russia to deal with regional and international issues.
Iranian leaders believe that America’s global power is declining and that it should forge alliances with “emerging powers” to fill the vacuums. “The 11 September event,” pointed out Resalat, “was the beginning of a series of new developments and equations that led to the destruction of the model of unipolar world that was desired by Washington’s politicians.” Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani said in September 2008 that Russia’s strong actions in the Caucasus show that the United States has lost power. “We are in a time when there is no dominant polar in the world anymore and the players in the international arena are trying to find a place in the international system based on their capabilities,” Larijani said at Iran’s National Defense University. Etemaad wrote that time is now ripe for the Islamic Republic to receive its reward for its resistance.
Iran’s leaders would like their country to become a permanent member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which they believe would serve as a security guarantee against a potential military confrontation with the United States or Israel. The SCO is an intergovernmental, mutual-security organization established in 2001 by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Iran applied for SCO membership in March 2008. Tehran wants Moscow to accelerate Iran’s incorporation into the organization, in which Iran now holds observer status. But many Iranian leaders complain that neither Russia nor China is making this possible at present because neither country wants to take a path of confrontation with the United States. Iranian leaders add that Russians always set limitations in their relations with Iran, as Russia is still economically dependent on the West.
II. Arms Business:
Iranian leaders have been at pains to get Russia to increase its military support and arms sales to Iran. In February 2008, Gholamreza Ansari, Iranian ambassador to Russia, urged increased cooperation with Russia in the spheres of defensive armaments and aerospace technology, and reiterated the possible delivery of the advanced S-300 air defense missile system. Iran’s minister of information, Gholamhoseyn Mohseni-Ezhei, and the new head of the Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB), Alexander Bortnikov, met in early September 2008 to discuss ways of expanding information- and intelligence-sharing between the two countries.
Iran’s primary aim at present is to get Russia to provide it with the S-300 missile system, which Iranian leaders believe would deter any potential Israeli airstrikes on Iran. Many Western military experts agree: “If Tehran obtained the S-300, it would be a game-changer in military thinking for tackling Iran,” said longtime Pentagon advisor Dan Goure. In December 2007, Mohammad-Najjar announced that Moscow would supply Tehran with the advanced S-300 air defense missile system—a move later denied by Russian officials. The controversial deal entered the limelight yet again on December 28, 2008, when Ismael Kowsari, the deputy head of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said that Iran had reached an agreement with Russia for the delivery of an S-300 defense system. While Russian Foreign Ministry officials told their Israeli counterparts in January 2009 that Moscow had no intention at the moment to supply Tehran with the system, Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti revealed on December 17, 2008, that Kremlin was fulfilling the S-300 deal with Iran.
Iranian leaders’ optimism that Russia will provide them with the advanced air defense system stems also from Moscow’s growing willingness to sell more weapons to Tehran. Russia recently delivered twenty-nine Russian-made Tor-M1 air defense missile systems to Iran under a $700 million contract signed in late 2005. Furthermore, it trained Iranian Tor-M1 specialists, including radar operators and crew commanders. Russian state-run arms exporter Rosoboronexport announced in September 2008 that it was negotiating the delivery of more air defense systems to Iran so that it could bolster its defense capabilities. In December 2008, Rosoboronexport confirmed that it would be supplying Iran with a number of air defense systems but did not elaborate on whether the deal would include the sophisticated S-300 defense system. In January 2009, Russia also delivered two of five Mi-171 helicopters as part of a $45 million contract to upgrade Iran’s rescue fleet.
As relations between Moscow and Washington are improving, however, Iranian leaders’ optimism about acquiring the S-300 system is fading. Iranian media recently speculated that Russia’s plan to turn a “new page” in its relations with the United States is likely “to prompt Moscow to shelve the delivery of the S-300 system to Iran.” As the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran is looming, the Islamic Republic has reportedly shifted its hopes from Russia to China, which recently put a replica of the S-300, under the name “FD-2000,” on the export market.
III. Nuclear Cooperation:
Iranian leaders see the Bushehr nuclear plant project as a defining factor in their relationship with Russia. “We have always emphasized to the Russians that the Bushehr power plant is a symbol of cooperation between Russia and Iran,” said a member of the presiding board of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of Iran’s parliament in December 2008. “Iranian public opinion sees the Bushehr nuclear plant as a measure of the seriousness of the Russians in having and expanding ties with Iran.”
On January 8, 1995, Iran and Russia signed the agreement to build the Bushehr plant, and the reactor was originally scheduled to come into operation in July 1999. But Russia has repeatedly delayed completion of the project. Parliament speaker Ali Larijani denounced Russia’s announcement made in March 2007 to postpone the launch of the plant in September of that year. “Russians are extortionists,” said Iranian lawmaker Rasoul Sediqi Bonabi. “Moscow has never been a reliable partner and will never be so in the future.” However, although Iranian leaders are deeply antagonized by Russia’s procrastination, they still favor maintaining nuclear cooperation with Russia as European countries decline to help Iran in the nuclear field. German company Siemens, for example, is involved in trade with Iran but refuses to engage in nuclear cooperation. Spiegel reported on March 8 that Siemens had warned to limit joint ventures with Russia if the latter failed to halt nuclear cooperation with Iran. Aftab-e Yazd emphasized that “Russia is Iran’s priority and first choice in the construction of future power plants.”
Russia, however, has accelerated work on the Iranian nuclear power plant. In January 2008, Russia delivered the final promised consignment of nuclear fuel, helping complete the initial phase of fueling the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Iran’s energy minister, Parviz Fattah, announced on March 20, 2009, that the Bushehr nuclear plant will come into operation in August. According to Fattah, the plant will generate 500 of the total 1,000 megawatts by August 22, 2009, and the remaining half will be generated by March 21, 2010. The announcement came after the head of Russia’s federal nuclear agency (Rosatom), Sergei Kiriyenko, visited the plant and said that it was time to complete and operate the nuclear facility. He promised to send an additional workforce of 2,000 to expedite work at the plant. Moreover, the Russian prime minister’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, announced in late March 2009 that Iran, Russia, and Turkey could work on joint nuclear energy projects.
Many Iranian leaders, however, see Russia’s promises with skepticism. “It is surprising that they’ve said it will complete by the end of the Christian year. Our friends know that we’ve been told for ten years that it will finish by next September. I don’t know why that September never comes,” Kavakebian protested at a parliamentary session. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president and current chairman of the Assembly of Experts, issued a stern warning to Russia: “The Russians and others should know that today Iran has reached a position where we are capable of finishing the Bushehr plant even without their help but they should live up to their promises.” Some describe Russia’s procrastination as a policy of “calculated delay” aimed at seeking concessions from both Iran and the West.
Despite UN sanctions, Iran’s economic relations with Russia are flourishing. Trade between the two countries reached a peak of $3.7 billion in 2008, marking a 74 percent increase from $2 billion in bilateral trade in 2006. Radzhab Safarov, the head of the Moscow-based Russian Center for Contemporary Iranian Studies, has estimated that the two countries could increase economic exchanges to $15 billion a year.
Tehran is striving to expand trade with Moscow in the energy sector. In January 2007, Khamenei said that Iran and Russia held half of the world’s total gas reserves, suggesting, “The two countries, through mutual cooperation, establish an organization of gas exporting countries like OPEC [the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries].” The gas cartel would function as a separate energy entity alongside OPEC and the Gas Exporting Countries Forum and would include Iran, Russia, and Qatar, three countries that together account for 60 percent of the world’s gas reserves. Moscow’s initial response was lukewarm, but the three countries held their first meeting on October 21, 2008, to discuss the formation of the body. Energy-importing nations in Europe and the United States are worried that the initiative, if implemented, could lead to a Russian monopoly in the energy market.
On July 18, 2008, the National Iranian Oil Company and the Russian gas company Gazprom signed an agreement to boost recovery rates of Iran’s oil fields and to provide Russia help in transferring crude oil from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Oman. The agreement stated that Gazprom might be able to participate in the proposed pipeline that would deliver Iranian gas to India and Pakistan. Gazprom has shown interest in developing the North Pars oil field in Iran as well.
Iran and Russia are enhancing cooperation in the spheres of construction and technology. In 2008, Russia’s steel giant, Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, announced a plan for large-scale investment in Iran, despite the risk of losing business opportunities in the United States. In June 2008, Ali Akbar Qasi-Moradi, the deputy managing director of the Aerospace Industries Organization of the Iranian Armed Forces, announced that Iran and Russia “will jointly manufacture 100 advanced Tupolev passenger aircraft with the capacity of 210 passengers.” On October 29, 2008, Russia agreed to begin cooperating with Iran to mass-produce medium-lift helicopters. Russia is considering construction of the North-South Railway that would link Russia to Iran via Azerbaijan.
Why do Iran’s leaders think that Russia needs Iran’s cooperation? Iranian leaders believe that Moscow needs Tehran’s cooperation for many different economic, security, and political reasons. First, they assert that Iran––an important and influential power in the region––can both play a constructive role in regional security and stability and create problems for Russians by fomenting instability and chaos in the region. Iranians assert that Moscow needs Tehran’s cooperation to maintain security in Russia’s southern and eastern neighbors––arguing, for example, that Iran’s mediation helped put an end to conflict between Russia and Tajikistan in 1997. Iranian officials and analysts note that Iran’s support of Russia’s policy on Bosnia in 1993–95 helped relations between the two countries grow stronger.
The Iranian media describe Iran as the most influential Islamic country and assert that Russia, without Tehran’s support, would face Islamic insurgency in its Muslim-populated regions and Central Asia. Iranian analysts note that Iran’s silence over Moscow’s suppression of the Chechens bears testimony to the fact that Iran could be useful for the Russians in dealing with its Muslim population.
Second, Iranian leaders and analysts believe that Russia sees the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the American presence in the region as national security threats. Since Iran also is opposed to NATO’s expansion eastward, it could be a reliable partner for Russia to contain NATO’s expansionist doctrine, said Mohammad Mehdi Mazaheri, managing editor of the conservative daily Javan. “Losing its influence in the Persian Gulf after the demise of the Soviet Union and then after Saddam Hussein’s downfall,” wrote Iranian analyst Zhand Shakibi, an Iranian scholar who majored in Russian studies and now lectures at the London School of Economics, “Moscow has seen Iran as a new opportunity for its geopolitical interests.” According to Etemaad, Putin believes that Iran is emerging as a key power in the Persian Gulf. “With great potential in the spheres of economy, education, and foreign policy,” said Etemaad, “Iran could not only change into a regional power, but also play a key role in the international community in maintaining security and stability in the Persian Gulf and containing the American influence in the region.”
Third, Iranian leaders believe that the Islamic Republic is an important trade partner for Russia, pointing out that Iran could be a lucrative transit route for Russian products, including weapons, to the Gulf states. “We are delighted that trade turnover between our countries reached $3.7 billion last year. This is a significant figure, and one which is expected to be higher this year,” Russian deputy foreign minister Alexei Borodavkin agreed in February 2009. Selling arms and nuclear reactors to Iran could also generate good revenue for Russian industrial and military establishments.
Last, Tehran is aware of Washington’s need for Moscow’s support to counter Iran’s nuclear activities. Many Iranian leaders believe that close relations with Iran have provided Moscow with a golden opportunity to seek incentives and concessions from the West.
While Iranian leaders believe that the Islamic Republic needs closer ties with Russia in order to mitigate Iran’s isolation from the West, diminish America’s hegemony in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and lessen the likelihood of any military attack by the United States or Israel, they doubt Russia’s commitment and honesty. These leaders caution that Moscow has helped Iran’s adversaries in three rounds of UN sanctions, has refused to defend its former allies in times of crisis, and––due to economic dependency on the West––is likely to continue to use Iran as a bargaining chip to seek concessions from America and Europe. The recent thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow has added to Tehran’s worries about its relations with Kremlin and has sharpened the debate inside Iran about how to govern relations with Russia.