Putin’s Return to Power: Opportunities & Challenges for Iran

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ali Valigholizadeh
Expert on International and Geopolitical Issues

When major players shift positions in political chess of countries, especially in parliamentary systems, rapid changes in nature and orientation of those countries’ domestic and foreign policies are not unusual. Such changes usually elicit reactions not only from domestic parties and political elites, but also from international players. When changing positions are associated with such important circumstances as presidential election, which may be accompanied with clear geostrategic messages, strategic allies of the country in question will be affected more than others. Therefore, although geostrategic players follow a usually constant approach in foreign policy, the above changes in the political arrangement of a country may create opportunities or pose challenges to both allies and strategic rival countries.

The question is what will be the possible consequences of the return of the former Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to power for Iran in view of strategic bonds that exist between Tehran and Moscow? This article tries to analyze this issue through a geostrategic and geopolitical approach to Eurasia policy of Putin.

Nobody can deny that Putin sometimes took passive stances in the face of the West according to conditions of time and to boost Kremlin’s power as well as Russia’s initiative in domestic and foreign scenes. The foundation of his policy, however, was giving priority to nationalism and development of Eurasian ties. Such ties are essentially counterweight to trans-Atlantic alliance in geostrategic terms. If Iraq is of vital significance to the West’s economic and geopolitical interests, Iran is also of the same value in helping Russia to implement its Eurasian policies. Thus, geopolitical alliance with Iran has been the main aspiration of many generations of the Russian strategists. It will allow for Russia’s “access to warm waters” through peaceful and democratic means. Putin’s Eurasian doctrine sees Russia and Iran as the heartland of Eurasian convergence as opposed to trans-Atlantic alliance. Through powerful management, this totally geostrategic approach may even “check-mate” the trans-Atlantic alliance. Russia, as strategic support of Iran in confrontation with the West, forms one side of this equation, with Iran, as the main weakness of the Russia’s arch-rival, the United States, forms the other side.

“Moscow-Tehran” axis is the ideological foundation of Eurasian convergence in the face of trans-Atlantic alliance. Iran is the sole strategic complement to the “heartland” as opposed to traditional geographical complement to that heartland. So, although Putin’s Eurasian doctrine requires an alliance between Russia and Ukraine, Iran’s partnership with Russia is an adequate condition. It should be noted that Atlantic tendencies of the incumbent Russian president, Medvedev, in recent years have led to strengthening of Moscow-Washington ties for the first time in history. Of course, some international experts maintain that this behavior stems from geopolitical identity of Russia which determines reaction or passivity of its foreign policy. The same passive approach of Moscow in the face of the West caused some distance between Tehran and Moscow in recent years, which at times escalated to the level of tension.

Apart from geostrategic approach to Putin’s Eurasian doctrine, a geopolitical approach can also be taken which is founded on identity-based and geoeconomic attitudes of Putin. He recently made reference to economic convergence and free trade with Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as new elements of his Eurasian strategy. Putin’s main goal is to form a transnational union which would be both quite strong and pivoted around free trade and economy. It would be able to play the role of a “connecting bridge” between Europe and East Asia as two major economic hubs of the world.

Although some CIS states have welcomed Putin’s plan and others like Azerbaijan have rejected it, it is clear that due to inequality between economic and political power of Russia and that of other CIS countries, the plan will revive Moscow’s influence in the region and make allied states dependent on Russia. This cannot be a positive turn of events for Iran and other countries which sway various degrees of influence on CIS states. From another angle, the plan is also Moscow’s response to Washington’s purported goal of forming a restricting belt along Russia’s southern borders to prevent its influence from growing in Central Asia and South Caucasus. Washington also aims to keep Iran and Russia at safe distance from each other.

On the whole, Putin’s return to power will be both negative and positive for Iran. Revival of his Eurasia doctrine can be considered a strategic opportunity for Iran against the West. On the opposite and in geopolitical terms, his return will give renewed force to trade and economic convergence in Eurasia and restrict available grounds for Iran’s powerful presence in trade and economic network of CIS countries.

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