Velayati’s Moscow Visit, Sign of Rouhani's Pragmatist Policy

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Jahangir Karami
Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Tehran

Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian Supreme Leader’s advisor on international affairs and President of the Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research, met with the Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday January 28, 2015, as special envoy of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. During the meeting, he conveyed a message from President Rouhani to his Russian counterpart, which has been an important development in Iran-Russia relations and even at international level. Special conditions surrounding Iran's nuclear talks with the P5+1 group of countries and frequent visits exchanged between Iranian and Russian authorities, including a recent trip by the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Tehran following an interregnum of 13 years, are just some of the factors that highlight the importance of this trip and its role in further bolstering Iran-Russia relations. This article focuses on the importance and possible outcomes of this visit.

It seems that the visit has two important political and operational aspects. In political terms, it was aimed at conveying the message to the Western sides that Iran has its own options to use if nuclear talks hit a deadlock, and has made up its mind to insist on its legitimate and logical nuclear goals. Therefore, if a comprehensive agreement is not reached over Iran's nuclear program, the country will choose for other options, including expansion of its relations with governments like Russia.

This position will be naturally welcomed by the Russian government, which is experiencing similar tensions with the West. During the past year and following imposition of extensive sanctions against Moscow by the West, Russia started to develop its ties with independent and non-Western states such as China, India and Iran. The volume of reciprocal visits exchanged and agreements signed between Moscow and those countries shows the importance of Russia’s decision. However, regardless of the effect that this message could have on the Western sides, there is another important issue, which should be taken into account here. Since Mr. Rouhani was elected as Iran's president, his government has been trying to follow a foreign policy approach which gives priority to interaction with the West, especially following the breakout of crisis in Ukraine. As a result, the government of Russia has been concerned about possible resolution of Iran's nuclear case because such a resolution will boost cooperation between Iran and the West. Resolution of Iran's nuclear case will also give the West more latitude to mount pressure on Russia with ease of mind.

Although Russia has not openly opposed Iran's nuclear talks with the West, it has also remained mostly silent, despite Iran's expectation, and has not been of much help to speeding up the process of finding a solution to Iran's nuclear case. This trip can also send a serious message to the government of Russia to assure Moscow that it should not be concerned about resolution of the nuclear case. Tehran is telling Moscow that agreement on the nuclear issue does not necessarily mean that Iran will reach an agreement with the West on all issues that are bones of contention between the two sides and will move to unconditionally expand its ties with the West. Therefore, Iran expects Russia to play a more positive role in nuclear negotiations.

At present, one of the most important objective issues for both countries is reduction of oil revenues, which are of utmost importance both to Tehran and Moscow. The presence of the Russian energy minister in the meeting has led to speculations that Tehran and Moscow are trying to find a solution for this problem. If used synergistically, the capacities enjoyed by Iran and Russia are big enough to counteract Saudi Arabia’s measure to pump more oil into the market and keep its price down. By doing this, they would be able to cushion untoward effects of low oil prices.

Apart from these issues, this trip and its important message can be considered as a timely initiative by the Iranian president to bolster cooperation between the two countries. It can also open a new chapter in bilateral relations which can free Tehran and Moscow from certain differences that nagged their relations in past years and show them a new path. It is important to note that for various reasons, Russia is not still ready to ignore sanctions imposed on Iran by the Western countries.

Despite all the problems and pressures facing his country following the breakout of Ukraine crisis, Putin still hopes that he would be able to reach an agreement with the West in order to get rid of sanctions and their consequences, which aim to isolate Russia among the world community. Therefore, he has been sending different messages using the language of threat and convincement in a hope to find a way out of the Ukrainian crisis.

It follows that in sending his message, Rouhani has assumed that Russia has lost hope in a possible reconciliation with the West and is offering Moscow a package of practical proposals to open a new chapter in the two countries’ relations. But how useful could achievement of this goal be to Iran under the present circumstances? Different answers can be given to this question from different viewpoints and according to different assessments. I believe that in view of mutual and objective needs of both governments in various fields, expansion of relations with Russia will be beneficial for Iran's national interests and it will be also a good opportunity that should be taken seriously. However, two important points should be taken into account in this regard.

Firstly, the government of Russia is by no means willing to sacrifice the entirety of its relations with the West and also forego basic principles of its foreign policy in favor of any other kind of relations with any other country. Therefore, as long as the hope is not totally lost for interaction with the West, Kremlin will continue to give priority to relations with the Euro-Atlantic alliance over other kinds of relations it has.

Unfortunately, some people in Iran talk about the possibility of a new Cold War between Russia and the West with such a certainly that as if the bipolar international system of the past is going to be reinstalled. At present, international conditions are very different from that time and Russia has no possibility, and is not even willing, to go back to its past situation. Of course, it will not naturally compromise on its security red lines too.

The second point is that the Islamic Republic of Iran will be able to expand its relations with Russia more than any time before only if it can reach a balance in its foreign policy. In fact, a balanced foreign policy approach to relations with other countries will free Iran's relations with Russia from the restricting effects of the West and will thwart efforts made to further limit these relations. Achieving this goal is not of course a simple task because conditions inside and outside the country are not very favorable for the adoption of such a balanced foreign policy.

There are basically three viewpoints or discourses rife in Iran with regard to the orientation of the country’s foreign policy. The first discourse is mostly ideological and security-based, which seeks to boost the country’s regional influence on the basis of hostility with the United States and Israel, followed by Saudi Arabia, and is trying to recruit available forces from both Sunni and Shia Muslim groups. This discourse has moved from its early pure idealism to its current state of geopolitical realism. Its position has been strengthened by regional presence of the United States forces in the region following terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. At the same time, rising oil prices during the past decade have greatly helped this viewpoint to gain ground. The second discourse, however, puts the highest emphasis on economic development and, naturally, argues that normalization of relations with the West is a very important step toward the realization of that goal. Proponents put the highest emphasis on the country’s longstanding economic problems and introduce successful experiences of such developmental states as Malaysia, China, India and Turkey as a good role model.

There is also a third viewpoint which pays the highest attention to cultural, civilizational and regional aspects of Iran's power. It will naturally follow that this group underlines development as the basis of regional power and superiority of Iran, which has been also defined within framework of the country’s 20-Year Vision Plan.

In practice, however, the administration of Dr. Hassan Rouhani has appeared more of a pragmatist administration, which follows a combination of all three viewpoints. It seems that given the existing conditions, this is also the best option for the government. It is also under these conditions that relations with Russia appear more logical as international realities serve to bring the two countries close together despite certain differences that still exist between them.

Key Words: Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran, Russia, Vladimir Putin, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Sergei Shoigu, Iran's Nuclear Talks, Bilateral Relations, Euro-Atlantic Alliance, New Cold War, Pragmatist Administration, US, Karami

Source: Tabnak
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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*Photo Credit: Press TV, Tasnim News Agency

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