Russia and Iran have historically been uneasy bedfellows so their new closeness is a source of great fascination to geopolitical analysts. March 28 offered such observers a rare chance of probing just how extensive their relationship of convenience has become when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Moscow for the first time for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. But, as so often with what emerges from the Kremlin, the real results of the meeting were difficult to decipher.
The Russian-Iranian alliance of neat pragmatism is nothing if not tentative. The outcome of Russia’s request for another stab at using air bases in Iran to hit targets in Syria perhaps best demonstrated how it remains rather makeshift. The Iranians gave neither a yes nor a no. Instead, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who accompanied Rouhani to Moscow, offered to consider the Russians’ wish “on a case by case basis”.
Moscow and Tehran undoubtedly have the shared goal of protecting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus - Syria is home to Russia’s only military base in the Middle East while the country has long provided Iran with a stable land corridor through which to send arms and cash to the Lebanese Hezbollah - but many Iranian politicians are very wary of being played by the Russians should Moscow see more advantage in making strategic arrangements with Iran’s perennial enemies, the US and Israel.
Thus it was no wonder that when, last August, a self-aggrandising Russia let it be known after the fact that its long range bombers and strike fighters were using the theocracy’s Hamadan air base, opponents of the arrangement protested that it breached a constitutional law banning foreign militaries from Iranian soil. The air base deployment was quickly brought to an end.
Iranians anxious over bargaining chip theory
“There’s a big concern in Tehran that Moscow will use it as a bargaining chip for better relations with Washington,” Maxim A. Suchkov, the Moscow-based editor of Russia-Mideast coverage at Al-Monitor, told The Washington Post on March 26. Rouhani, who will face voters in a bid for a second term in the May 19 election, was seeking “if not solid guarantees, then at least some confidence” that Putin will not undercut Iran, he added.
As 2017 got under way and analysts wondered what would become of the unprecedented partnership between Russia and Iran, Alireza Nadera, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation think tank in the US, wrote a commentary entitled “Iran at Putin’s Mercy” for The National Interest. Given that Donald Trump’s intentions towards Moscow remain opaque, Nadera’s piece still strikes home.
The analyst concluded that “it is unlikely that Russia will totally dump Iran for a better suitor”. He went on: “Some Russian-American competition is likely to continue even if the two countries improve relations; and Moscow is likely to keep its partnership with Iran as a hedge against possibly worsening tensions with the United States. But one thing is clear: while Iran may appear to have the upper hand in Syria and perhaps the Middle East, Russia appears to be pulling the real strings.”
As also noted by Nadera, Russia is the only major power willing to sell advanced military equipment to Iran. The years of international sanctions imposed on Iran while it refused to curb its programme to develop nuclear weapons greatly impacted the country’s struggle to modernise its armed forces. Its jet fighters and most of its tanks and artillery are decades old.
According to Nadera, Moscow and Tehran “are negotiating an arms deal reported to be worth about $10bn, but the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement [that led to the 2016 easing of sanctions against Iran] prohibits the sale of major weapons to Iran until 2020 without the approval of the UN Security Council. So Iran may have to wait for years for the Russian weapons, making it even more dependent on the Russian military in the region.”
Tehran media “silent” on Russia
Another analyst attempting to unravel the complexity of the new Russian-Iranian ties is Julia Sveshnikova, a consultant at Moscow’s Center for Political Studies of Russia (PIR Center). In a March 3 contribution to Al-Monitor, she wrote that it was “remarkable that Iranian media had remained silent on the future of the Russia-Iran relationship under the Trump administration”.
Sveshnikova added: “The issue is probably too delicate and too important to stir up with unreliable preliminary forecasts, especially if they disregard the pro-Western orientation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's camp. Besides, the common belief among Iranians is that it will take time for the US political system to show Donald Trump - despite his own ambitious plans - how foreign policy is really shaped and implemented.”
On the economic front, the post-sanctions era presents great bilateral trade opportunities for both Iran and Russia, itself struggling to overcome the ills caused by sanctions. In comments to the press after his meeting with Rouhani, Putin made a point of mentioning how trade between Russia and Iran grew by more than 70% last year. The Russians are also eager to get on with constructing the second and third blocks of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant and are bidding to play a prominent and profitable role in the Islamic Republic’s “catch-up” programme to exploit its gas reserves (the second largest in the world) and oil reserves (fourth largest).
With Trump’s menacing attitude towards Tehran having deterred Western energy majors, such as France’s Total, from moving fast with investments in Iran, the Russians may sense a great opportunity to capitalise. And Rouhani would dearly love to announce a major oil or gas FDI agreement as election day hoves into view. His economic achievements during his first four-year term have not entirely won round Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei although his hardline opponents, attempting to trade off their antagonism towards the “Iranophobia” of the new occupant of the White House, have yet to get their game together when it comes to offering a persuasive rival candidate.
Turkey may need friends
Another awkward bedfellow, for both Russia - the new big hitter on the block in the Middle East - and Iran, is Turkey. But both Iran and Russia, which has managed to involve Ankara in its effort to call the tune in Syria despite the Turkish enmity towards al-Assad, may see an opportunity in Turkey’s unresolved war of words with the European Union. Should the Turks prove unable to patch up their differences with Germany and several other EU member states, they might be so in need of friends that they will be much more minded to get along with the Iranians and Russians.
Finally, one little-noted bulletin that followed the Putin-Rouhani talks was the Iranian president’s statement that preparations are being made for a second tripartite summit of Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan.
In the South Caucasus, the Moscow-Tehran-Baku triangle has the potential to set nerves on edge in Armenia. Anything that changes the regional balance of power in favour of the Azerbaijanis would worry the Armenians, given the precarious state of affairs in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani breakaway region with an ethnic Armenian majority, over which Yerevan and Baku have sporadically fought.