Russia and Iran share common interests and goals in the Middle East, such as bringing stability to the region, fighting terrorism and supporting Syria's sovereignty. This makes the relationship between the two countries important for the entire region, which has been experiencing years of turmoil and instability. Jahangir Karami, head of Russian Studies Department at University of Tehran and senior fellow at IRAS, told Russia Direct about Iran-Russia relations, the Russian role in the Middle East and tensions between regional actors.
How would you describe the current state of Russia-Iran relations?
“Russia-Iran relations are becoming deeper after the nuclear deal was reached. Especially, it is true about economic relations between Russia and Iran, as the roadblocks to cooperation have been removed. Our two countries reached an unprecedented level of understanding and cooperation on the issues of regional security, which has a positive impact on regional stability and security in general. Another level of cooperation between Iran and Russia lies in the international aspect. We all know that modern international affairs are greatly affected by the role of regional powers. In this regard, the role that both Iran and Russia play is very significant.”
“There is a very important trend, which ensures successful future cooperation between our two countries. Students, scholars and elites of both Iran and Russia have stopped focusing exclusively on developing relations with the West. They have started looking to the East, to Asia, to develop relations with countries of the region, including India and China, and having more interest in studying each other. The number of such people is increasing in our countries. For example, in Iran we have over 15 centers that focus on studying Russia and Central Eurasia and teaching Russian language, a fact that demonstrates strong interest in Russia and gives hope that our relations will only get better.”
Looking back at the history of Russia-Iran relations, it looks quite rocky, especially in the nineteenth century. Would it be fair to say that the current level of relations between the two countries is a temporary partnership or a cooperation of necessity? And does Western policy towards Iran and Russia define Moscow-Tehran cooperation?
“Well, all neighbors usually have times of war and times of peace. The U.S. and the UK fought each other during the American War of Independence, France and Germany had three major wars against each other, Russia had wars with the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman Empire fought with Iran and Iran had wars with Russia. However, there were also times of peace.”
“Actually there are many connections between Iran and Russia, between Iranians and Russians. During the Safavid Dynasty period, our countries were allies. In the nineteenth century, Russia was the first external trade partner of Iran. Even after the World War II during the Pahlavi Dynasty, Iran and Russia had positive economic relations. Thus, our countries know both negative and positive experiences dealing with each other.”
“However, the current level of Iran-Russia relations was not caused by a necessity. Certainly it is partly true that Iran-Russia cooperation in Central Asia and in the Caucasus was affected by Western policies, but do not forget about certain common interests of Iran and Russia. Three weeks ago, the final construction stage of the railway that will connect Iran and Azerbaijan started. Also there are four important agreements on the Caspian Sea between our countries. And, of course, we should not forget that it is in our interest to have Central Asia and the Caucasus stable and secure. These are the questions that have nothing to do with third-party countries.”
“Iran’s policy towards Russia and other regional countries is based on several principles. Those principles are clearly formulated in Iran’s 20-Year Perspective document. One of the main points of this document is a constructive approach to any issue of world affairs and an independent foreign policy decision-making process. As for the Iran-West relations, they are not an obstacle for Russia’s ties with Iran. It does not limit the potential cooperation between our countries. And the role of Russia and Iran in confronting extremism, radicalism and providing stability and security to the region has nothing to do with the West.”
Western companies aspire to enter the Iranian market after sanctions were lifted, while others want to invest in the Iranian economy. In this regard, European and U.S. companies are more competitive in many spheres and have more to offer than Russian firms (also because of the economic crisis in Russia). How do you see the future of Russian business and companies in Iran?
“I’d like to give you an example of the golden period in Iran-Russia economic relations – it was in the period of the 1960s-1980s. However, during that time Iran had good economic relations with a lot of other different states, starting with Japan and China and finishing with Europe and the U.S. Moreover, Pahlavi as the head of Iran was a Western ally. However, this did not prevent Tehran from having quite extensive economic and industrial cooperation with the U.S.S.R. There was a gas pipeline between Iran and the Soviet Union and the latter received gas from Iran. Soviet companies used to work in many different industrial sectors of the Iranian economy.”
“Today economists who examine Iranian economy say that it has huge potentials, so there will be enough space for everyone to work in Iran. Undoubtedly, there is going to be serious economic competition among the companies who want to enter the Iranian market. Although I am not an economist, I believe Russia can successfully work in developing a railway transport system, power plants and energy generating infrastructure in Iran. Do not forget that the existing energy generating structure is Russian.”
After sanctions were lifted, Iran was eager to get back its oil market share and to increase its oil output. All of this is not in the interest of Russia. Does Iranian oil and gas threaten Russia’s share of the European market?
“First, I’d like to underline that the Iranian share of European energy market is predominantly taken by the Arab states. Secondly, Iran increases its oil output gradually; it is not an easy and quick process. And all of these will be implemented in coordination with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Also I do not think it is a serious problem for Russia as the potential effect is going to be very limited if it will happen at all. With regard to gas, Iran is primarily focusing on the countries of the South Asia region, such as Pakistan and India.”
“As for the EU’s aspirations to decrease its reliance on Russian gas, Europe considers two major alternative routes. The first one is the Nabucco Project, which brings gas from the Caspian region, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to Europe. And the second project contains plans to build a gas pipeline from Qatar via Syria and Turkey to the EU. Although many analysts in Iranian and foreign mass media claim that Iran is going to increase its share of the gas market, it’s doubtful that Tehran has a specific plan for it.”
So we should not expect that Iranian oil and gas might threaten Russia’s energy interests in Europe?
“Yes. Moreover, Iran is not the only oil and gas producer in the Middle East and the European market is not the only market for hydrocarbons. Maybe in the future that might happen but in the short-/mid-term it is definitely not going to happen.”
Low oil prices, which hurt all OPEC member states, force them to cooperate. Given that the recent meeting of oil-producing countries in Qatar did not produce any agreement, a problem could be Iranian reluctance to join the oil output freeze. How you can describe this situation in which Iran seems to be a major roadblock for coordination within OPEC?
“Iran is not an obstacle for that. In fact, the main problem is Saudi Arabia. It has the experience of manipulating oil prices. For example, in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia contributed greatly to lowering oil prices to bring pressure on the Soviet Union and Iran. And currently there is a quite strong anti-Iranian and anti-Russian component in Saudi foreign policy.”
“So, today it is Saudi Arabia who mainly obstructs Iran’s comeback into the oil markets. Also I’d like to point out that Iran still did not reach its natural level of oil production. Iran’s level of production is still at the pre-sanctions level. Therefore, Tehran does not feel obliged to freeze its oil output.”
There were reports that Russia started delivery of S-300 missile systems to Iran. However, other reports argued that Russia is concerned about the risk that Iran might transfer the arms it gets from Russia to Hezbollah, which makes Israel nervous. Could you explain this triangle between Russia, Iran and Israel and its impact on Iran-Russia military-technical cooperation?
“First, the whole story with the delay of the S-300 delivery is tightly connected with the ‘reset’ policy between Russia and the U.S. during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. Another point is that the S-300 is a defensive weapon and UN Security Council resolutions do not prohibit their delivery to Iran. Our country wants to deploy these missile systems to protect its mission-critical objects and infrastructure. With regard to Hezbollah it does not have a capacity to operate such systems.”
“As for the ‘triangle’ that you mentioned, Iran-Russia relations and Russia-Israel relations are two absolutely different things. Iran and Russia have many areas of cooperation, which have serious impact on regional and international stability: the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, crisis in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and the war in Syria. This is why Iran-Russia relations are important not only for our own countries but for the entire region.”
“However, cooperation between Russia and Israel has an exclusively bilateral dimension and does not have effective regional and international impact. To put it more clearly, I would say that Russia is more concerned with the Israeli approach towards some Russian interests. For example, there is information about Israeli involvement in the Ossetia and Ukraine crises against Russia’s interests. This is to say that Russia’s policy towards Israel mainly aims at neutralizing such an Israeli role.”
You said that Russia-Iran and Russia-Israel relations are two absolutely different things. But it seems that everything is interconnected in the Middle East. Many view increasing military cooperation between Russia and Iran threatening the regional balance of power. This is why Russia-Iran relations affect other regional states and influence the dynamics of the regional conflicts. Do you think this reflects the reality?
“Well, in general military-technical cooperation between Iran and Russia is not considered that extensive and Iran’s military capacity is largely based on its national defense industry. Also it should be mentioned that the major part of the weapons Russia had supplied to Iran in recent years were defensive. In addition, I’d like to stress that during the last centuries Iran was never an aggressor and I think that Iran’s role in promoting regional stability and security is quite obvious.”
“However, some Arab States and Israel view Iran as a major destabilizing force in the region. For example, they perceive formation of the Shia Crescent (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) and Iran’s influence in Yemen and Bahrain as a threat because it makes Iran more powerful. This is a demonization campaign against Iran. Iran is among the main supporters of Afghanistan, despite it being a Sunni state. Iran is one of the main donors of the Palestinians, who are also Sunnis, and such activities are in accordance with the UNSC resolution 242, which acknowledges that the Palestinian occupation is illegal. If you are talking about Iranian support of Iraq and Syria, Tehran aims at helping Baghdad and Damascus to fight terrorists; however, it is perceived by some as help for Shias.”
“I can give you an example. When ISIS' [Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria] forces were about 140 kilometers from Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Mr. Barzani officially requested Iran’s help. A week after that, he said that only Iran came to help the Kurds, although they have asked many others for help. You do note that the Kurds are Sunnis, not Shias.”
Let’s switch to the Syria crisis. Iran and Russia both support the Syrian government, although sometimes it seems there are certain differences between the two. Could you please explain how Iranian and Russian approaches to Syrian crisis are different?
“Well, on the operational level, Iran and Russia cooperate on Syria in order to save the country’s sovereignty. However, it is quite natural that in the area of foreign policy the two countries have their own views, which might be different.”
“When looking at the Syria crisis, Iran views it in connection with the Lebanon and Iraq issues. Given that Iran is situated in the Middle East and is in close proximity to the chaotic areas, it is natural that Tehran is more concerned with those issues. On the other hand, Russia is viewing the Syrian issue more in an international context. Quite possibly the social and other internal questions in Syria and the Middle East are not among the top priorities for Russia.”
“However, the most important thing is that both Russia and Iran share a common approach to the conflict in Syria – to maintain the country’s territorial integrity and not let the terrorists come to power. Also Moscow and Tehran view the fate of Bashar al-Assad in the same way – Syrians themselves have to decide his future. And if Syria peace talks in Geneva come to a conclusion, taking into account all these three factors, I believe the crisis could be finally resolved.”
In recent years, confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia greatly escalated. As a consequence, some Arab countries also downgraded their relations with Iran. What needs to happen for Tehran and Riyadh to bury the hatchet? Can Russia play the role of mediator between Iran and Saudis?
“There are plenty of different questions that exist between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And actually all of them stem from the Iraqi issue, which is the fate of post-Saddam Iraq. Then, those issues continued in Lebanon and reached their boiling point in Syria. As you know there are a number of issues between Saudi Arabia and Turkey because of Egypt and between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. because of Washington’s Middle East policy.”
“As for Iran, its diplomacy under Mohammad Javad Zarif as the foreign minister is aimed at decreasing existing tensions. However, despite such a policy, there is no breakthrough in relations between Iran and some Arab countries.”
“In my view, the main reason for that is in hypocrisy and insincerity of the U.S. and the West. It is not a secret that terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places are getting ideological and financial support from Saudi Arabia. But unfortunately, the West lacks the will to confront this issue because it uses the notion of terrorism to fight with its competitors.”
According to some experts, the U.S. is gradually withdrawing from the Middle East and countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia want to fill the power vacuum it leaves behind. As a result, there is increased competition between the powers in the region. So how can you describe Russia's role in the Middle East?
“With regard to the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, they intended to do so by 2016 but that did not happen. In practice, what happened after the so-called Arab Spring, after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, after the changes that have happened to the Middle East in general, was that Washington led us to a point where things became muddled.”
“Obama calls it a policy of regional equilibrium, which means a certain balance between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Naturally, under the new regional reality, Russia’s role is going to be very important; Moscow views nation-states’ survival as crucial for regional security and stability. This is very important because, contrary to the consensus Western belief, terrorists will replace authoritarian states in the Middle East, not democratic governments.”
“Iran and Russia, together with China, have a common interest in preserving the Westphalia system of international affairs, where the key principles are state sovereignty, non-interference and balance of power.”
“There is one more important thing that must not be ignored with regard to Russia’s role in the Middle East. The threat of Islamic extremism penetrating Russia is real. And if Turkey and Saudi Arabia become stronger, the Mediterranean region together with the Black Sea region will create more problems and threats for Russia. Therefore, based on the countries’ national interests, the reality in the region and facts, Russia’s role in the Middle East will increase.”
The final question is about recent Russia-Turkey tensions, which do not contribute to the stability in the region. How does Iran see this relationship and what role can we play to make reconciliation between Moscow and Ankara possible?
“When the crisis between Russia and Turkey occurred, Iran called both countries to avoid escalation and to maintain the dialogue. Tehran is convinced that if Turkey keeps on with its current political stance, it will hurt Ankara in the first place. Current regional and ethnic problems already penetrated Turkey. Look at the recent terrorist attacks which shook the country.”
“On the other hand, there is a potential for constructive cooperation between Iran, Russia and Turkey in the South Caucasus. The recent Nagorno-Karabakh escalation proved the Caucasus to be a very explosive place and our countries could work together to bring more stability and security there. So, the future of such cooperation depends on whether Turkey will continue its policy of undermining official and legitimate regimes in Iraq and Syria.”