Iran-Russia Relations Need Soft Change after Nuclear Deal

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Masoud Rezaei
Ph.D. in International Relations &
Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

Russia is hosting a summit meeting of the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on July 9. According to a statement released by the Kremlin, the presidents of Iran and Russia will meet on the sidelines of the summit in Ufa, the capital city of Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan. Expansion of the SCO and official membership of Iran in this international body would be most probably among serious issues to be discussed in this meeting following which, both countries would ask for more new steps to be taken for the development and deepening of bilateral relations. Achievement of a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries will greatly increase the possibility of such a development.

Relations between Iran and Russia are still complicated and have been marked with various periods of cooperation, rivalry and even conflict. The two countries’ relations have also very serious proponents and opponents on both sides. There is one viewpoint in Iranian society, mostly among political activists, who believes that the Islamic Republic should naturally be inclined toward Russia. According to this view, some people believe that following achievement of a nuclear deal and after official accession of Iran to the SCO, relations between Tehran and Moscow will become so consistent and desirable as to lead to a “strategic alliance” between the two countries. However, it does not seem that the two countries would be able to experience such a high level of relations even after a final nuclear deal has been clinched. Basically speaking, strategic alliance, as the highest, most sensitive and most critical level of security and defense cooperation between two countries, only takes place in the face of a “common military threat.” Therefore, the existence of a common threat like the United States is necessary conditions for such an alliance between Tehran and Moscow, but not an adequate condition. This is true because for strategic alliance to come into being, a common resolve should take shape in order to fight the common threat and it should also lead to the conclusion of an official or unofficial, and of course long-term, treaty between the two countries to enable them to take necessary measures in time of need. This situation has not come about in relations between Iran and Russia yet.

Iran and Russia are considered geopolitical realities for each other, but they lack necessary and adequate conditions to form a strategic alliance. Common geographical borders and political history of both countries show that these two neighbors are inevitably in need of cooperation and partnership with each other. Despite such necessities, the existing evidence and processes show that relations between the two countries have not been consistently based on cooperation and goodwill.

To confirm this issue, international experts and analysts have pointed to various issues while useful books and articles have been also written on this subject. In addition to historical distrust between Iran and Russia, there are other factors which have been mentioned as the main grounds for divergence between Iran and Russia. These factors include Iran's dissatisfaction with Russia’s yes vote to anti-Iran resolutions at the United Nations Security Council; Russia’s dawdling for launching the nuclear power plant in the Iranian port city of Bushehr; Russia’s failure to abide by its obligations in military relations with Iran, including Moscow’s abstinence from delivery of S-300 missile system to Iran; Russia’s efforts to marginalize Iran in global energy market and construction of related pipelines; as well as the Western factor and Russia’s tactical relations with Iran, in which Moscow has been trying to use Iran as a bargaining chip for the protection and promotion of its national security interests, and other similar issues.

Now let’s go beyond these issues and point out other realities.

There is an important problem in relations between Iran and Russia, which has remained unresolved during the past two decades. That problem is “lack of symmetry.” Lack of symmetry here points to two situations: 1) differences in priorities and 2) differences in needs.

A difference in priorities means that in terms of importance, Russia is the first priority of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy and that importance is also of security urgency. Within the UN Security Council and when it comes to preventing, deferring, or restricting the scope of anti-Iran resolutions as well as in terms of meeting Iran's defense needs, Russia enjoys an important position for Iran. However, the situation is quite different on the other side. Iran is not a top priority for Russia. For example, the foreign policy documents of Russia as published in 2000 and 2010, have mentioned the Middle East region as Russia’s fifth priority. Of course, this does not mean that Russia attaches no significance to Iran, because Russia is essentially not a threat to Iran and its capacity to pose a threat to Iran is insignificant. On the other hand, Iran has a high potential to pose a serious threat to Russia. This is true in view of Iran's capacity as a Muslim and influential country in the Middle East, which potentially enables it to have a powerful effect on the Islamist forces in the region and also on 30 million Muslims that live in Russia.

However, apart from this negative aspect, when it comes to positive aspect of the two countries’ relations, unfortunately, Iran's importance and urgency for Russia is low. Secondly, the difference in needs between the two countries means that Russia’s attention to Iran is more than anything else, a result of bilateral issues (especially Iranian markets) and the need to play a positive role in the region. On global level, however, Russia’s veto right at the Security Council and the role it can play to slow down and restrict the scope of the Security Council’s anti-Iran measures is of high significance to the Islamic Republic. When it comes to bilateral issues, Iran's technical and military needs are of high importance. Therefore, some sort of asymmetry exists between the two countries in their various fields of cooperation, which has caused limitations in their relations.

Now, the important point regarding cooperation between the two countries is to see whether Russia needs Iran more or Iran is more in need of Russia’s cooperation? In reality, both countries need each other in three bilateral, regional and global levels. As said before, Iran's need to Russia is mostly an urgent need firstly on the global level, and then on a bilateral level, which includes Iran's need to Russia’s military technology. On the other hand, Russia’s need to Iran is mostly extant on a regional level. However, this reciprocal need has not been enough to lead to sustainable cooperation or strategic alliance between the two countries. Unfortunately, Russia’s need to Iran is not so essential as to be binding for Moscow and, as a result of conditions and the interests of Russia, Moscow has frequently reviewed its relations with Tehran.

Part of this issue is related to Iran's diplomatic problems in the past. In the absence of suitable interactions or due to weakening of Iran-West, Iran-Arab and Iran-Turkish relations, Moscow has been offered with a special opportunity to play Iran card in its relations with Israel, Arab states and the West. This issue has led to an “unfavorable structure” in relations between Iran and Russia. This structure of bilateral relations is such that Moscow has always believed that it is protecting Tehran not only against Washington, but also against the entire world. Therefore, its expectations from Tehran have risen as a result of this vicious circle because Russia sees Iran as being permanently in debt to it despite all breaches of promises on the part of Moscow. This structure should change. The most logical initiative that the Islamic Republic of Iran can take to this effect is diversification of its international relations and interactions, and a comprehensive nuclear deal will pave the way for Iran to do so.

Key Words: Iran, Russia, Relations, Soft Change, Nuclear Deal, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Veto Right, UN Security Council, Priorities, Needs, Summit, Ufa, Rezaei

More By Masoud Rezaei:

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*Photo Credit: IRNA, Press TV