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Q&A on Russia and Iran in Venezuela

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Had everything gone according to plan, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would have spent the weekend visiting Brazil, Ecuador, and his close friends in Venezuela.  However following a carefully worded warning from Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and domestic political struggles – including a rare public rebuke from Ayatollah Khamenei, the trip was suddenly cancelled without explanation.  Given Russia’s role alongside Iran and China as one of the countries whose influence is fast growing in Latin America, how is the penetration of Iran into these areas seen by Moscow – as competitors or partners?

To discuss some of these questions regarding the Russo-Iranian relationship, Grigory Pasko conducted a Q&A with Pavel Salin, Head of Research for the Russian Center for Political Conjecture (read Pasko’s previous interview with Salin here).

Grigory Pasko: – The cooperation between Russia and Iran obviously has as its objective to restrict the influence of other large political blocs, geographically more remote, but pursuing their own interests in the given region. What other reasons can there be (are there) for the rapprochement of Russia and Iran?

Pavel Salin: – I do not see any additional strategic reasons – the above-indicated interest is defining. True, there do exist additional tactical interests. First, Iran is one of the informal leaders in the Muslim world, in that part of it which is most irreconcilably attuned towards the West and its system of values. So friendship with the Islamic Republic allows to count on its support in the Muslim world, moreover in a broad spectrum of questions – from the business-interests of concrete companies to geopolitics. And yet another banal reason – material interests. For example, the construction of nuclear power plants costs hundreds of millions and billions of dollars, and this is a serious sum even for the Russian budget of the times of the «corpulent 2000s» [as opposed to the popular Russian epithet of the «poor 1990s»–Trans.].

GP: Teheran, in the opinion of certain foreign observers, plays aleading role in «reducing the negative attitude of the Muslim worldtowards Moscow for its military campaigns in Chechnya». Is this so?

PS:  Not exactly. As I have already said above, there are several centers ofinfluence in the Islamic world, and Iran enjoys influence amongradicals and supporters of the project for a world order alternative tothe Pax Americana. This is not necessarily states, there can be veryinfluential extremist groupings. In relation to them, the assertion istrue. But as concerns the moderate part of the Muslim world, itsSunni-Arab branch, then here the influence of Iran is minimal (althoughthey do say that it continues to enjoy great prestige in the «street»).With the Arabs, appearing as one of the negotiators with respect to the«Chechen problem» is the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who visitsthe countries of the region quite frequently.

GP:  What, in your opinion, are the possibilities and prospects forcooperation between Iran and Russia in the military-technical, economicand trade spheres?

PS:  In the military-technical- for now minimal, inasmuch as this wouldevoke the sharp aversion of the West, and Russia does not need this.Although if Russia’s relations with the West deteriorate, thenactivization of military cooperation ought not be ruled out either,albeit cautiously, through third countries, for example, Byelorussia orVenezuela. But trade-economic relations certainly have priority. Ofcourse, the top-order priority is gas – after all, it is precisely Iranthat is now the main resource base for «Nabucco». Investors do notparticularly trust Turkmenia with her policy of promising everybodyeverything, as well as given the incomprehensible situation withreserves. There are other projects as well, for example theconstruction of the «North-South» transport corridor, which in theevent of success will noticeably increase Russia’s role as a transitpower, a «little bridge» between the West and the East.

GP:  The cooperation of the RF and Iran in the sphere of atomic energy(construction of the Bushehr nuclear power station is successfullycontinuing with the help of the Russian side) evokes the negativeattitude of a series of countries. As does Iran’s nuclear program as awhole. Is not the aspiration of the RF towards nuclear rapprochementwith Iran an obstacle to Russia’s positive relations with othercountries, the USA for example?

PS:  It may well be one of the obstacles, but not a strategic one. The keydisagreement in the relations of Russia with the West in general andthe USA in particular – the unwillingness to admit Russian elites tothe adoption of decisions of a global scale. In other words,unwillingness to give Moscow a block of shares in the corporation underthe name «The World». All the other conflicts – derivative from it.

GP:  President of the USA Barack Obama has declared that if the USA succeedsin dealing with the “Iranian threat”, the necessity of deployingAmerican anti-missile defense in Europe will fall away. “Iran’sdevelopment of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable and we haveto mount an international effort to prevent that from happening. Iran’ssupport of terrorist organizations, I think, is something that has tocease”. The position of Moscow is known: «We do not have data to speakabout how Iran is aspiring towards the production of nuclear weapons.Therefore we proceed from the premise that Iran does not have suchplans. But we share the concern of partners for Iran’s programs to beclear, transparent». Is there a way out of the situation that hasevolved, when the USA are insisting, and Iran isn’t yielding, andRussia is taking an ambiguous position?

PS:  For now, no, but everything can change very sharply after thepresidential elections on 12 June If the moderates win (andrealistically, their coming to power is being sanctioned by theayatollah), then American-Iranian relations could substantiallyimprove. This can take place also in the event of the victory ofAhmedinejad. Then the stalemate situation that has evolved will ceaseto exist.

GP:  In recent times, Iran has noticeably expanded its economic expansiontowards Central Asia, Russia’s traditional patrimony. Moscow,nevertheless, silently welcomes this. Russia obviously lacks thestrength to fill this region it considers important all by itself.Moscow’s calculus is simple: the more of Iran there is here, the lessof the USA or Turkey, and even in some sense China too. How justifiedis such a position?

PS:  I would not say that Russia is being guided exclusively by thisinterest. In recent years a turning point has taken place in theconsciousness of the Russian elites in relation to Central Asia – theunderstanding came that the local regimes have «grown up», and can befriends with whomever they want. One can resist this, only notdirectly, but indirectly, buying the loyalty of the Central Asianelites, whose appetites are growing. I think that Russia’s moderateposition in relation to the presence in the region of Iranian interestsis explained also by the fact that for now there is no direct collisionof interests. Yes, there is the aspiration of the Tadjik powers tomaintain dialogue with Iran, but for now this does not threaten theconstruction of hydroelectric facilities by Russian companies – whatthreatens these is the conflict of Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan. Yes,Iran gets gas from Turkmenia, but even in the years of maximal demandfor energy sources Ashkhabad fulfilled obligations before Moscow, andnow «Gazprom» for the reason of low demand can not select even thosevolumes that are already contracted.

GP:  There is an opinion that the obtaining by Iran of nuclear weaponsthreatens a serious disruption of regional and global security. Whatmay be a death blow will be inflicted on the NNPT, neighboring Arabcountries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt) will receive a powerful stimulustowards the creation of their own bomb. In connection with this,perhaps Russia should not be so actively supporting Iran’s nuclearprogram?

PS:  Russia is not supporting Iran’s military nuclear program. In accordancewith Russian proposals, it is imperative to create an internationalconsortium for the «peaceful atom» (preferably on the territory ofRussia), which will allow to control the quantity and the «profile» ofraw material. The USA under Bush rejected such a proposal; now, judgingby certain oblique declarations of representatives of theadministration, they are prepared to examine such a variant. Theposition of Iran will become clear after the elections of 12 June;earlier, Teheran itself had proposed such a scheme (true, there weresupposed to have been several centers and one of them was supposed tohave been found on the territory of the country). But the obtaining byIran of nuclear weapons truly is fraught with violation of the globalbalance not only in the region, but in prospect in the world as a wholeas well. But for Iran this is strategically imperative – then it willobtain guarantees that there will not be any attempts at the violenttoppling of power by way of military intervention on the Iraqi model.

GP:  It is obvious that the time has come to propose the creation of asystem of security for this region, guaranteed by the great powers,including India and China. Are the prerequisites there and are concretesteps being taken in this direction?

PS:  For now I do not see concretics. There is an initiative by Turkey withrespect to the creation of a «Caucasus Stability and CooperationPlatform» (CSCP), but it does not envision the attraction of Iran.Perhaps the prototype for such a system could become the SCO, and Iranis aspiring into it. True, there are two problems here: the SCO doesnot envision the participation in the system of the USA and the EU, aswell as India, with which China traditionally has complex relations andwith which the PRC has struggled and is struggling for leadership inAsia.

GP:  The Iranian opposition is as varied as an oriental rug. Many of itsparts – are beyond the confines of Iran. Your attitude towards it andassessment of the opposition forces of Iran?

PS:  The foreign-based opposition enjoys practically no influence in Iran -nearly all the communications and information channels are controlledby the state, although the USA did organize foreign broadcasting ontothe territory of the country. Practically the entire Iranian oppositionin the USA is oriented towards the restoration of the monarchy, but fornow such a project does not enjoy popularity in Iran. In general, thiskind of emigration can come to power in one way only – on Americanbayonets, which events in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated.However, the question of a military operation against Iran has not beenraised for now. Most likely, the USA have placed their bets on workwith youth and the students – in the Islamic Republic, 70% of thepopulation is under 30 years old; by their social experience they knowonly the existing regime, and do not remember the negative aspects ofthe times of the Shah’s Iran. It will be easy to «sell» them analternative project, as this was during the time of the «color»revolutions – starting with the toppling of the Ceauşescu regime andending with the attempt at an overthrow in Moldavia (in the latterinstance it is hardly likely that the West stood behind the protestors;most likely it was the Romanians, but the technologies were the verysame ones). True, for this one needs the restoration of diplomaticrelations and the obtaining by the West of levers of influence on thehumanitarian sphere in the country (non-commercial organizations and soon), but the current Iranian powers are hardly likely to go for this.

GP:  Cooperation in the sphere of energy sources between the RF and Iran – at what stage is it and what are its prospects?

PS:  I would say that there is cooperation, but that its prospects areextremely cloudy. Russia has obtained the right to the development of apart of the Iranian hydrocarbon reserves (at least negotiations aresuccessfully being conducted), but this is only because Europeaninvestors are forced to leave, complying with the internationalsanctions regime. If the sanctions are lifted, and the relations ofIran with the West improve and it guarantees the filling of «Nabucco»,I’m afraid the relations [with Russia] will noticeably deteriorate.