Iran-Russia Collaboration, Key Solution to Regional Problems

Friday, February 21, 2014

Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Elaheh Koolaee
By: Ramin Nadimi

Both before the election of the ninth Iranian administration and after it, relations between Iran and Russia have accounted for one of the most important aspects of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. As put by the Iranian President, Dr. Hassan Rouhani, relations with Russia have an important position in Iran's foreign relations and various developments have helped to further strengthen security and political ties between the two countries in the region. One of the most important aspects of these developments has been the recent emphasis put by the leaders in both countries on the need to promote further cooperation between the two states. Of special importance here is the recent nuclear deal [struck by Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers] in [the Swiss city of] Geneva. The nuclear deal has further underlined the importance of ties between Tehran and Moscow given the fact that the Geneva deal may lead to future improvement of Iran's relations with the United States, in particular, and the West, in general.

Dr. Elaheh Koolaee took part in an interview with Iran Review to discuss her viewpoints regarding Russia and its position in the Iranian foreign policy, Iran and Russia positions on Syria, and Russia’s Neo-Eurasian policy. Dr. Koolaee, an ex-parliamentarian, is a specialist in Central Eurasian affairs and is the director of the Central Eurasia Program at the Faculty of Law and Political Science (Regional Studies Department) at University of Tehran. What follows is the text of Iran Review’s interview with her.

Q: During the recent years, discussions about “Russia and its position in the Iranian foreign policy” have continued unabated. Continuation of these discussions between the opponents and proponents shows that there are still ambiguities in this regard. What is your opinion on this issue? How do you think a relative consensus can be forged on this issue in order to serve as a practical guide to Tehran’s applied policy toward Moscow?

A: The quality of our relations with Russia is just an example of issues with which the Iranian foreign policy has been dealing during the past few decades. In fact, there are certain reasons for the existing ambiguities that surround our knowledge of Russia and its position in the foreign policy of Iran. These reasons include absence of correct understanding of regional and international developments, and absence of research centers affiliated with the executive bodies that would be able to present a more accurate image of the global developments to top decision-makers in an independent and scientific manner. Of course, it is also doubtful whether those decision-makers are actually willing to receive the findings of such research efforts. In addition, weakness of regional studies carried out in Iran and incomplete understanding of neighboring and farther countries are among other factors which can be analyzed to shed more light on the quality of relations between Iran and Russia. This comes despite the fact that Iran's 20-Year Perspective Plan has specified that our country should be a regional power in this regard within the next ten years. In fact, the approach to Russia has taken shape according to pre-determined principles and without due attention to changing realities and developments of this country. Therefore, when it comes to regulation of Iran's relations with Russia, instead of paying due attention to both countries’ requirements and demands, a certain kind of illusionary approach has governed our foreign policy.

Due to the absence of necessary and adequate information on the domestic developments in Russia, we have become delusional about the importance of Iran's position in Russian foreign policy. In the meantime, developments and changes that have taken place in Russia since the overthrow of the former Soviet Union have had a great effect on Russia’s relations with the Islamic Republic. Therefore, in the absence of a correct understanding of internal changes in this country as well as its foreign policy developments and orientations, we would not be able to talk about regulation of our relations with Russia. As I said before, it is unfortunate to say that taking a specialistic and scholarly approach to this issue has been usually the case in our country. On the other hand, under the former bipolar world system and when the Soviet Union’s Communist system ruled over the Central Eurasia, at least, leftist and Marxist groups in Iran showed special interest in the Soviet Union and followed its developments due to similarity of their ideological tendencies with that of the Soviet Union. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, that interest gradually ebbed. In fact, there was less interest in, and consequently knowledge about internal developments of Russia and only a few Iranian scholars are still closely pursuing developments in Russia.

At the same time, when it comes to the regulation of Iran's relations with Russia, the effect of the United States, as a major factor, and Moscow’s relations with Washington come to the fore. Our relations with Russia have been influenced by Russia’s relations with the United States in proportion to the strength of Kremlin’s interaction with the West, especially the White House, and in view of the opportunities that Moscow has had to further expand that interaction in various fields. One may claim that any time that the West has mounted pressure on Iran, especially when that pressure has been escalated by the United States, Iran's attention to Russia has increased proportionate to the magnitude of foreign pressure. On the other hand, however, it is noteworthy that both Iran and Russia, as two big countries in the Caspian Sea basin, have been pursing common interests, while facing common threats during the past two decades that have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result of these common interests and threats, all-out expansion of bilateral relations has become an inevitable necessity for both countries. Russia is the great and powerful neighbor of the Islamic Republic of Iran and regardless of the quality of relations with the West, development of all-out cooperation with Moscow is in line with our national interests. However, as I said before, during the few decades that have passed since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union, those relations have been fluctuating as a function of the quality and intensity of Tehran’s confrontation with Washington.

Q: In most cases, Russia has also pursued its relations with Iran as a function of its large-scale interactions with the West. So, what reason, do you think, is behind recent remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about their country’s readiness to strengthen part of its relations with Iran? Can this willingness be considered a function of the current stagnation and confrontation in Russia’s relations with the West? Or has Moscow updated its assessment of regional and international capacities of Iran? Basically, how does Russia define “Iran and its position in Russian foreign policy?”

A: Since the beginning of the Cold War and throughout the lifespan of the former Soviet Union, relations with Iran have been naturally of very high importance to Russia. At any rate, a change in the Iranian government as a pro-US dependent regime, which occurred as a result of the Islamic Revolution, and the emergence of a new system of government with anti-American approaches, was quite a blessing to the Soviet Union. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, however, this approach changed for a short period of time under the influence of what can be described as a form of political romanticism in Russia. In order to develop their relations with the West and to integrate into the global economy, Russians tried to view Iran from the standpoint of the West. As a result, during the first few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran was considered by Moscow as an “Islamic threat” posed to Russia’s Muslim-inhabited regions in Central Asia, Caucasus, and the mainland of Russia. However, as Iran started to play its positive and constructive part in bringing about peace in Tajikistan and made effective cooperation with Russia in this regard, the Russian officials started to pay more attention to Iran's role as a result of a more general alteration in their Middle Eastern foreign policy. Therefore, they decided to further expand their country’s relations with Iran, especially with emphasis on the nuclear energy program of the Islamic Republic. Consequently, since the second half of the 1990s, when the two countries started to cooperate over the construction of Iran's nuclear power plant in the southern city of Bushehr, Russia has frequently used Iran's card as a trump in interactions with the West. As Moscow’s confrontation with the United States increased, the Russians always used the tension in Iran's relations with the United States to their own benefit.

In addition, when it comes to energy exports, there has been an overt competition between the two countries. However, the foreign policy approach of Iran has prevented the Islamic Republic from taking good advantage of this capacity for the realization of its national interests. In the field of energy transfer, due to a dominant anti-American – and in recent years even anti-European – approach in Iran's foreign policy, Russia has always had the upper hand with regard to energy transfer. Therefore, there has been practically no effective competition between the two countries in this regard. A possible change in Iran's relations [with the United States] as a result of the recent Geneva [nuclear] agreement is expected to change this equation to the benefit of Iran.

Q: On a regional scale, how do you assess positions taken by Iran and Russia on the situation in Syria? Can “coordinated measures” taken by the two countries be considered a form of regional interaction? Or is it just “accidental?” Can this experience serve as a role model for joint action by Tehran and Moscow in future developments of the Middle East?

A: This is undoubtedly true. In view of changes made to Russia’s foreign policy approaches following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that country has taken a special approach to Middle East. As a result, Moscow has been trying to play an effective part in regional developments, including in the Middle East peace process. On the other hand, Moscow has been endeavoring to mend fences with countries that made up the resistance front during the Cold War era and which have been experiencing “Arab revolutions” in recent years. As a result of this approach, Middle East has become very important to Russia. Meanwhile, the increasing confrontation between Russia and the United States has caused Russian statesmen to pay special attention to Middle East. Of course, Moscow has been also trying to expand cooperation with Washington at the same time.

There are many common interests conceivable for Iran and Russia in this part of the world. One of the most prominent and the most obvious of those interests is fighting against radical Salafist or Takfiri groups in this region, which have targeted the stability and security of both countries and whose further spread can pose a serious threat to the national security of both Iran and Russia. The expansion of this kind of fundamentalism in this part of the world has even prompted both countries to get closer to the United States. This has, in turn, an obvious influence on the balance of power in the region. Apart from these facts, Iran and Russia, as two big powers on the shores of the Caspian Sea, have many remarkable common grounds for further expansion of all-out and profitable cooperation. This capacity had not been taken advantage of in a proper manner during the past years due to unrealistic and non-moderate approaches taken by both countries and, as I said before, Russia has been the main winner in those conditions.

Iran and Russia are facing common security concerns, including the US unilateralism, which has been a major focus for both countries during recent years. They need each other to take on other rival countries at regional level and also to deal with countries that have jeopardized regional interests of Iran and Russia, including by equipping and supporting fundamentalist forces that have brought instability and insecurity to the entire region. The necessity for further cooperation between Iran and Russia becomes more evident under these circumstances. However, this is only one of the areas in which the two countries can cooperate. As I said before, there exist various areas, not only political, but also economic, social and cultural in which the two countries have untapped possibilities that should be taken advantage of not merely for the confrontation with the United States and Europe, but also in line with Iran's national interests.

Q: In line with a regional and international approach, some Russian analysts have proposed that Kremlin should include Tehran in the context of its Neo-Eurasian policy through a “long-term” approach. What is the main reason behind this proposal, how Kremlin will possibly react to it, and what is your own assessment of this proposal?

A: Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and independence of the Russia Federation, the foreign policy approach of this country has been moving toward more realism on the basis of geopolitical characteristics of Russia. Moscow has been also trying to bolster Neo-Eurasianism in the country. In addition, Russian leaders in Moscow have been paying attention to various bonds that connect Iran to Russia from a security standpoint and have focused on the necessity of making Iran a partner to the collection of “security and regional cooperation of Russia.” From their viewpoint, the current confrontation with the United States and the West as well as its intensity will take Iran in the direction of more and closer cooperation with Russia, which would be in line with the interests of Moscow as well.

However, there is an important point which should be taken into account here. Even if the current developments in Iran's relations with the West – including the United States and Europe – continue and lead to the reduction of tensions between Iran and the West in various fields by replacing those tensions with cooperation, Iran will undoubtedly not be crossed out of the list of Russia’s Eurasian interests. On the contrary, our country would be faced with better conditions under which it would be able to take advantage of better tools for political bargaining and promoting its viewpoints in order to meet its common interests with Russia. It seems that the foreign policy approach taken by Iran during the 1960s and 1970s contains many good lessons for the analysts of the Islamic Republic of Iran's foreign policy.

Geopolitical characteristics of Iran have undeniably increased the importance of collaboration, closeness and cooperation with Russia for both sides. Apart from the ongoing developments, the Russian decision-makers cannot close their eyes to the advantages and possibilities that the Islamic Republic offers for the realization of Moscow’s interests in the region under any circumstances, even in the event of further development of Iran's relations with the West, especially with the United States. Even in the era of the Soviet Union and under the conditions of total confrontation with the US Capitalism, Russians proved that they were not ready to forgo the advantages of having cordial relations with Iran. The experience of those decades clearly proves that even under conditions of total confrontation between Moscow and Washington, Russians will still try to pursue development of all-out relations with Iran in order to meet their own interests. Without a doubt, this can be considered a good opportunity for both neighboring countries to pay more attention to large possibilities that are available to them for the realization of their mutual interests. As such, one of the most important of those possibilities is the Caspian Sea and its energy resources. Of special interest here is also the deplorable environmental condition of this big lake the improvement of which depends on close collaboration among all the littoral states of the Caspian Sea.

Key Words: Iran-Russia Collaboration, Regional Problems, Iranian Foreign Policy, Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Policy, Middle East, Syria, Neo-Eurasian Policy, Caspian Sea, Koolaee

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