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Iran's Position in Russia’s Incoherent Middle East Policy

Thursday, November 21, 2013

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

The political developments that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa during the past few years, and are collectively known as the Arab Spring, have faced Russia’s interests in those regions with certain challenges. However, they have also provided Moscow with a new opportunity to adopt a more proactive policy toward the Middle East. Therefore, although the overall components of Russia’s regional power have not grown considerably, the regional chaos and apparent weakness of the West in promoting its goals in addition to the willingness of the regional countries to see a new balancing force have provided good grounds for Moscow to play a more active role in the region. The initiative offered by Moscow on the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons and recent military agreements it has forged with Iraq and Egypt clearly point to two facts about Russia’s new regional role. Firstly, they prove that Moscow is making efforts to emerge as a balancing power in the face of the regional influence of the West and introduce itself as an effective counterbalance. And secondly, the country is also bent on playing the regional political game outside the traditional framework defined by the West, and has even decided to take part in setting the new rules of that game.

Before these developments, Moscow had come to recognize the “dominance” of the West in setting political frameworks for the Middle East. As a result, Moscow regulated its policies in such a way as to have the least possible degree of friction with the West. However, as a result of that cautious policy, Russia’s Middle East policy was always put within “real” or even “unreal” frameworks defined for Moscow by the West. Consequently, the interactions between Russia and countries in this region had become dependent on the West as a key “variable” for no good reason. A prominent example of that situation was the policy that Moscow adopted toward the nuclear issue of Iran.

The absence of a clear-cut strategy in Russia’s Middle East policy can be mentioned as the most important reason behind the aforesaid drawback the main result of which has been a wide gap between the theoretical and practical policies of Moscow in this sensitive part of the world. Considerable reduction in the number of power levers available to Moscow in the face of the extensive network of the West’s soft and hard power options had further exacerbated that situation. The final outcome of that situation was irregular and passive reactions that Moscow showed to important developments in this region, including the invasion of Iraq by the United States, the popular uprisings in the Arab world, the military operation against Libya by NATO, and finally, the nuclear issue of Iran.

Of course, due to multiplicity of inconspicuous and unpredictable variables that set the course of political developments in the Middle East, it may seem difficult to clearly define various aspects of a country’s foreign policy in this region. However, due to its claim for being a “big power” with extensive interests in the political issues of this region, Moscow should be able to show understandable reactions, in both its theoretical and practical policies, to political developments in the Middle East. The absence of a well-defined theoretical and practical framework for Russia’s policy in the Middle East, including in its relations with the Islamic Republic, has been one of the most important reasons, which has barred Tehran and Moscow from taking advantage of the full capacity of their interactions and has prevented those interactions from becoming reasonably “stable.”

Banking on this weakness, and through an “instrumental” and profiteering approach, the United States has been constantly trying to take advantage of Russia in order to achieve its goals against Tehran. What has so far happened in reality proved that the United States has been successful in its policy as it has been able to avail itself of Moscow’s support for giving legitimacy to part of the illegal pressures that Washington has been mounting on Tehran during the past years. Prominent examples include Moscow’s support for Washington’s anti-Iran measures such as passing sanctions resolutions against Iran through the United Nations Security Council, taking advantage of those resolution as a basis for imposing unilateral (and European) sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and finally instigating the world’s public opinion against Iran.

Although Moscow is aware of the reality that the ongoing tension surrounding Tehran’s nuclear issue is only part of the United States’ strategy to bring Iran in line with its goals in the Middle East, that awareness has been barely reflected in the “practical” policy of Moscow with regard to Iran. It is noteworthy that both Moscow and Iran have reached a common understanding that the United States has adopted the strategy of “indirect action” toward the Middle East with the ultimate goal of creating the Greater Middle East purported by the US strategists. In doing so, the White House leaders are planning to sway more influence on political trends and players in this critical region while, at the same time, control the influence of other regional and transregional powers, including Iran and Russia, in the Middle East and keep them in check. Although such a common understanding should have put both countries, willingly or unwillingly, in the same front, efforts made by Tehran and Moscow to make the most of each other’s capacities in order to deal with this challenge in the best possible manner have been mostly inconsistent and unorganized.

As a result, the Russian political analysts, pointing to the superb geopolitical position of Iran in Eurasia, have noted that stability and instability in Iran will have direct effects on stability and instability in the entire region. Through such an understanding, they have also emphasized that if Russia really seeks stability along its southern borders, it should enter Iran as an important variable, into the main context of its foreign policy in Eurasia. Therefore, it goes without saying that the current policy that Moscow is pursuing toward Tehran can play no more effective role in meeting the interests of either country and Russia’s insistence on going on with it will only further worsen the current state of incoherence that is observed in Moscow’s Middle East policy.

Of course, one must admit to the complexity and relative unpredictability of political developments pertaining to Iran as a reality. For example, although everybody expects Iran and the group P5+1 of world powers to reach an agreement on Iran's nuclear issue in the near future, the reality on the ground is that none of the main variables related to Iran's nuclear energy program have so far changed. As it always did in the past years, Iran is still insisting that it is determined to work toward the completion of its nuclear science and industry. The West, on the other hand, keeps emphasizing that it will continue to mount pressure on Iran while waiting for anti-Iran sanctions to produce more effect and finally lead to total dismantling of Iran's nuclear energy program.

Despite the above facts and under conditions when Iran's nuclear energy program has turned into a “scale” against which the relative power of Iran, the West, Israel, regional Arab countries and Russia is measured, it seems that Moscow should impart more “transparency” to its position and more “reality” to its practical foreign policy toward regional developments. To achieve this goal, Russia should first have a more realistic understanding of the situation in Iran and the strategic reasons behind West’s pressures on the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, Moscow should try to reduce dependence on the West when formulating its policy toward Tehran. The fact that Moscow needs to take these steps will seem evident through a glance at the current “image” of Iran's nuclear case, which will reveal that the main reason behind the West’s opposition to Iran's nuclear activities is not the possibility of building nuclear bomb or nuclear proliferation by Iran. The West is actually afraid of and opposed to the main discourse and principles that the Islamic Republic has taken as the fundament of its foreign policy.

In the meantime, it should be noted that although it is not possible for Tehran and Moscow to totally cross out the US variable as a factor which affects their relations, they should take a realistic approach to this issue on the basis of past experiences. Those experiences clearly prove that dependence of Moscow’s foreign policy approach toward Iran on the US variable will finally only help to promote Washington’s expansionist policies in the region. Therefore, in order to bolster its long-term standing in the Middle East and make its Middle Eastern policy more coherent, Russia should take steps to revise its current regional policy by including the realities of the region, including the indispensable position of Iran, in its “practical” policy.

Key Words: Iran, Russia, Incoherent Middle East Policy, Arab Spring, Geopolitical Position of Iran, P5+1 of World Powers, Iran's Nuclear Case, US, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

*Iran and Opportunity to Strike a Balance in “Either US or Russia” Option: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran-and-Opportunity-to-Strike-a-Balance-in-Either-US-or-Russia-Option.htm

*Russia and Iran's Nuclear Dossier in Rouhani’s Tenure: The Need for a Change: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Russia-and-Iran-s-Nuclear-Dossier-in-Rouhani-s-Tenure-The-Need-for-a-Change.htm

*Putin, Iran and the Issue of “Bigger Cake” in Russia’s Foreign Policy: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Putin_Iran_and_the_Issue_of_%E2%80%9CBigger_Cake%E2%80%9D_in_Russia%E2%80%99s_Foreign_Policy.htm

*Photo Credit: Your Abu Dhabi Guide

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