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Iran and Russia: An uneasy partnership

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran and appearances notwithstanding, Iran and Russia are still far away from developing strategic ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran last week and his immediate meeting with Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei touched off a flurry of analysis on Tehran and Moscow’s expanding ties.

Putin’s meeting with Khamenei was correctly identified as breaking with diplomatic norms and protocol (as he should have first met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani), and thus rich in symbolism, triggering speculation on the beginning of truly “strategic” Russo-Iranian ties.

Leaving aside the precise definition of “strategic”, Putin’s visit is unlikely to herald a trajectory leading to qualitatively enhanced Russo-Iranian relations.

A variety of foundational, strategic and tactical factors militate against Tehran moving significantly closer to Moscow. Despite this outlook the two countries enjoy strong ties and will continue to see eye to eye on a broad range of regional and international issues.

A difficult history

In historical terms Iran and Russia are not natural allies. The Russo-Persian wars of the 18th and 19th centuries culminating in the humiliating Treaty of Turkmenchay; the resulting loss of the Caucasus has had an enduring impact on Iranian national consciousness.

In the 20th century the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941 (despite Iranian neutrality in WWII) and subsequent Soviet attempt at annexing Iranian Azerbaijan was a fresh reminder of longstanding Russian desires to effectively dismantle the Iranian nation-state.

In subsequent decades Soviet interference in Iranian affairs, channelled through the pro-Moscow communist Tudeh Party, led to strong American sponsorship of the second Pahlavi monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah.

His reliance on Washington notwithstanding, in the latter years of his reign the Shah sought to create more balance in his foreign policy, by embracing increased political and economic ties with the former Soviet Union.

Following the Iranian revolution of 1979 the new regime in Tehran ostensibly embarked on a radically new foreign policy by rejecting both superpowers, as immortalised by the popular revolutionary slogan of “neither East nor West”.

But in reality the Islamic Republic maintained marginal ties with the former Soviet Union (despite strong Soviet support for Iraq in the early years of the Iran-Iraq War) whilst at the same time moving decisively to eradicate Soviet influence on Iranian politics by destroying the Tudeh party.

The minimal relationship with the former Soviet Union was all the more remarkable in view of revolutionary Iran’s total estrangement from the United States. This peculiar development formed the basis of post-revolutionary foreign policy towards the Soviet Union and then the Russian federation following the former’s collapse in 1991.

Relations were placed on a more solid footing at the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 and the signing of significant arms sales the following year. This was followed by the steady expansion of ties in the 1990s, with Washington’s multi-layered moves at isolating Iran at regional and international levels providing the necessary momentum for this trajectory.

In summary Iran’s position on Russia is one that takes full stock of the difficult history between the two powers whilst at the same time maintaining and when necessary improving ties to enhance Iran’s leverage on a wide range of regional and international issues.

A non-strategic partnership

Much has been read into Putin’s unconventional two-hour meeting with Khamenei. One of the best assessments has been delivered by Hossein Malaek, a veteran Iranian diplomat and a former ambassador to China, in a short article for the specialist Iranian diplomacy website.

Whilst noting the extraordinary atmospherics of the meeting, and acknowledging the Iranian leader’s exceptional respect for the Russian president, Malaek interprets the significance of the meeting in the context of the intensifying Syrian conflict.

Syria is currently at the centre of Russo-Iranian relations as both powers employ their significant military, intelligence and diplomatic resources to thwart their Western and Gulf Arab rivals’ plans at unseating the Syrian government and thus altering the regional balance of power.  

But even in this high stakes theatre – where for the foreseeable future Iranian and Russian interests are closely aligned – the two powers do not necessarily share strategic interests in terms of the end game and desired outcomes to the conflict.

In fact privately Iranian leaders may be fearful of a Russian betrayal in Syria, especially in light of credible analysis on Russia in part using the Syrian conflict to extract concessions from the US and EU on the conflict in Ukraine.

In any case, Iranian leaders and strategists would be foolish to expect strong long-term Russian support in Syria. The long-running Iranian nuclear dispute, which ran from 2002 until its resolution in July this year, is a good template on which to examine the strength of Russian support for Iran on critical issues involving key world powers.

Russian support was lukewarm at best and at key moments the Russians decided to forego the use of their veto at the UN Security Council in order not to jeopardise ties with the Americans and key European powers such as the United Kingdom and France. 

Beyond Syria, any overly optimistic assessment of the future prospect of Russo-Iranian ties has to grapple with the wider trajectory and priorities of Iranian foreign policy. Iran is no longer an embattled revolutionary state but arguably the region’s dominant power and possibly an emerging stakeholder on the world stage.

As the Islamic Republic continues to spar with Washington and her allies across the region, it will also seek to exploit any opportunity for qualified alignment of interests with the US if only to decrease the cost of its involvement in regional conflicts.

In this new diplomatic reality it is more prudent of Iran to view its relationship with Russia as a balance to its painfully slow and qualified rapprochement with the West as opposed to treating Moscow as a fully fledged ally.           

- Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics. He is the director of the research group Dysart Consulting.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.   

Photo: A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shows him (C) receiving a gift from Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) during their meeting in the capital Tehran, on 23 November, 2015 (AFP).