Why Russia Needs a Powerful Iran?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Alireza Karimi
Senior Middle East Scholar

According to a clear political logic, one may argue that Moscow needs the presence of a “powerful Iran” in the Middle East and this issue is a “must” and not an “option” for Moscow. In the heat of nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers collectively known as the P5+1 group [including the US, Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany], attention to positions taken by Russia as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and also an influential member of the P5+1 group, would be very important.

From a historical viewpoint, Iran has had no fewer problems with Russians than it had with the Britain. Various wars have taken place between Iran and Russia during which the Russian side has captured and occupied vast parts of the Iranian soil. The horrendous treatment of the Iranian people by the Russian occupiers during these wars is world-famous. According to some thinkers, before the implosion of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Russia was regularly considered a “land power” posing a grave threat to Iran.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that power equation was disturbed with Russians stopping their land threats against Iran. It was almost from that time on that a powerful Iran entered the geopolitical calculations of Russia. The fall of the Soviet Union was a major international upheaval, which quite naturally, changed many equations and the introduction of the “powerful Iran” was one of those changes in geopolitical calculations.

Russia and crises ensuing collapse of Soviet Union

After the fall of the Communist system, the Russians were busy grappling with various forms of dire economic problems for a long time. The bitter period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency was a bleak time during which Russians were deep into severe economic crisis. However, following the election of the new Russian President Vladimir Putin, the country started to experience economic improvement in many areas. There is one point about Russia, which cannot be denied: this country has been only powerful at those junctures of its history when a powerful character has been ruling it. Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Stalin, and finally, Putin are prominent examples of such personalities.

Putin has been capable enough to get Russia out of the quagmire of domestic and foreign crises and restore the role it had already played in international developments. This, however, was by no means equivalent to the end of the crisis. Russians continued to find themselves faced with two serious crises: a security threat in such regions as Chechnya and Caucasus, as well as a threat posed to Moscow by the international system; that is, by the unipolar international system which was under unilateral domination of the United States.

Perhaps, the first threat had more to do with the military power of Russia. However, by and by, the Russians came to realize that they are facing a wave of Salafist terrorism whose growth in any part of the world would be a threat to Russia. In other words, Russians found themselves faced with a dual discourse-based and identity-based threat which had its roots in a specific interpretation of Islam. The second threat, however, was a totally realistic threat. In view of the combination of its capabilities, the United States considered itself as the most powerful government in the world which aimed to impose its hegemony and had also advanced up to the very borders of Russia. The development of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to behind the Russian borders was, and still is, a full-blown security threat to Russians.

A powerful Iran and politico-security equations of Moscow

The existence of a powerful Iran would be of help to Russian in confronting both the aforesaid threats. There are a few reasons to back up this argument:

A) The Shia discourse governing Iran is the sole discourse and identity which can be considered a serious rival for the Salafism.

The basic normative ideas of Shiism, which give rise to Shia identity, stand in sharp contrast to Salafism. Since the enemy of our enemy is our friend, it is quite natural for the Shia Iran as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the government of Syria to be considered as potential and even real friends by Moscow.

On the one hand, Iran is seriously at loggerheads with the ideas of Sunnism, while, on the one hand, it spares no opportunity to support moderate Sunni groups. Therefore, increased influence of Iran and its allies in the Middle East region will lead to the strengthening of a discourse which undermines the Takfiri discourse of Salafists.

B) The Iranian discourse has given birth to a political axis known as the “axis of resistance” in the Middle East, which is a theoretical rival as well as a serious adversary of the American way of thinking. The existence of a powerful Iran in the Middle East has, one way or another, added to the problems that the international hegemonic system is facing in this critical region. It serves, firstly, to deflect the United States attention from the Russian borders and, secondly, to challenge the hegemonic system by eroding the power of the United States.

When the security of Israel becomes the main concern of the United States, Washington would try to have fewer problems with Russia. When the US Army has to focus on a threat called Iran, they will have less time to cause trouble for Russia. Therefore, the stronger is Iran, the bigger will be its challenge to the United States. A strong Iran will also help to reduce the threat posed by the international system to Russia.

C) A trump card called Iran will provide Moscow with a golden opportunity to take concessions from Washington. It would suffice for Russia to talk about its willingness to sell S-300 [missile defense systems] to Iran and this alone would make Washington give concessions to Moscow. Only secret documents kept at the foreign ministries of Russia and the United States can prove how beneficial this issue has been to Russians.

Is Moscow really concerned about elimination of tensions between Tehran and Washington?

In short, the answer to this question is “almost not.” On the contrary of what we see in many analyses which do not provide in-depth insight, I believe that the Russians analyze the situation in Iran in accordance with an identity-based approach. According to their analysis of Iran, the real identity of Iranians in international interactions is made up of two national and Islamic identities.

1. Islamic – Shia identity: In line with this identity, Iranians have learned from their religious leaders to stand up to tyranny. As a result, resistance against the tyrants is part of their ideological beliefs. From the uprising launched by Sarbedaran group in Khorasan region [against the occupation of Iran by Mongols] to the Islamic Revolution [in 1979], the people of Iran have had frequent experiences with rising against tyrants.

The hegemonic world system is currently the materialization of tyranny in international relations. Therefore, although a Shia Muslims may remain silent in the face of this tyrannical system in line with certain expediencies, in fact, they are waiting for an opportune moment to rise against it. This tendency to fight against hegemony and arrogance has turned into an inseparable element of the Shia identity.

2. National – Iranian identity: This type of identity should be discussed in two subsidiary categories as follows:

2.1. Strong historical background: Having a strong historical background is the main source of the national pride for Iranians and a main reason why they consistently oppose the domination of foreigners on their country and consider it disgrace for themselves. A people, whose government once ruled about half of the known world, is not likely to allow any foreign power to tamper with its national sovereignty, which is a major hallmark of hegemony.

2.2. Historical background for challenging hegemony: Following the Peace of Westphalia, Iranians have been at loggerheads with any country that has demonstrated evident hegemonic tendencies; from Portugal to Britain and all the way to the United States. The Iranians fought the Portuguese army in Hormuz and Gamboroun (the present-day Bandar Abbas region). They have also gone through a tumultuous history with the UK and have had problems with the United States ever since the World War II, which culminated in the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran following the Islamic Revolution.
It is possible for a nation characterized by such identity hallmarks to try to reduce tensions with the world hegemony at certain junctures and for specific exigencies, but it will undoubtedly resume its insurgency against the hegemony when the time comes. Therefore, the Russians do not have to be unnecessarily concerned about the elimination of tensions between Tehran and Washington.

Are Russians possible to sell Iran out in dealing with the United States?

In short, the answer is “no.” Iran will be never sold out by Russians in their dealings with the Americans because:

- Firstly, the aforesaid two conflicts are essential and cannot be overcome, at least, in the short term; and

- Secondly, the players in international relations take uncertainty for granted. Therefore, when they are engaged in full-blown power struggle, they will not give so many concessions to the other side that it would compromise the existing balance of power between them.

- Thirdly, as put by [the American political scientist] Kenneth Waltz, the structural nature of the international system will finally push hegemony toward collapse and the unipolar system will be replaced with a bipolar or multipolar one. The main mechanism through which this process progresses, is by forming coalitions against the hegemonic power as a result of which tensions will escalate between the hegemonic power and other countries. Therefore, Russians are not likely to easily lose a leverage they can use to put pressure on the hegemonic power.

- Fourthly, Russia follows a security-based approach in its foreign policy and, therefore, is very unlikely to lose its geopolitical trump cards by trading them off for economic and similar concessions.

Opportunities for Iran

The fact that Russians need Iran can be considered an international opportunity for the Islamic Republic. The following opportunities arise from this situation:

A) For Iran, Russia is a geopolitical reality. This big and powerful neighbor is situated along Iran's [northern] borders. Therefore, it is natural for the two countries to have common security, military, political and economic interests. Russia’s need to have a powerful Iran on its side can ensure the peaceful nature of relations between the two countries and can make it easier for both of them to pursue their common interests.

B) Iran can take good advantage of the presence of such a powerful personality as Putin at the apex of the Russian power pyramid in order to further deepen the existing gaps between his government and the US administration by playing its diplomatic cards dexterously. In doing this, the Islamic Republic will ensure maximum realization of its national interests, especially with regard to the ongoing nuclear standoff with the West.

C) The Islamic Republic of Iran can use this opportunity to fight against Salafist terrorism which is currently plaguing the Middle Eastern countries, including Syria.

D) Since Russians need a powerful Iran, it would be easier for Tehran to expand its regional influence and maintain the current level of its influence across the region by banking on Moscow’s need.


It is a geopolitical reality of the Middle East that Russians need a powerful Iran on their side and this need has its roots in two serious threats that challenge Russia’s survival and national security.

Such threats will cause Moscow to need the regional and discourse-based influence of Iran. Therefore, it doesn’t seem that Kremlin will have any serious concern about a possible reduction of tensions in relations between Iran and the United States, or even take such a possibility seriously. On the other hand, Moscow does not seem to be able to use its relations with Iran as quid pro quo in interactions that it has with the West.

Such a situation has offered the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran with a unique opportunity which should not be easily lost.

Key Words: Russia, Powerful Iran, P5+1, Politico-Security Equations, Salafism, US, Islamic – Shia Identity, National – Iranian Identity, Middle East, Karimi

Source: Fars News Agency
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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