Russia: Two Sides of the Coin
After Russia voted for the United Nations (UN) sanctions against Iran, some analysts have heralded the start of a new chapter in Iran-Russia relations, despite the two countries’ strong economic and political ties. Many call the move “Russia’s dangerous alignment with the U.S.,” arguing that Russian support for sanctions will accelerate Iran’s isolation.
To examine the dynamics of Iranian relations with Russia, Gozaar spoke to Jalal Ijadi, a professor of economic sociology and member of France’s Green Party. He describes the future of Iran-Russia economic ties as “very murky.” Pointing to the 500-year history of economic relations between the two countries, Jalali believes that these ties will not be unilaterally severed, as Russia has found a lucrative market in Iran in recent years in many areas of trade–including arms.
What have Iran-Russia economic relations been based on in the post-Soviet era? Clearly, Russia has been an important patron for Iran in areas such as the sale of weapons and missiles.
Iran’s ties with Russia entered its fourth period after the Iranian revolution. (The first period occurred in the Safavid era; the second period lasted from 1917 until the end of the Second World War; and the third from 1945 to 1979). This last period was shaped by Khomeini’s motto “Neither East, nor West”—back when the Shah had fallen ill and the wave of protests had started. But the Russians didn’t interpret the Khomeini motto as meaning that Iran shuns ties with Russia: they focused on the fact that Khomeini was anti-American and opposed imperialism—meaning, they could work with his government.
In effect, we are entering a period in which the question is, does Russia need Iran and does Iran need to continue its ties with Russia?
Russia does need Iranian trade—for instance, Iran constitutes an important market for Russian arms. Also, maintaining ties with Iran helps the Russian dream of access to the Persian Gulf waters.
It’s also true that ties with Iran will be seen as a slight to the U.S. and Western powers, and the Russians must at least appear to be observing the sanctions.
Iran and Russia thus exhibit interest in mutual cooperation, but certain problems keep them apart. A reason for Iranian-Russian proximity lies in the nature of each country’s relations with the U.S. A factor that distances the countries is that the divergent policies and competing interests of various factions in Iran is such that the Iranians are not sure whether to stand with Russia or not.
You describe the current period of Russia’s ties with post-revolution Iran in uniform terms, but perhaps it would be better to differentiate between various stages of this period. After the Islamic Republic was formed, the Soviet Union transitioned from a Stalinist government through reform from the top. Despite the ‘Neither East, nor West’ credo in Iran at the time, some groups believed in continuing ties with Russia, while others—the revolutionaries who seized the U.S. embassy—wanted to seize the Soviet embassy. Khomeini, meanwhile, in a letter to Gorbachev at the time, predicted the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union. How did Iran-Russia ties survive?
The Russians’ inclination toward Westernization and defeating communism caused an internal implosion; under domestic and international pressure and the evolution of political ideology, the Soviet regime collapsed. During Gorbachev’s time, the centralized state-run economy moved toward a bureaucratic model that included liberalization and a new oligarchy. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War generated new ties on the international front.
But before the implosion of the Socialist camp and the USSR, how did the country maintain ties with an Iran that had anti-communist groups as well as a leader who spoke to the Soviet leader of his government’s collapse? How were economic ties between Iran and Russia at that time?
In international relations and diplomacy, we either believe in political idealism or in realism, which is based on the interests of states.
A letter from Khomeini warning, “You have gone astray” may have elicited a smile from Gorbachev or Soviet leaders of the time, but what mattered was the question of how the Soviet Union wanted to and would be able to continue ties with Iran according to Soviet interests.
Therefore, irrespective of all the various perspectives, we know that [ant-Soviet sentiment in Iran] did not cause a falling out between the two countries, and that they continues their economic and political ties.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was formed after the revolution, was armed with weapons supplied by Russia—a sign of the countries’ continuing economic ties—and numbers show that these ties in fact grew stronger. Russia took on several major projects in Iran, but failed to deliver on many of them, such as the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Russia has reneged on many of its deals with Iran. Can we conclude that Iran grew politically and economically dependent on Russia over the years?
I’ll answer that by asking: is Russia dependent on the West? Yes—because it needs Western investment. Therefore, despite their spate of differences, the Russians cannot ignore the realities of the Western world.
The relations between Russia and the West do hiccough on the issue of Iran. Russia is continuing its economic ties with the Islamic Republic, but is not finishing projects such as the Bushehr nuclear plant. For two reasons: first, because Russia shares concerns about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and second, it would like Iran to remain dependent on Russia.
Iran has benefited from the gap between Russia and the West on its nuclear issue. With Russia’s positive vote on the US sanctions against Iran, however, serious tension has grown between Tehran and Moscow. Nevertheless, Iran still needs Russia–-
and China–-in its fight with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
So you regard Iran-Russia economic diplomacy as unchanged before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
A look at the numbers and trends in the two countries’ transactions shows growth in all areas. Naturally, the periods you mention are different in terms of the form of relations, but economically speaking, not much has changed. Iran’s isolation from international trade has spurred an increase in commerce with Russia. During the Communist era, these ties were different in form, especially as the existing barriers to the two countries’ political relations were not in place then.
The Shah’s fear of and Western opposition to the Soviet Union precluded strong ties , although the Soviets were interested in strengthening relations with Iran at the time.
At present, Iran under sanctions faces a quagmire in which its only economic friends are Russia and China. It has no choice but to improve ties with them to counter the West.
You said Iran must strengthen ties with Russia due to the tension in its relations with the West. Do you see any changes in the two countries’ ties in the area of economic diplomacy under Medvedev compared to under Putin?
I can say there are no major differences. Putin operated far more bureaucratically in his relations, but overall, it’s the same.
Medvedev is continuing Putin’s policies vis-à-vis both Iran and the West?
Western analysts believe that Russia’s long-term strategies are based on policies pioneered by Putin. At the same time, they believe that Medvedev can foster better interactions with the West.
So on one hand, there is a positive image of Medvedev. On the other hand, Russia’s recent relations with Obama seem at odds with Russia’s desire to maintain economic ties with Iran—a desire that was evident during the course of passing the US sanctions against Iran.
In Russia’s economic ties with the West, we can point to a few relatively new issues, such as natural gas. In the past, the Russians were the sole exporters of gas to Europe, but they now view Iran as a competitor in this area. Iran’s gas is largely untapped at present—if this were to change in the future, would it affect the two countries’ economic diplomacy?
We must always keep this point in mind –that although Iran constantly strives to establish ties and trade with the West, sanctions obstruct the realization of this goal. Iran does have vast gas reserves, but there are many problems that limit its ability to sell its gas and to expand its ties with Western countries.
Although Iran continued its economic relations despite the sanctions, the sum of these limitations has taken a heavy toll on Iran’s economy and may lead to even further economic isolation.
Does this mean Iran will grow even closer to Russia?
Absolutely. In the face of political pressures, Iran can count on Russia and China as its only economic partners. So, due to Iran’s increasing need, it will have closer ties with these countries.
During Putin’s visit to Iran in 2006, Ayatollah Khamenei proposed establishing an association of gas exporters. Russia welcomed the idea and the association was set up, but despite being the one that proposed it, Iran has no role there except as a member.
Despite accepting the proposal, Russia regards Iran as a rival in this field and is looking after its economic interests. The Russians know very well that if they help develop Iran’s gas industry, they will be making a competitor for themselves in the global marketplace that can diminish Russia’s power in the energy sector over the West. Therefore, they see no need to aid the development of Iran’s gas industry.
This is while Iran increasingly relies on Russia?
Yes, because without Russia and China, Iran would be alone against the West. Presently, Russia and China are countries that determine global politics and economy. Other new players may be on the rise, but none will grow to be as powerful as China and Russia.
The point to note in this equation is Russia’s relations with the U.S. and the West, as well as these countries’ policy on Iran. Given the West’s total set of strategies for the region, Iran’s trump card against the West is Russian and Chinese support.
Despite Iran’s best efforts, however, Russia voted for the latest round of US sanctions against Iran, because Russian interests vis-à-vis the West outweigh its ties with Iran.
Can we say that Iran has lost Russia’s support and only has China left as a patron?
To some extent—but Iran is still striving to maintain ties with Russia. In the near future, however, mounting pressures by the West may in turn cause these same patrons, China and Russia, to increase pressure on Iran.