In an interview with International Institute of Khazar Sea Studies (IIKSS) (Farsi), Bahram Amirahmadian, an assistant professor at University of Tehran and the senior fellow at IRAS, discussed some deeper layers of Iran-Russia relations as well as clarify the obstacles for further cooperation. Tise interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Given positive experience on political-military cooperation and economic ties between Iran and Russia, is the time ripe for triggering a sort of dialogue to divide the Central Asia and South Caucasus into two spheres of influence for Tehran and Moscow?
“With regard to what has happened, [we cannot say] relations between Iran and Russia are at a very good level. Russia is a pragmatic state, and Iran at times plays an emotional attitude in the political game, and does not take reality into account that much. That is why public political space is sometimes damaged in public opinion. If Iran, like Russia, preferred its national interests on any issue, Russia would inevitably consider Iran’s national interests as well. In its relations with other countries, Russia has always sought maximum benefits for itself and a minimum for its partner(s). Russia has full control in the Caspian Sea over the republics of the former Soviet Union, even over Azerbaijan, which has a wider relationship with the West than Russia, and over Turkmenistan which is neutral. These countries are somewhat ‘hostages’ to the Russian thinking, thought, culture and language.
“Russia’s strategic alliance with Armenia has put Azerbaijan in a weakening position to take the occupied territories of Karabakh back from Armenia. Karabakh and Armenia have a high strategic value for Russia; they, along with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have transformed the Caucasus region into a strategic region for Russia. Russia takes advantage of the capacity of Russians living in countries around the Caspian Sea. In the Shanghai Pact, poor and weak countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, along with the rich and powerful Kazakhstan, are under the strategic military dominance of Russia. Turkmenistan, landlocked and neutral, cannot stand up against Russia. Therefore, the Caspian Sea has two main players: one is Iran with the lowest share of the Caspian Sea area and the other is the powerful Russia with its ‘hostage- taken’ partners. Therefore, Russia is not keen to resolve the new legal regime in the Caspian Sea.
“Russia is a special country in which the structure of power is different from that of other countries. In Russia, the power system is exclusive to the President, and the media and NGOs, and, in other words, the civil society cannot possibly influence the structure of power. Even parties (with the exception of the United Russia Party as the ruling party) do not play a large role in the structure of power and decision-making. The Russian Parliament (the State Duma), in which the majority of seats belonged/belongs and will belong to the ruling party, enacts the President’s decisions into law. Members of the Federation Council act as appointed senators. Therefore, Russia is moving toward exercising full authority within its borders, and extending this authority to the former Soviet borders in order to secure its own interests. Russia is seeking its national security within the borders of the former Soviet Union.
“The Russian military presence in Central Asia (especially in Tajikistan on the border with Afghanistan), in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (which has increased its convergence with Russia since its presidential change), and the demographic composition of the Russians in the wealthy Kazakhstan are considered Russia’s tools in Central Asia. For the Russians, Iran wants to be present in Central Asia to expand [its] religious influence, and develop political Islam and religious ideology, so Russia is sensitive to the presence of Iran in this region. However, Russians are not sensitive to the presence of China, because China is an economic power, and does not seek to develop a political, military, or cultural and ideological presence [in the region]. On the other hand, China and Russia are considered as the two [main] decision-makers in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and for both powers, the entry of Iran into this structure may pose a challenge for the future of the region. Russia and China have broad economic cooperation [with each other].”
Given more close ties between the North Caucasus and the Arab World, what are the elements of forging cooperation between Iran and the republics of the North Caucasus?
“It should be mentioned here that Russian Muslims are Sunni, and they followed the Ottoman caliph during the Ottoman Empire. During the Safavid-Ottoman Wars, Tatars of the Crimean Khanate supported the Ottomans, and even participated in the Ottoman war against the Safavid. Therefore, there is no positive attitude toward the Shiite Iran and Shiites in the world not only within the Russian Muslims, but also in the Islamic world. Russian Muslim leaders in Volga, Siberia and the North Caucasus regions may declare official positions in support of Iran, but in general, at best, they can be indifferent or neutral. Their tendency toward the Shiite Iran is not that strong and efficient, and it can be said that, at best, it is neutral, if not negative.
“During the wars between the Chechen forces and those against them in Chechnya and Dagestan, Iran had a neutral position on them, and supported the positions of the Russian government. I think, Iran’s entry into the discussions of Russian Muslims, especially in the North Caucasus where Islamic extremist movements are active, not only will not promote the status of Iran in the region, but also will backfire. Iran’s tools in these regions can be cultural and not religious. Persian language, literature, music, art, architecture, and customs like Nowruz will serve as more efficient tools for the Iranian presence in these regions.”
While we are currently experiencing cordial relations on political and trade ties between Iran and Russia, don’t you think it’s time to put cultural and public diplomacy between Tehran and Moscow on the agenda?
“In public diplomacy, it is worthy to pay attention to common cultural issues. Until the Islamic Revolution of Iran, there were very broad cultural relations between Iran and the Soviet Union, although the two countries had completely different and opposite political systems. Since the Soviet Union had a materialist economic and political system that was in conflict with the spirit of the Islamic Revolution, relations between Iran and the Soviet Union were faced with political and ideological restrictions for a decade. After the collapse of the communist system of the Soviet Union, new relations have been established [between the two countries] since 1993 [in the form of] the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation.
“At the same time, cultural relations experience ups and downs that are not at the expected level. Teaching Russian language at the universities in Iran, exchanging professors and students, at a limited level, and sending students to the Russian universities have somewhat contributed to the promotion of cultural relations. However, the Russian language and the challenging system for obtaining the Russian visa have created restrictions for attracting tourists from Iran. Restrictions on recreation for non-Muslim Russians in the religious context of Iran and within the constitutional framework of the Islamic Republic of Iran have also created barriers to the prosperity of cultural diplomacy.
“On the other hand, the absence of Russian movies in the Iranian society, the lack of sufficient translated modern Russian literature being published in Persian and, mutually, the lack of published materials on Iranian literature and culture on a large scale in Russia that can lead to the development of cultural diplomacy, do not provide the possibility to take advantage of the cultural diplomacy at a desirable level. The distrust of Iranian people toward the Russians and the historical record of the Russians’ behavior with Iranians and [the fact that some of] Iranian historical territories were taken from Iran during wars between Iran and Russia, and the occupation of the provinces of [East and West] Azerbaijan of Iran by the Red Army during the Second World War, are considered as the major obstacles to [establish] a cultural diplomacy [between the two countries].”
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