H.E. Dr. Mehdi Sanaei, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Russian Federation and senior fellow at IRAS, sat down a week ago with IRAS for an interview about Iran-Russia's relationship on bilateral and regional issues after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Mr. Ambassador, with respect to developments between Iran and Russia in last year and the half, how do you assess bilateral relationship from political perspective?
"Last year was a significant year for Iran-Russia ties. In this year, heads of both nations had three high-level meetings: Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) and BRICS summits was held on July 2015 in Ufa, Russia and president Rouhani attended the meetings. President Rouhani and President Putin met on the sidelines of the United Nations General assembly (September 2015) and finally President Putin made his first visit to Iran and met Iranian officials including Supreme Leader and President Rouhani. Moreover, both presidents had phone conversations during last year. Iran and Russia's foreign ministers also had several meetings in the capitals or different international venues. The recent visa rules relaxing was signed by foreign ministers and it has now been implemented.
"In addition to bilateral ties, Iranian-Russian cooperation on the Syrian crisis in the international organizations was bolstered last year. On JCPOA, Russia's efforts was not limited to the final agreement, but Moscow made a great effort to implement the JCPOA. It has signaled its readiness to buy the enriched uranium from Iran and help us to reconstruct the Arak reactor and produce sustainable isotopes.
"During the last year and the half, with the initiative of relevant divisions of the Iran's foreign ministry, two rounds of dialogue on human rights and two rounds of dialogue on arms control were held between the two governments. The main goal of these dialogues was to strengthen the bilateral cooperation in the international level. Moreover, Iran and Russia made a joint plan to combat terrorism and drug trafficking and also to establish peace and security in Afghanistan.
"Security and defense collaboration is another major theme of bilateral relations in the past fifteen months. Several thorough meeting and talks were held in Tehran and Moscow and important developments were unfolded to expand the defense cooperation including S-300 missile system delivery.
"Bilateral relationship was not limited to Rouhani government. Tehran Mayor and a couple of municipality officials made a trip to Moscow and Saint Petersburgh to exchange their expertise on related issues. The Iranian Parliament Speaker visit to Sochi on September 2014 for attending Valdai Discussion Club and his meeting with President Putin and also his last April attendance to the first summit of Eurasian Parliamentary speakers proved the legislatures of both countries have been active in different fields of cooperation during past year and the half.
"On the judiciary, Iranian authorities were greatly cooperating in different fields and maintained their contacts with their counterparts. Among the latest developments, was Russian officials of Ministry of Justice visit to Iran to finalize the agreement on repatriating the prisoners and signed a MoU on general-attorneys. Besides, last year meeting of Iran's minister of Justice, attorney generals, head of Inspection Office and the deputy of human rights division of the Judiciary with their counterparts and attending the international legal and judicial forums were very fruitful. In this visit, Iran's Ministry of Justice signed an agreement with his counterpart for further judicial collaboration."
Given Russia's increasing partnership in the Middle East, what is the real status and role of Russia in the region?
"Russia is a Eurasian nation and the consolidation of Russian 'Pivot to East' is natural. Under this framework, compared with some European countries' behavior in the Middle East, Russia's increasing attention to the region is attention-grabbing. Iran welcomes any Russian partnership in the regional developments and gives high value to Russia's efforts in combating against terrorism and establishing peace and security in the Middle East. Such role, there, will surely solidify Moscow contacts with global actors."
Given the recent bilateral agreements and the sanction removal, what is the reason behind low Iran-Russia economic ties?
"During the recent years, some major challenges have been ahead of Tehran-Moscow economic cooperation. Among them is the similarity of national incomes which has been hugely dependent on energy export. If both sides could meet their needs, we definitely have more hope and motivation to expand the economic ties. Moreover, to have a robust economic relations, both nations should have a clear picture of each commercial capacities and the procedure of doing business. The language is another obstacle to further economic ties. My advice to Iranian businessmen/businesswomen who are really interested in working with the Russians is to have long-term plan and work with their rules of game. Iranian low investment with haste moves won't bring to fruition.
"The JCPOA and sanction removals create a unique opportunity in banking and financial sectors for both sides in order to expand the ties. In this regard, multiple Russian commercial authorities' visits to Iran are an obvious sign for putting the economic collaboration on an upward curve. While the Western sanctions against Russia, oil price slump and Ruble value cut shrank the amount of Russian volume trade with most of its major partners in Asia and Europe in the past two years, Iran's economic ties with Russia, to the words of Russian energy minister, increased about 69 percent in the first half of 2016, compared with that of 2015."
Which areas of cooperation do you more hopeful to bring to fruition?
"The transportation, in particular rail road, energy industry, thermal and nuclear power plants, mines, aerospace industry, agriculture and fishery, to name but few are among the fields of cooperation that could pave the way to boost economically bilateral ties. We do our great efforts to make all the MoU into practice."
Is there any negotiation or any proposal on Iran-Russia energy cooperation so far?
"Ministry of oil repeatedly express their readiness to study the international firms' proposals, in particular the Russian ones on oil and gas megaprojects. Fear of sanctions around Iran's economy prevent them to invest in Iran. After lifting the sanctions, the Russian energy corporations strengthen their contacts with the Iranian ministry of oil. We also received the Russian ministry of energy and the top managers of Russian energy industry in Tehran and right now, negotiations on Russian firms' investment in Iranian important oil and gas projects are under way."
What steps have been taken to have more robust and active cooperation on the field of innovation?
"Some very great steps have been taken so far. Dr. Sorena Sattari, Iranian Vice-President for Science and Technology, made several trips to Russia and became familiar with Russian science and innovation capacities. Some Russian officials also visited Tehran to realize how capable Iran is on science and innovation. In this regard, the Iran-Russia High Committee of Science and Innovation has been established, leading to more firm scientific and innovation collaboration.
"Moreover, after holding the first 'top Iranian and Russian universities' conference Moscow, under the auspices of the State University of Moscow, the Iran-Russia Universities Union was formed. We are now busy working on the second conference to be held on upcoming September in University of Tehran. Also, the universities and research centers of both countries has contacted each other and in this framework, scientific and innovation cooperation between the two nations has been taken place."
What is your opinion on cultural cooperation between Iran and Russia?
"I was Iran's cultural counselor to Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation years ago. Besides, when I was in Iran, I held cultural posts including deputy directorate at Islamic Culture and Relations Organization. So, I have a great inclination to cultural ties and I seek to expand it in all aspects. I really stress on teaching Persian (Farsi) and training Iran expert at the Russian universities. In return, they also expect Iranian universities and research centers to support teaching Russian in Iranian universities and academies.
"One important occasion in cultural relations of two nations was the invitation of Iran's Minister of Education, as a special guest, to Moscow International Book Fair last year. The same also applied to Russia, that they became special guest of this year's Tehran International Book Fair. During the event, we also hosted President Putin's special advisor on International cultural cooperation."
As a well-experienced professor, how do you work on academic aspect of Iran-Russia collaboration?
"As a faculty member of University of Tehran and my tendency to academic cooperation, expansion and deepening of academic cooperation between the nations is my top priority. On the other hand, Iranian and Russian knows me well and this rises expectations from me to act accordingly. Creation of Iran-Russia Universities Union last year, continuation of some Iranian-Russian universities collaboration under the framework of Caspian Universities Union and several MoU between universities of Iran and Russia are a solid foundation to cement the academic ties. I myself try my best to allocate some of my daily time to give lectures at Russian universities."
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