As the Russia-Iran alliance in Syria has emerged, opinion pieces and analyses increasingly appear in the Western media arguing that this partnership will not survive in the long term. Some experts argue that there is a history of distrust between the two countries dating back to the 19th century when Russia annexed Iranian territories. They also refer to the USSR’s support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Russia’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and its support of UN sanctions on Iran. They also point to the suspension of the delivery of S-300 missiles in 2011 that Iran had already paid for. We asked Gholamreza Shafei, Iran’s former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Iran to the Russian Federation (1999-2005) the sincerity of Iran and Russia on forging an alliance and also discuss with him the past, present and future of Iran-Russian relationship. The following is a condensed version of the interview.
Your tenure of the ambassadorship coincided with Iran's nuclear talks with the European troika. While Russia did not participate in the talks, the Iranian officials, namely Hassan Rouhani as Iran's then national security advisor, had a series of consultation with his Russian counterparts. As an Iranian official in these meetings, what was their approach towards Iran's nuclear case?
“Russia played the middle game. Like Europeans, they believed that the nuclear fuel must not be produced in Iran. Russia claimed that it is bound by international commitments that forbid Moscow's allowing any nation (even Ukraine which was their ally at that time) to produce nuclear fuel. Under the conditions of the talks held at the time, Tehran decided to halt its nuclear fuel production and Mr. Rouhani, Iran's National Security Advisor, in a visit to Moscow announced that Tehran has halted nuclear fuel production. The fact that Iran agreed to halt its fuel production in Russia was a privilege for this country. I disagreed with this decision even then. But Iran, as a gesture of good will, had momentarily accepted to stop its activities and at the end of Mr. Khatami's government the suspension was lifted.”
There is a common belief that Iran and Russia are enjoying a strategic relationship and there is a driving force in Tehran and Moscow to turn bilateral ties into a strategic alliance. Do they have such potentials?
“It depends upon how you define a strategic alliance. Even back then when I was on a mission in Russia, there was this question whether the Iran-Russian relationships were strategic? Some believed that the answer was yes while; others disagreed. As the time, the relations between Iran and the West were developing as well. I still believe that every nation must first consider its own national interest and their relations must be built upon these frameworks. Relations with Russia must follow the same path. Iranian ties with Russia had its many ups and downs during the past centuries. Historically, Iran and Russia have been in a state of war twice. There were some speculations as to the nature of Iran's ties with Russia as being strategic during the past 20 years, but they are false and Russia will never enter war with another nation for the sake of Iran. However, the current settings between Iran and the West, Iran and the Arab World and Russia and the West demand that Iran's ties with Russia to be strengthened. This fact has been made bold in the Syrian crisis.”
In your perspective, how Iranian successive governments with different approach and doctrine affect the relationship with Russia?
“Since 1989, there is one thing that has not been changed and that is the Iranian leadership that has formulated the tenets of Iran's foreign policy. Therefore, different governments in Iran cannot have a significant impact on Iran-Russian ties since all of these governments have to follow similar principles. Also, Mr. Putin has held power for the last 16 years in Russia. Even when he was the Prime Minister, using his past presidential authority, he had empowered the premiership.”
But during the tenure of Ahmadinejad presidency, bilateral cozy relationship turned toxic. Correct?
“The viewpoints of Iranian presidents are influential as well. The way Vladimir Putin conceived of President Khatami and President Ahmadinejad was different and President Rouhani is no exception. Mr. Putin had great respect and interest in Mr. Khatami. Mr. Rouhani has been National Security Advisor for 16 years and half of that time was held during Mr. Khatami's presidency. In fact, President Putin conceives of President Rouhani the same way that he did of Mr. Khatami.”
What are the differences of economic and industrial relationship between Iran and Russia during your tenure of the ambassadorship and the present? How do you believe to improve bilateral ties other than the field of energy?
“When I assigned to Russia, bilateral economic ties were under one billion dollars and at the end of my mission, the figures rose to about two billion dollars which was acceptable. Some of the capacities depend on technical capabilities of the two countries. Iran is not an industrial nation willing to broaden its relations with Russia in this respect. Also, the Russians lack the general industry and cannot compete with the West and the eastern powers. Nevertheless, they have industrial products of which they export to Iran. Russia has had significant advancements in aeronautics and space industry even though right now there are many western aircrafts such as Airbus and Boeing operational in Russian airports. Of course, one has to consider that such industries are the result of putting together of parts which are produced in various countries. Aircrafts are an example of such cooperation and it seems that the Russian aviation industry is moving in the same road. We can cooperate in this field as well. We had great advances in producing auto parts. Of course, Iranian pessimism towards Russia is one of the reasons hindering further economic cooperation.”
“Nevertheless, Iran cooperated with Russia for making satellites and there is room for further cooperation. The Russians are advanced in the nuclear industry as well. We have to accept that some hurdles causing the delay in completing the Bushehr power plant were on our side. As I mentioned, the potential for cooperation is vast in oil and gas industries as well. As to consumer, food, and agricultural industries, Iran can be an exporter to Russia and to do so, it has to deal with the shortcomings caused by production at high prices or anything else.”
“Iran has had some advances in pharmaceutical industry and has succeeded to export some goods to Russia. Some drugs in Iran, especially those for treating cancer, have a competitive price compared to foreign products. Iran has good capacities for making building materials as well. It is also possible to cooperate in the field of electronic exchange. Iran and Russia can cooperate in fishery and sea. There are land, air, and sea trade routes between the two countries.”
“Academic exchanges as well as tourism are other possible fields for cooperation and increasing trade relations between Iran and Russia. We have many coasts and have to take measures to attract Russian tourists. There are beautiful tourist attractions in Russia as well. Moscow and Saint Petersburg are beautiful and scenic cities.”
What are the hidden points in Iran-Russian relationship?
“Bushehr Power Plant is an indicator for Iran-Russian ties. We have to accept that completing this power plant was a great and difficult task done by the Russians and that they accepted to complete the work that had been started by the Germans. This was done in a period that they were under heavy pressure from the West and the western powers were not willing this project to be completed. Considering this fact might lead to change the Iranian negative view towards Russia.”