Iran-Russia Relations Suffering from Unnecessary Politicization

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Alireza Noori
Ph.D. Candidate, Saint Petersburg State University & Expert on Russia Affairs

Geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine, which has become even more serious following recent downing of a Malaysian passenger plane and further escalation of conflicts in the eastern parts of the country, can be considered the most serious tension in relations between the two sides following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Of course, before this new confrontation, the two sides preferred to use proxies in their faceoff, but the developments in Ukraine have inevitably and directly pitted Russia against the Western states.

In the meantime, since the West does not have many tools to put more pressure on Russia, it has decided to use sanctions as a means of forcing Kremlin to change its foreign policy orientation. Although the Western bans were not taken seriously at the beginning, further extension of sanctions imposed on Moscow by Washington and Brussels proved that the Western states are more serious than thought before in achieving their goals against Russia through sanctions. Under these conditions and as a result of retaliatory measures taken by the Russian government, the confrontation between the two sides has been further deepening. As a result, no end to this situation is perceivable in the short run and quite on the contrary, all measures and decision taken – or predicted to be taken – by Moscow, Brussels, and Washington are apparently aimed at further escalation of the situation.

This is why the Russian officials have been trying to collect all the resources and tools that they need for a counterattack against the West’s pressures both inside and outside their country. As a result, the Russian government has been resorting to anti-sanctions policies inside the country, including through restriction of imports from the West and providing more support to domestic production. Outside the country, Russian officials have been trying to further bolster their relations with “friendly countries,” “partners,” and “anti-West” actors.

Under these circumstances, it seems that Russia is sticking to the old cliché of “enemy of your enemy is your friend.” Among all its foreign partners, Russia has been, and still is, looking to Iran as a very important country in Eurasia. Of course, Russia’s understanding of the need to expand relations with Iran is nothing new. As a result, many analysts in this country have been putting repeated emphasis on the need to bolster relations with Iran within framework of Russia’s Eurasian policy. They mention opposition of both countries to bullying and expansionist policy of the West, on the one hand, and common interests between Tehran and Moscow in such regions as South Caucasus, Central Asia., the area of the Caspian Sea and the Middle East, on the other hand, as the main reasons why Moscow should bolster its ties with Tehran. This viewpoint has been further propped up following the outbreak of the civil war in Syria an under present conditions when the West has been orchestrating a new geopolitical onslaught against Russia by taking advantage of the ongoing situation in Ukraine.

However, increased willingness in Russia for further strengthening of relations with Iran comes at a time that the former country has been under Western pressures to act against Tehran and has even voted positive for all sanctions resolutions against the Islamic Republic, thus helping to give legitimacy to illegal pressures against Iran. Therefore, the current standoff between Russia and the West, on the one hand, and relative thaw – or at least cessation of further tension – in relations between Iran and the West, on the other hand, have faced Moscow with a complicated situation. In other words, Russia, which was once one of the backers of the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions against Iran –not unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union – and believed that the sanctions would be instrumental in making Tehran change its nuclear policies, is nowcaught in a similar situation in the face of the Western sanctions, whose nature and goals are quite similar to sanctions imposed on Iran.

Russia’s VTB bank (aka Vneshtorgbank, the second biggest bank of Russia), which had frozen the accounts of the Iranian Embassy in Moscow as a result of the international sanctions against Tehran, is itself a target for the Western sanctions now. Russia even went as far as rescinding a contract with Iran for the delivery of S-300 missile defense systems to the Islamic Republic according to the same argument and even faced Iran's legal action through an international court. However, Russia is currently witnessing the suspension of its military contract with Germany and has decided to file a lawsuit against the German government in this case. Even Russian energy companies, which withdrew from Iranian projects as a result of the Western sanctions are now under heavy pressure of sanctions imposed by the same Western countries. And finally, the Russian government, which once mentioned the Western sanctions as a pretext to oppose Iran's full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), has been facing mounting pressure from certain regional and international bodies, which have either expelled Russia or have decided to restrict their cooperation with Moscow.

Therefore, it would not be difficult to understand that the current feeling existing both in Tehran and Moscow about the necessity of strengthening bilateral relations is, more than anything else, a result of hardships that both countries are facing in their foreign relations. There is, therefore, no doubt that the contract known as the “oil for goods” contract, whose five-year memorandum of understanding was signed on August 6, 2014, has been another outcome of this situation.

Of course, there is also no doubt that Tehran and Moscow have both common interests and enormous capacities for cooperation in various political, economic, security and geopolitical fields. However, the main factor which has so far prevented both countries from making the most of these capacities is their inability to differentiate between various fields in which they can interact, and this issue has been mostly manifest in the “politicization” of economic exchanges between Iran and Russia. This problem still persists at the current juncture and ambiguities surrounding the “oil for goods” deal are good evidence to this claim.

It should be noted that if no solution is found for this problem, it may not only cast doubt on expected benefits of this and other contracts, but it can also further damage the efforts made to improve bilateral relations. This is true because a possible change in political conditions may make economic exchanges unprofitable for one of the two sides. As a result, that country will certainly refuse to fulfill its commitments and this issue will be followed by discontent of the other country.

It is noteworthy that the West as a most important variable, which affects the interactions between Tehran and Moscow, has been quite dynamic with relation to Iran and Russia. Therefore, it would not be illogical to expect that a change in relations between the “West” and one of these two countries, would be followed by a negative change in relations between Tehran and Moscow, including in the economic field. On the other hand, since Iran is on its way to reduce tension with the West and sign a final comprehensive agreement with the Western countries over its nuclear energy program, as a result of which new oil markets would be opened to the country, it would be wise for Iranian officials to avoid creating any unnecessary problems in the country’s foreign policy.

Key Words: Iran-Russia Relations, Politicization, West, Ukraine, Anti-West Actors, Sanctions, S-300 Missile Defense Systems, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

*“Iran's Nuclear Case” Card in Russia-West Confrontation:

*Geopolitical Conflict and “Zero-Sum” Game of Russia and West in Ukraine:

*Russia-West Rivalry/Confrontation and Iran's Need to Be Cautious:

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