An Iran-Russia Axis? Some in Tehran Aren't So Sure
Leaders in the Islamic Republic disagree on how useful a closer relationship with Moscow would be.
The recent visit to Tehran by Sergei Shoigu was notable in that it was the first time in fifteen years that a Russian defense minister had visited Tehran. As such, it generated considerable speculation about an increasing closeness between Moscow and Tehran. Yet it is still too early to presume that Shoigu’s presence in Tehran is an indication of a coming strategic shift in Iranian-Russian relations. Both countries have reasons to believe that cooperation in security and economics can be mutually beneficial in the face of Western policies against them. But not everyone in Tehran is of the view that Moscow holds the key to Iran’s problems or that Russia is genuinely committed to a new approach to Iran.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, officials in Tehran have been keenly watching Moscow’s deteriorating relations with the West, particularly the United States. Some hawkish anti-Western voices in Tehran believe that Russia’s ostracization from the West presents an opportunity for Iran to seek a strategic alliance with President Vladimir Putin. They constantly tout the end of American global dominance and the promise of a new world order in which the Islamic Republic can play a key role.
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And yet no one in Tehran has so far formulated a convincing blueprint to move toward this goal. Read Iranian statements carefully and it is clear that even Iran’s hardliners admit that despite much fanfare about Iran and Russia joining hands in the economic and security fields, little actual progress has materialized. One of Iran’s most hawkish anti-Western sites, Raja News, ran a sensationalist headline—“An Iranian-Russian Ballistic Missile is Being Prepared to Hit at the Heart of America’s Oil Sanctions Policy”—but the analogy of a ballistic missile was far from reality.
It turns out that Iran and Russia are merely still discussing a bilateral barter deal in which Iranian oil is exchanged for Russian goods, services and investments. This was hardly earth-shattering news, given that such talks have been ongoing since late 2013.
Nevertheless, the optimists that sense the coming of a new era in Russian-Iranian relations argue that the momentum this time around is rooted in far-reaching shifts in calculations presently taking place. They point not only to Shoigu’s visit—which resulted in the signing of a number of defense agreements—but also to Ali-Akbar Velayati’s visit to Moscow in late January.
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Velayati is one of the Islamic Republic’s most prominent figures, having served as foreign minister from 1981 to 1997. Iranian media reported that Velayati held discussions with Putin as President Hassan Rouhani’s special envoy. But the significance of Velayati going to Moscow is linked more to the fact that he is a top advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The choice of Velayati to meet Putin suggests that deliberations about Iranian policy toward Moscow is being spearheaded at the very top and from within the Office of the Supreme Leader. Iranian officials have a history of visiting Moscow based on the portfolios they hold. For example, on Iran’s nuclear file, it has been Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who travels to Moscow. On the Syrian file, it has been Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian who negotiates with the Russians. Abdollahian is close to Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general that is believed to be Iran’s key policy architect in Syria.
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In other words, Velayati’s Moscow trip might signal that some kind of a significant change in relations is about to take place. Iran’s Mehr News reported that in Moscow, Velayati was able to secure Putin’s approval for Iran to “upgrade its status” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Eurasian security bloc that Russia and China have cultivated since 1996 as a counter to Western-led global organizations.
As an observer state in SCO, Iran has since 2005 unsuccessfully sought to obtain full membership in the organization, but perhaps the Russians are about to entertain the idea of Tehran joining the alliance. Along these lines, the state-run Iranian media have been busy hyping the prospects of an SCO membership for Iran. The hardline Fars News went as far as to predict that Iran’s membership will be green lighted at the alliance’s next annual summit in September, which will be held in Russia.
Russia’s historically troubled relations with Iran, however, will ensure that plenty of Iranians remain skeptical as far as future collaboration is concerned. One figure who is wary of Russia’s intentions is Iran’s deputy oil minister, Abbas Shahri Moghaddam.
On the question of potential Iranian-Russian cooperation in pushing up the price of oil on international markets, Moghaddam was at best doubtful. “We are surprised that Russia, which produces almost the same amount of oil as Saudi Arabia, has not been prepared to come together with Venezuela, Iran and Iraq and decrease production by two million barrels of oil a day,” he was quoted as saying. In other words, the perennial mistrust of Russia’s ultimate objectives in its latest overtures toward Tehran stay robust inside Iranian officialdom.
On the issue of security cooperation, while many in the Iranian media are enthusiastic about Russia in December declaring NATO as its primary adversary as well as about Tehran and Moscow’s common perceptions about terrorist threats in the region, the typical Iranian sentiment toward Russia still remains one of suspicion. Besides ordinary Iranians’ overwhelmingly negative sentiments regarding Russian intentions, some statements by Moscow keep fueling official doubt as well. In one recent case, when Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman was in Moscow, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that Israel’s security should not be endangered as part of a solution to Iran’s nuclear program, a statement that makes Moscow’s multiplicity of interests painfully obvious to the Iranians in the government.
In the context of Russia’s posture toward Iran’s nuclear program, the prevailing view in Tehran is still that Russia will continue to align itself with the other states as part of the P5+1 group of world powers. A member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Nozar Shafee, warned in early January that Moscow is using the talks between Iran and the P5+1 as a “tool” to serve its interests. “Iran should not repose any special trust in Russia regarding its strategic relations with the country,” he said, adding that “Russian officials have repeatedly said that their government could change its stand on the Iranian nuclear issue if the US eases the anti-Russian sanctions.”
Shafee was responding to a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry that a few days earlier had warned continuing US sanctions on Russia was “putting in doubt prospects for bilateral cooperation [between Moscow and Washington] on solving the situation around the Iranian nuclear program.”
In other words, Moscow was explicitly using its Iran card in its bilateral dealings with the Americans and it was difficult in Tehran to ignore it. As the reformist Sharq newspaper put it, Tehran should stop deceiving itself about a strategic relationship with Moscow that has never been and is unlikely in the future.
In all of the speculation about the future of Iranian-Russian, two factors are destined to have decisive impact. First, a widening of the gap between Russia and the West over Ukraine will continue to give President Putin a reason to look to countries such as Iran as alternative partners. Second, a failure to reach a nuclear compromise between Iran and the P5+1 by July will provide ammunition to the hardliners in Tehran that have for long been skeptical of President Rouhani’s outreach to the West and argue that Iran’s strategic future is tied to the likes of Russia.
Alex Vatanka is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.