Regional and International Assumptions and Realities in Iran-Russia Relations

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

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

The recent escalation of tension and the double pressure that the West has been putting on Russia in order to realize its aggressive goals, have further nourished viewpoints in the Russian foreign policy which argue that the country should take steps to bolster its relations with its southern and eastern neighbors. This approach aims to further strengthen Russia’s foreign policy tools because many analysts in Moscow have emphasized that the ongoing challenge with the West would not be alleviated in short or even medium terms. The Russian analysts have, therefore, been putting emphasis on the need to reinvigorate ties with Iran as an important country in Eurasian geopolitics and also as an effective player in the Middle East developments.

In Tehran, on the other hand, many analysts have hailed this situation, describing it as an “opportunity” for Iran's foreign policy and a new chapter that has been opened in Iran's relations with Russia. Major reasons that have prompted those analysts to welcome this situation include geopolitical necessities of the country, especially in the face of the West’s aggressive policy; using Russia as counterbalance against the West; the need to bolster foreign interactions in order to fight regional threats and instability; the necessity for taking advantage of the existing capacities in bilateral relations; and of course, Tehran’s need to further expand relations with Moscow under the current conditions of relentless international pressure. The existence of common viewpoints and interests in regional and international fields with Russia is another reason why Iranian analysts have been happy about the current state of affairs. However, a careful review of “certain” interests and goals pursued by each country in “some” specific fields will not support this assumption and may even at times prove the existence of conflicts and even clear differences between the two sides.

Regional developments

When it comes to the issue of regional influence, Russia still sees Central Asia, the Caspian Sea and South Caucasus as its “spheres of influence,” and therefore, it has never been willing to see its influence in those regions scuttled in favor of any other power, including Iran. By pursuing the idea of Neo-Eurasianism, Russia has been trying to further secure its foothold in those regions within a new framework. On the other hand, Tehran, has been trying in its long-term political plans, which seek to turn the country into a major “regional power,” to further bolster its influence in the three aforesaid regions. Russia will certainly not be happy with this policy. Although “stability” in these three regions and preventing further influence of the West are among common denominators between Iran and Russia in this regard, there has been no instance of mentionable regional cooperation between the two countries in the three regions, apart from, of course, the case of Tajikistan in 1990. There have been even certain cases such as the situation in Karabakh region and Iran's membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in which Moscow has been inattentive to or even opposed to Tehran’s willingness to appear cooperative within those frameworks.

As for the regional security in its northern regions, while Iran puts the highest emphasis on the need to meet security needs of these regions on the basis of a “mutual and collective security” model, Russia prefers to be the axis of any effort aimed at boosting security in those regions. The proof to this claim is the emphasis put by Moscow on military presence in and control over the aforesaid regions through the “Collective Security Treaty Organization,” in addition to establishing military bases in and concluding military deals with regional countries, as well as strengthening of the Russian naval fleet in the Caspian Sea. All these instances are at odds with Iran's views about security in its northern regions. The use of “brute force” by Moscow in its war with Georgia (2008) and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula to Russia (2014) were not compatible and even at odds with the basic principles of Iran's foreign policy, which include respect for sovereignty of all countries, non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and respect for international treaties.

As for the ongoing developments in the Middle East, Israel should be mentioned as one of the most important points of difference between Iran and Russia. Apart from the existence of a powerful Jewish lobby in Russia and the pressure that the international Jewish lobby exerts on the foreign policy of this country, it is a reality that the Russian Federation considers Israel as one of its most important strategic partners in the Middle East region. As a result, Russian officials in the Kremlin have frequently taken Tehran to task for doubting the authenticity of the Holocaust or raising verbal threats against Israel. More importantly, Russia has been expressing clear concern about certain aspects of Iran's nuclear energy program while at the same time, officials in Moscow have never said anything about the potential threat posed to the region by Israel’s stocks of weapons of mass destruction. Even with regard to the resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, Russia’s viewpoint is closer to that of the West and this is one of the other areas in which the viewpoints of Tehran and Moscow diverge.

International developments

There are also observable differences between theoretical and political approaches taken by Iran and Russia at international level, which cast doubt on the assumption that the two countries share viewpoints and interests in this regard. One of those cases in which the two countries differ is this: although Iran puts the highest emphasis on bolstering political justice and opposing hegemony of world powers in international politics, Russia, on the contrary, has proved in practice that it prefers the model of “concert of powers” and makes no effort to hide its own hegemonic inclinations.  The main reason behind the current faceoff between Moscow and the West is related to division of international powers and duties within framework of the “big powers game.” It goes without saying that this approach is clearly in contravention to the approach and viewpoints of the Islamic Republic with regard to establishing a more equitable international system, including through changes in the United Nations and revision of the veto right that has been given to big powers at the United Nations Security Council.

In the field of international energy, Russia has been playing the role of energy “superpower” for European countries since a long time ago and, for this reason, it cannot tolerate that its position in the European energy markets is jeopardized by such rival countries as Iran. This is a reality to which all Russian analysts have owned up. And it is due to the same approach, which is in conflict with Iran's viewpoints, that Russia has consistently avoided direct cooperation with the member states of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) or the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF).


The existence of certain common viewpoints and interests both at regional and international levels between Iran and Russia, is a reality that nobody can deny and Tehran, in line with its multivector policy, should try to take advantage of all available capacities, including those of Russia, in order to meet its national interests. However, the assumption that due to current tension in relations between Russia and the West, Tehran can promote its interactions with Moscow to a “strategic” level, would be apparently a false assumption.

This is true because firstly, the mere assumption that there is no point of difference between two countries with regard to regional and international developments is quite questionable. Secondly, basing further expansion of relations between Tehran and Moscow on such a “transient” factor as the confrontation of Tehran and Moscow with the West would amount to repetition of a past mistake in the form of “politicization” of bilateral relations, whose negative consequences have been frequently experienced in past years. Therefore, Tehran’s “parallel” interests with Moscow should be identified through an objective approach in view of “totally versatile” conditions at regional and international levels. Then, and in proportion to those conditions, targets of Iran's policy toward Russia should be determined. This is the same approach that Moscow has been consistently taking toward Tehran as a result of which there has been no juncture in its history following the fall of the former Soviet Union, even under presence circumstances, during which Russia has been willing to have “strategic (long-term)” relations with the Islamic Republic.

The important point that should be taken into consideration here is that in order to advance its expansionist policy in the Middle East in the face of Iran and also in order to promote its expansionist policy in Eastern Europe and among the Commonwealth of Independent States in the face of Russia, the West is apparently “badly in need” of “creating enemies.” Therefore, propaganda about the establishment of a new anti-West front by Tehran and Moscow can provide the West with a good excuse to lay necessary grounds for further advance of its expansionist policy and will only make the existing situation more complicated. However, it should be admitted that despite West’s pressures and the existence of certain points of difference between Russia and Iran, the two countries have also many interests in common and a multitude of various capacities in their relations. As a result, in spite of all pressures and differences, they can pay practical attention to those common interests and available capacities. This will, in turn, enable them to take “realistic” steps to make the most of those capacities in order to meet their bilateral interests.

 Key Words: Iran-Russia Relations, Middle East Developments, Geopolitical Necessities, West, Central Asia, Caspian Sea, South Caucasus, Neo-Eurasianism, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, International Level, Energy, OPEC, GECF, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

*Russia, West and Endless Game of “Containment”:

*Iran-Russia Relations Suffering from Unnecessary Politicization:

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

*Photo Credit: Fars News Agency

*Link For Further Reading: The Islamic Constitution and the Nuclear Deal with Russia

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