The Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund conducted an interview with Davood Kiani, First Deputy Director of The IRAS Institute, on the Iran-Russian bilateral relations and regional cooperation. The following is a full version of the interview.
Since removal of Iran sanctions, the number of countries negotiating different contracts worth of billion dollars is growing. In your perspective, how much Russia has the opportunity to gain a stable future in the Iranian market in order not to suffer a setback in the race with the economic powers, namely China and Germany?
“In my opinion, the nuclear deal and removal of the ‘sanction regime’ provide the settings for the expansion of economic cooperation between Iran and Russia. In different fields such as rail and road transport infrastructure, Russia could invest. In this field, Russia has comparative advantage. Besides, Russia could invest in southern part of Iran to launch a joint mega project with Iran. The Persian Gulf seaports are very much qualified for Russian non-oil exports to Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries. The development of nuclear, oil and gas industries and build of power plants in Iran are among top priorities for Tehran’s government that Russia could expand its presence through investment. The international sanctions against Iran make this country underdeveloped in its strategic industries, thus requiring a great amount of Foreign Direct Investment.”
In what fields, could Iran and Russia cooperate more? Which filed does have a better outlook?
“The greatest Iran-Russia cooperation lies within political, military and security arenas and the lowest one are for economic and cultural issues. Both countries have roughly the same political vision of the International system craving for system change, and prevention of the Western influence on their peripheries. Moreover, the religious extremism is threating the security of both countries and this same challenge has been preventing the expansion of mutual cooperation. Iran and Russia prefer stability in Central Asia and the Caucasus to any sort of change in the region. As far as I understand, both countries are advocate of the integrity of the Middle Eastern countries. Indeed, this same objective has provided a basis for better bilateral cooperation in the Middle East recently. On the bilateral military cooperation, Russia has played a pivotal role in the advancement of the Iranian military industry, not overlooking by the Iran’s elites. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, Russia has taken on the role of the West in development of the Iranian military infrastructure.”
In what fields does the weakness of the bilateral cooperation lie?
“The most weakness is in the area of economy and culture. On economy, according to Trade Promotion Organization of Iran, the amount of trade volume in the last ten months reached $550 million which decrease dramatically compared with that of in previous years. In fact, less than one percent of Iran’s annual import is from Russia. The same amount applies to Russian import from Iran. One of the most significant obstacles is the shortage of access routes. Only one air route between Iran and Russia, lack of rail road and some restrictions on shipping goods through road and sea bring about strictly limited access to the Iranian and Russian markets. In addition, the private sector in Iran is very weak and does not know the Russian market quite well. Some banking and insurance problems along with different systems of national standards and the recent Ruble instability hinder further economic cooperation.”
“As far as I know, The Russian private sector faces the challenges alike. I think in this period of time, both political elites and the governments of Iran and Russia have a decisive role in improving the economic cooperation. Resolving the banking problems for better currency exchange, strengthen the transport infrastructure, hosting bilateral trade fairs, launching informative bilingual websites to present the opportunities in Iranian and Russian markets, activating the North-South Transport Corridor and preparing the Russian seaports to work with the maritime fleet of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Caspian Sea are among the agendas Tehran and Moscow should push to boost trade and investment ties.”
Recently, with respect to common stand of Iran and Russia on Syria, the experts talk about the prospects of geopolitical alliance between Tehran and Moscow. In your perspective, how much is such alliance likely to make? Is the convergence of Iranian and Russian interests on the Syrian crisis merely for one country in the Middle East or the whole story is something else?
“On the Syrian crisis, security cooperation between Iran and Russia is the most important one after the end of the Cold War. In my opinion, Iran’s firm stance on Syrian Assad government convinced Russia to militarily step in and accept the risk of strike on the terrorist groups in war-torn Syria. Although Iran has tried its best to keep Assad in power, something else could unfold without Russian airstrike, not quite favorable to Iran and Russia. It is quite obvious such cooperation has positive effect on the public and elite opinions of both countries and paves the way for more intimate relationship. Despite growing security cooperation, it is slightly difficult to talk about geopolitical alliance between Tehran and Moscow. Russia is a great power with international interests which is not, every so often, in harmony with the Iranian interests and policies in the Middle East. Iran, for instance, has shared its considerable worries over the role of Israel in the Russian regional policies.”
“On the Arab World, while knowing well that the spread of Saudi Wahhabism is dangerous to the “near abroad”, Russia prefers to widely tolerate the Saudi Kingdom. I remember that when some radical forces attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Russia reacted more sternly than the United States. Such language from Russia, as an Iran’s partner in the region, is slightly far-fetched. Despite the fact that the embassy attack is wrong and against the international rules and norms, Russia could have relatively soft language on this issue. On Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Russia has been evading a nod of approval for Iran’s membership for many years. Quite interestingly, while Iran has more geographical, historical and cultural connections with the central Asian countries, this is India and Pakistan that gain the SCO membership. Last but not least, Russia finds fault with delay in delivering S-300 missile system. Iran believes there Russia faces no legal restrictions to fulfil the contract.”
“Different Russian comments on missile delivery give those in Iran who are against the expansion of bilateral relationship an opportunity to have a more opposing argument. However, I believe that expecting Russia to pursue its Middle Eastern policies in accordance with the Iranian regional approach is above expectation. That’s why I think that the current strategically security cooperation between Iran and Russia would not forge a security alliance in the near future.”
In Iran, It is said that both nations lack proper knowledge of each other and under such circumstance, It is hardly likely any kind of strategically bilateral partnership. If do not consider the elite groups, what is the reason behind such lack of knowledge and what do you recommend to solve this problem?
“I think that not only the Iranians, but also the Russians have lack of proper knowledge of each other and this is a preventive reason to expansion of bilateral relationship. I believe that the Russian government should pursue a more actively cultural and public diplomacy in Iran. The number of Iranian college students in Russia is few. By establishing Russian language centers in Tehran and other Iranian metropoles, the Moscow government could encourage many Iranian students and even the business leaders to have better understanding of the Russian society and to visit the country. To make you an example, many in Iran repeatedly ask The IRAS Institute to design Russian language courses. In fact, it is impossible for the Institute to do so because of resource constraints but this is a good indicator to prove that the Russian language centers in Iran are inadequate. Besides, it is of utmost importance to propose a mechanism for further educational and scientific cooperation under the leadership of the Iranian Ministry of Science, Research and Technology (MSRT), and the Russian Ministry of Education and Science.”
“Recently the international division of MSRT actively pursues a scientific and educational diplomacy that is quite useful to extend such diplomacy to Russia. Another important point to consider is about the visa. Although Iran and Russia has relaxed the visa rules recently, it is quite advantageous to both nations to have visa-free access. As a reminder, Russia applied the same process to Turkey (before the recent events) and Egypt. In Iran, it is sometimes said that some organizations do not take steps towards cultural expansion with Russia. It is expected that powerful Russia, rather than Iran, to take further series of steps in strengthening the cultural relationship. In my last visit to Russia, I realized that Iranian and Russian cooperation on Syria has played a positive role in mutual understanding. Indeed, this is an ideal opportunity to develop cultural ties between the two nations.”