Iran and Russia have historically been wary of each other’s geopolitical ambitions. Presently, their competing aims hamper their partnership from evolving into a full-scale alliance, but the two powers do have a number of converging interests in the Middle East and the South Caucasus. Now, with both Moscow and Tehran facing US sanctions, the development of their relationship will be intriguing.
One theatre of Russo-Iranian cooperation is Syria. Both Russia and Iran are interested in stopping western (primarily American) influence gaining much of a foothold in the country. But, as is typical, real differences between war-time allies start to emerge only after the main hostilities are over. From time to time there have been pointers in the media on various disagreements that have broken out between Russia and Iran on the methods, aims and results of the war in Syria. Iran has almost solidified its land reach to the Mediterranean via Syria and Moscow could well be worried that a strong Iran would be less susceptible to following the Russian lead. Russia’s eventual level of willingness to listen to Israel when it comes to containing Iran in Syria could well attune to its own objectives.
Further north, another theatre of cooperation is the nascent North-South transit corridor between Iran and Russia, which passes through Azerbaijan. The three countries are already somewhat connected via rail links and there is the notion that Russia’s Baltic ports and the Persian Gulf could one day enjoy efficient connections. Tehran and Moscow see Azerbaijan as a vital component in advancing North-South trade and energy corridors in the South Caucasus. Such corridors rival the West-East ones promoted by Western countries and perhaps also the East-West Belt and Road initiative backed by China.
But Moscow’s hesitancy in firming relations with Iran is seen in how slowly it is welcoming the Iranians into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) trade bloc, which currently lists Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia as its members. In mid-May, it was announced that the Moscow-led EEU and Iran have signed an interim free trade agreement (FTA). The Islamic Republic has never managed to conclude an FTA with another country or economic bloc since it was founded in 1979. So such a deal is now tantalisingly close, but could still be a two or more years away.
Russia is also 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. The matter was brought up in March last year when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani paid his first official visit to the Kremlin, an occasion that prompted his counterpart Vladimir Putin to praise Iran as a “good neighbour”.
Iranian gas won’t easily reach Europe
In the energy sphere, there are major differences between the Russians and Iranians that are not at all easily solved. For instance, both look to the European market to increase gas and oil exports.
Iran is theoretically quite well positioned to take its share of the European gas market as the EU is worried about Russian gas export predominance on its markets. Iranian gas could be a very good tool to assuage European fears, but to export its gas Iran would, for instance, need access to Black Sea ports such as Batumi and Poti in Georgia. Or it might one day attempt to feed gas into the new Southern Gas Corridor set to run to Turkey from Azerbaijan via Georgia and onwards to Italy.
Russia has generally tried to push back against any other regional powers establishing themselves on the Black Sea coast, but the Iranians have made a limited breakthrough there. In late 2016 it was agreed that the Iranians will construct oil-processing facilities near Georgia’s Black Sea city of Supsa on a site of approximately 1.2 square kilometres.
But such successes should not be overestimated. Across the South Caucasus Russia and Turkey are well represented both militarily and economically. Russia successfully obstructs any Iranian moves to establish independent pipelines or rail routes to Armenia and Georgia and then there is the growing number of Trump administration obstacles placed in the way of any foreign companies doing business with Iran. They may not be shifted any time soon.
Another area of latent disagreement in the South Caucasus is the simmering conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, run by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Back in the early 1990s, the Iranian government made some unsuccessful attempts to mediate in the conflict. Since both Armenia and Azerbaijan border Iran it is quite natural to expect Tehran to try to play a bigger role in such efforts to resolve the stand-off. However, Russia, the dominant power in the conflict resolution process, would be opposed to any Iranian initiatives that would diminish Moscow’s role in bringing Baku and Yerevan to the table.
Russian ‘Eurasianists’ look to Tehran and Ankara as pillars
So, despite their centuries-old rivalry, where might Russia and Iran find a real basis for cooperation? In the past several years, it has become clear that Russia is very keen on building closer relations with Iran. Why so? The map of Eurasia gives a glimpse into the rationale of the Russian political elite. Russian political thinkers of the 1990s often contended that Iran and Turkey should be pillars of future Russian influence in the Middle East. The so-called Eurasianists, who believe that Russia is neither in Europe nor in Asia, say that to successfully compete with western powers, Moscow needs both Tehran and Ankara.
Under Russian President Vladimir Putin those notions were officially pushed aside, but not in practice. It has been in Russia’s perennial interest to keep Iran at least neutral, something that historically happened during both the Romanov era and the Soviet empire.
Both Russia and Iran loathe seeing any western military encroachment in the South Caucasus and the Middle East. Both consider the evolving grand strategy of the US for the Eurasian land mass as negative to their geopolitical imperatives. For Russia, the US violates the post-Cold War order as it ramps up military pressure on Moscow in the former Soviet space; for Iran, the US, having ditched the deal Barack Obama signed to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, is intent on hindering any Iranian geopolitical outreach across the Middle East, including in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Thus, this common apprehension towards the US can be considered one driver behind close Russo-Iranian cooperation.
The US has unveiled a new national strategy document enumerating the major problems Washington perceives across Eurasia. Russia and Iran feature as the most problematic influences for the US. The unilateral US withdrawal from the multilateral nuclear accord is a defining moment for the Moscow-Tehran cooperation as Iran waits on what its other signatories, including Russia, will truly do to shield Iranian and foreign companies that do business with Iran from Trump’s turning of the screw with sanctions.
Emil Avdaliani teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University. He has worked for various international consulting companies and currently publishes articles focused on military and political developments across the Eurasian continent.