A New Phase in Iran’s Relations with Russia?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Interview with Jahangir Karami
By: Alireza Noori

Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS): Russia’s new warning to Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano about unacceptability of baseless pressures against Iran and frequent diplomatic exchanges between Tehran and Moscow in recent months which have opened a new phase in bilateral relations, have ushered those relations into a totally new phase. Some observers believe that the main reason behind opening of a new chapter in Tehran-Moscow relations is relative freeze in Russia’s ties with the United States. Others still believe that recent positive turn in Tehran-Moscow relations are based on understandable foundations. Iran and Eurasia Research Center has, therefore, arranged the following interview with Jahangir Karami, a faculty member of University of Tehran, to provide in-depth analysis of recent developments in Tehran’s relations with Moscow.

Q: Mr. Karami, some analysts maintain that recent developments in Tehran’s relations with Moscow, including frequent trips by both countries’ officials and Moscow’s warning to director general of IAEA against more pressure on Iran indicate the opening of a new chapter in bilateral relations and Russia’s bid to take decisions independent of the West. To what extent, do you believe that such analyses conform to external realities of Iran-Russia relations?

A: After tension started to grow in Iran-Russia relations in 2009, which was mostly importantly due to Russia’s closeness to the United States, it seems that Tehran and Moscow have been mending fences again in the past few months. In other words, new problems first surfaced between Washington and Moscow as a result of proposed deployment of a US missile shield in Europe. After NATO’s meeting in Lisbon, the Russians thought that NATO’s plan would decisively lead to suspension of the missile shield. However, the United States showed in later stages that it was quite serious about the missile plan and made it part of all initiatives which were offered to Russia. They currently came to understand that all those initiatives aimed to reduce Russia’s opposition to US measures and could only postpone deployment of the missile shield, not totally dismantle it.

Under those conditions, Kremlin officials came to realize that they had no reason to further “restrain” ties with Iran and this seems to be the main reason for the current thaw in bilateral relations between Tehran and Moscow. Another reason is the forthcoming presidential polls in Russia. The election has already left its mark on Russia’s foreign policy positions. Iran’s relations with Russia are no exception because the Russian government, especially Mr. Vladimir Putin, need to show their anti-American stances and prove their independence in making foreign policy decisions during election hustings. Therefore, I think it is real that both Russian and Iranian sides have more hope in future prospects of their relations.

Q: Some media which focus on recent mutual trips by two countries’ officials have been talked about “new horizons” in Iran’s relations with Russia. Is there hope that the “winter” freeze in bilateral relations will turn into a warm “spring” as a result of recent developments? Diplomatic pleasantries aside, are there any objective signs to prove that this is really happening?

A: Those horizons are partially visible even now as is manifest in improvement of bilateral, including economic, relations. According to available statistics, the volume of bilateral trade between Iran and Russia has tangibly increased in the first half of 2011 compared to the corresponding period of the preceding year. Diplomatic exchanges have also started and new topics have been proposed for consultation and dialogue, including the situation in Syria and Turkey’s pressures on that country. Such trends show that a new phase has begun in Tehran’s relations with Moscow and recent developments are not merely limited to words, but are also reflected in deeds. Another development is Russia’s new plan for solving Iran’s nuclear issue in a step by step manner. Positions taken by Kremlin officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in meetings with Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, prove that the Russian side has a positive attitude and wants to have a positive impact on the nuclear issue. In fact, Moscow has decided to take a practical step to solve this issue. Russians believe that both the West and Iran have indicated their willingness to find a solution to this issue. In other words, both sides have come to realize ineffectiveness of past solutions and welcome the offer of a new solution. As a result, the Russian initiative represents an objective approach which has put Russia’s credit at stake. But to predict future outlook of the plan, one needs to observe the course of developments. As I said before, new economic and diplomatic developments in Iran’s relations with Russia are quite evident and the step by step plan, which is now in gear, is of high importance.

Q: You noted that Iran-Russia relations are a function of Washington’s ties with Moscow. To what extent, do you think that Russia can play a role in the nuclear case and, generally speaking, within framework of Iran – Russia – West triangle? Given US pressures against Iran, will Russia be able to play an independent role in this regard?

A: At a time that a unipolar or multipolar system dominates international relations (like now) no player can regulate its relations with others without respect for considerations that are important to the main power in that system. Such a structure will have its own requirements. This is also true about Iran’s relations with Russia. As I said before, this factor will influence relations among all countries which are playing an active role in this system. There are also areas such as cultural, social and economic relations, which may be less affected. However, political, security and trade relations involving sensitive and dual-use military technologies will be naturally affected by a country’s relations with the dominant power in a unipolar or multipolar system. Therefore, it is a reality that Russia’s relations with the United States will influence Moscow’s ties with Tehran. As we see, many aspects of Iran’s relations with Russia have been changed as a result of the influence of the United States, including both countries’ opposition to a unipolar world system and Washington’s opposition to Iran’s access to advanced technologies.

Under such circumstances, Russia cannot act independently with regard to Iran’s nuclear case because this issue is treated like a “package.” As a result, other countries involved in this case, both at the UN Security Council and in International Atomic Energy Agency, will not allow Russia to play an independent part. Let’s not forget that issues related to Iran’s nuclear case are not considered bilateral, but they are multifaceted and multilateral. Even in some cases of bilateral relations, independent act is a totally relative concept which is conditional on sometimes impossible circumstances. Anyway, Russia’s role in Iran’s nuclear case is not an independent one. This, however, does not mean that the country is unable to show initiative in this regard. It also does not mean that this is a purely Western game and Russia is just following suit with the West. In reality, Russia is playing a game in which all players involved in Iran’s nuclear case should be taken into consideration. Everything should be taken into account from international institutions to international norms that decide this case as well as other powers and countries which are directly or indirectly involved in this case. Russian officials have never denied that issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear case are complicated and multifaceted.

Q: Don’t you think that Russia’s step by step plan is a new form of Moscow’s usual play with Iran’s trump against the West? Can you believe that Russians will really prefer their “Iranian” friends over their “American” friends?

A: No, I don’t think so. The issue of trump card has lost its meaning in international relations, especially with regard to Iran’s relations with Russia. Both in practice, and in international relations, all countries may be used as trump by others. Even the United States uses European countries’ trump when it aims to put pressure on another country. But, how this is done depends on the nature and quality of every case. When a country enters a special international procedure, for example, to solve an international dispute, it banks on its international credit and status. Therefore, its impartiality should have been accepted by all parties involved in that dispute. The country coming up with an initiative should have also proven its efficiency in handling a case by providing solutions, following up on that case and getting it to a final conclusion. Therefore, I think that it will be meaningless to say that Russians are playing Iran’s card vs. the West or the West’s card vs. Iran.

As I said before, we must not forget that when it comes to Iran’s nuclear case, Russia follows its own independent position and, more importantly, has its own style of action not only on Iran’s nuclear activities, but on nuclear activities of different countries. Therefore, when Moscow enters Iran’s nuclear case, it tries to not only maintain and strengthen its own positions and views, but also to take both parties to a dispute close together by proposing an initiative in a bid to settle that dispute. The details of Russia’s step by step plan which have been revealed thus far show that Russia does not pursue to betray one side for the good of the other side because in such a game, one country comes forth to solve a problem. Likewise, Iran steps forward to solve problems in Karabakh, Tajikistan and Syria. That initiative may finally prove effective or ineffective, but this depends on a collection of factors which may not be totally related to the party which has come up with the initiative. In Iran’s nuclear case, Russia’s role is to propose an initiative and this is the result of the country’s independence in decision-making which should be considered positive.

Q: Some Western sources emphasize that Iran has agreed to the Russia’s plan just to avoid further international isolation, but does not really care for its content. What is your opinion?

A: This is not true. The sum total of Iranian officials’ positions shows that they have accepted the plan. The fact that Russia’s security chief, Nikolai Patrushev, visits Iran followed by the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visiting Moscow shows that the issue is being considered from a security standpoint. It is not still clear how Iranian officials will deal with the plan in practice because its details have not been revealed in full. Therefore, the plan is still surrounded by ambiguities from the viewpoint of the Iranian officials. For example, if the plan does not recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium, it would be totally out of the question. If it recognizes enrichment, but at lower levels, it will be still problematic. As to the issue that Iran’s early agreement to the plan aims to buy time, one should note that Tehran and Washington follow their own policies in this issue and postponement of the initiative is not an option for either party. As the current evidence shows, the plan is in gear and is progressing.

Few weeks pass by without a discussion of Iran’s nuclear program or Russia’s plan in the United States. On the Iranian side, there is firm determination to continue peaceful use of the nuclear energy. Therefore, Iran’s policy toward the plan should not be considered a means of buying time. It should be noted that the plan has been accepted by analysts from various countries who emphasize that Iran’s rights should be taken into account. Otherwise, rejection of the plan by Tehran will not be without a cost. In case of rejection, the Russians will become more inclined toward the West and this will pave the way for further increase in pressures on Iran. As I said before, Russia pursues its own interests in relation to Iran’s nuclear case and has not got engaged in the case with totally “pure” intentions.

Source: Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS)
Translated By: Iran Review

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