Russia and Iran on March 28 made a series of bilateral declarations when President Vladimir Putin hosted his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on his first official visit to Moscow. The Russian leader lauded the Islamic Republic as “a good neighbour”.
Putin and Rouhani have grown closer in the past year given their mutual military and diplomatic support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the economic possibilities opened up by Iran moving into its post-sanctions era following the 2015 nuclear deal with the West. Tehran is also looking to Moscow to provide something of a shield from the venomous stance taken towards Iran by US President Donald Trump since he came to office in January.
After his Kremlin meeting with Rouhani, Putin praised Iran as a “reliable and stable partner”, observing that Iran and Russia had maintained diplomatic relations for more than 500 years.
Analysts say Rouhani will hope the visit opens the way to sealing at least one big Russian investment in Iran’s energy sector prior to his bid to win a second term in the upcoming May 19 election. Not wishing to rile Washington, some Western energy majors, such as France’s Total, have slowed down potential major commitments to Iran’s gas or oil industries.
“There is a huge potential for Russian investment in Iran's energy sector,” Rouhani told Iranian state television prior to departing for Moscow on March 27. “Some oil and gas fields have been suggested to Russian companies... We will see a big development in energy cooperations.”
In televised comments made after the meeting of the two leaders, Putin said that trade between Russia and Iran grew by more than 70% last year. “This is truly a good result considering that it was achieved in unstable global conditions and amid persistent volatility on the commodity and currency markets,” news agencies reported Putin as saying.
In a joint statement, Putin and Rouhani promised to keep up efforts to restrain oil production and stabilise markets. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and other large producers, led by Russia, agreed last December to cut combined output by almost 1.8mn barrels per day to curb inventories and bolster prices. However, pointing out that its production was only just starting to recover since international sanctions were eased, Iran – boasting the world’s fourth largest oil reserves – successfully contended that production limits should not be applied to it.
Putin and Rouhani also discussed the construction of the second and third blocks of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, with the Russian president noting that relevant documents were "under coordination".
“Case by case” use of Iranian air bases
On the defence front, the visit produced a pledge from Iran that Russia might occasionally use Iranian military bases to launch air strikes against militants in Syria. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who accompanied Rouhani to Moscow, told Reuters on March 28 that "Russia doesn't have a military base [in Iran, but] we have good cooperation, and on a case by case basis, when it is necessary for Russians fighting terrorism to use Iranian facilities, we will make a decision".
Last summer, Russia - which last year provided Iran with its S-300 air defence missile system - used Iran’s Hamadan Air Base to launch attacks against targets in Syria. It was the first time a foreign power had used an Iranian base since WWII. However, Iranian lawmakers claimed the deployment breached a constitutional law banning foreign military bases and Tehran criticised Moscow for publicising the arrangement.
Russia’s alliance with Iran in the six-year-old Syrian civil war is delicate in that the Russians are also working with Turkey in an effort to achieve a satisfactory outcome to the conflict. Like the US, Turkey is backing rebel opponents to the existing Syrian regime.
Despite the Americans’ concern over Iran’s growing influence as a regional power, particularly in the Syria and Yemen conflicts, the Russians are continuing to push for more defence sales to the Iranians. Putin referred to another outcome of the Rouhani visit in saying “potential deliveries of modern medium-range Sukhoi SuperJet-100 aircraft to Iran and helicopters for the national ambulance aviation are on the agenda".
In a reference to the allegedly Israeli-American Stuxnet malicious computer “worm” cyberweapon that targeted and disabled parts of Iran’s nuclear programme in 2010, Putin and Rouhani also issued a joint statement. It called for a UN-sponsored process for regulating states' "conduct in the information sphere". "Russia and Iran expressed their concern over the steadily rising number of instances of using information and communication technologies for criminal, terrorist, military, and political goals," the statement said.
The joint communique also dealt with Afghanistan, with Putin and Rouhani expressing “concern over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, over the growth of terrorist threats from extremist forces in that country… and over the growth of drug production in Afghanistan which poses a threat to peace and stability, socio-economic development and the security of Afghanistan and other states".
Russia is supporting Iran’s plans to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Also known as the Shanghai Pact, the SCO is a Eurasian political, economic, and military organisation founded in 2001 in Shanghai by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan were admitted as full members in 2015. Iran has had observer nation status since 2005.