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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

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

Rivalry and encounter have been among permanent features of relations between Russia and the Western world – which is used here in its general sense to mean the United States and all its Western allies. Both these phenomena have been manifest in various fields and at different levels as the unrelenting struggle over power in international politics continues. As a result, whenever their intensity has increased, they have frequently caused crisis in relations among those states that are related to any one of these power poles. Under present circumstances, the rivalry has intensified due to a variety of reasons, which include efforts by both sides to redefine power relations and regulate the balance of power in the Middle East region. The necessity for changing the power balance in the Middle East is the result of challenges in the region which have their root in political developments that have come to be collectively known as the Arab Spring.

Other factors which have been at work to further intensify the existing tense atmosphere between the two sides include continuation of the West’s aggressive policy toward Russia, including in the case of deployment of European missile shield; direct and indirect manipulation of the Arab world’s developments to the detriment of other players, including Russia; and also the failed experience of “reset” project, which aimed to improve relations between Washington and Moscow. These developments, in turn, have paved the way for the emergence of other kinds of confrontation such as intensification of hostile rhetoric on both sides, the case of [former US National Security Agency contractor, Edward] Snowden, resistance of Moscow against the West in Iran's nuclear case, denouncement of NATO’s military action in Libya by Moscow, direct confrontation between Russia and the West over the crisis in Syria, Moscow’s overt and covert efforts to boost its influence in the new arrangements of the Middle East, including in Egypt, the military approach taken by Russia in the North Pole region, Russia’s effort to find new allies in East Asia, and finally, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

The important point here is that, unlike past years, Russia has not taken a passive or merely negative position on these developments. On the contrary, in such cases as Russia’s position on the situation in Syria, its plans for military deployment in the North Pole, as well as in the case of Snowden and efforts made by Moscow to boost its influence in the Middle East, all positions taken by the Kremlin have been positive and even, to some extent, aggressive. Regardless of some insignificant cases of confrontation, as said before, the new era of rivalry / confrontation between Russia and the West has taken shape on a powerful geopolitical and strategic background with the goal of redefining each side’s spheres of influence and to lay the foundation for a novel framework of division of labor under new regional and international conditions. This is true because on the one hand, Russia believes that the US hegemony across the world is in decline and, as such, is trying to fill the void of US power in the Middle East in a bid to establish itself as a big power in this region. On the other hand, Russia is of the opinion that the traditional power relations cannot meet its interests anymore and continuation of those relations is considered by Russia to be in direct conflict with its regional and international goals.

Moscow is well aware that not showing a suitable reaction to the current aggressive policy adopted by the West would greatly hamper the efforts it makes to achieve the above goals and will finally force Russia to give more concessions in the long-term prospect for Europe, the Middle East, and even East Asia. It is due to this foreknowledge that Russia has been galvanized into action to appear more proactive in its foreign policy and put up serious resistance against the West’s expansionistic policies. Such an attitude will naturally lead to confrontation in international arena. In the meantime, the leaders in Kremlin have owned up to the fact that Moscow’s ability to engage in rivalry / confrontation with networked and multidimensional power of the West is limited and that limitation was quite evident in the loneliness of Russia in the face of the Western front during the recent Geneva 2 conference on Syria. Therefore, Moscow has been trying to make up for this shortcoming by finding new allies and taking advantages of some leverages or playing cards that are still available to it.

Recent signals sent by Moscow to Tehran for further strengthening of interactions can be considered along the same line. This is true as Russia has been faced with a very complicated situation in the Middle East region due to its geopolitical confrontation with the West in the Middle East, on the one hand, and because of tension with certain Arab and non-Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, on the other hand. As a result, in order to reinforce its own front and promote its policy in the region, Russia needs a partner and leverage like Iran – which happens to be in a similar situation as Russia). Therefore, it seems that all these signals are more an outcome of the new dynamics of the Middle East developments rather than being the result of new assessment of Iran and its position in the region. As a result, this new reactive policy cannot be considered as a ground for the emergence of a new “long-term understanding and policy” toward Iran in the Kremlin.

The important point which should be taken into consideration here is that following the historical tradition common among big powers, Russia and the United States have usually transferred the gravitational center of their rivalry / confrontation to third parties and are still doing that. In this way, while avoiding the possibility of direct confrontation and the high cost that it would entail for both of them, they will be able to keep a window open for improvement of relations and pursuit of strategic interactions in the future. Under the present circumstances, Syria and Ukraine are two good cases where this tactic is in full swing. At the moment, Russia is putting pressure on the West in Syria while, on the opposite, the West is putting pressure on Russia in Ukraine with both sides trying to tilt the power balance in a direction which would be more beneficial to them. Of course, the important point in this process is to gain a bigger share in future power relations and the least important or even insignificant variable is the interests of Syria and Ukraine and the people in these countries.

As a result of various geopolitical and geoeconomic attractions, Iran is in a good position to turn into a “third party” in the confrontation between Moscow and the West. As a result, now that Tehran is moving in the direction of reducing tensions in its foreign policy and regaining the trust of international community, it seems advisable for the Islamic Republic to stay away from the current tidal wave of rivalry and confrontation between Russia and the West. This is true as involvement of Iran, both overt and covert, in this game will not only put the country’s national interests at the mercy of their power game, but will be also in conflict with the moderate foreign policy that the administration of [Iranian President] Mr. [Hassan] Rouhani has been following thus far.

Therefore, although a recent deal for trading oil for commodities between Iran and Russia has certain positive aspects and will be possibly able to reduce the effects of Western sanctions against Iran and can be even used as a trump vis-à-vis the West, it should be noted that Moscow is very deft in playing this card in its confrontation and rivalry with the West. An even more important point is that under the present circumstances when nuclear negotiations are going on between Iran and the world powers, getting involved in long-term interaction with Russia in an issue which is directly related to sanctions will be certainly considered by the European Union and Washington as an act of provocation, which will elicit a negative reaction from them.

It should be noted that such a possible reaction will be different from the West’s reaction to the continuation of oil deal between Iran and China under conditions of sanctions. This is true as the Western countries will consider an “oil for goods” deal or any other kind of long-term interaction between Tehran and Moscow, which will influence the structure of pressures on Iran one way or another, within the general context of their rivalry with Russia (and not necessarily with Iran). However, their expected reaction to Moscow will leave its mark on Tehran as well. Therefore, in case of any unnecessary involvement of Iran in the rivalry / confrontation between Moscow and the West, like what is currently going on in Syria and Ukraine, Tehran’s national interests will be certainly of secondary importance.

Key Words: Russia-West Rivalry/Confrontation, Middle East Region, Syria, US Hegemony, Geneva 2 Conference, Iran, Ukrain, Geopolitical and Geoeconomic Attractions, Oil for Commodities, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

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

*Iran and Opportunity to Strike a Balance in “Either US or Russia” Option:

*Russia and Iran's Nuclear Dossier in Rouhani’s Tenure: The Need for a Change:

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