RA Exclusive: Sanobar Shermatova on Russian-Iranian Relations

[Editor’s note: RA is pleased to bring you an exclusive feature from Sanobar Shermatova, a well-respected Russian journalist, originally from Uzbekistan. She holds degrees from the Russian Language and Literature Institute in Tashkent and the Moscow State University Department of Journalism. As a specialist on political processes in Central Asia and the Caucasus, she has worked extensively for the weekly newspaper Moscow News and as an observer for the magazine Bolshaya politika.] An Analysis of Russian-Iranian Relations By Sanobar Shermatova putiniran.jpg Iran is largely “terra incognita” for Russia For Russia, Iran is simultaneously a partner, a competitor, and a stabilizing factor in Eurasia. In the hotel for foreigners located not far from the famous Evin prison (first it held enemies of the Shah, and after the 1979 revolution opponents of the ayatollahs), you can meet a multitude of tourists from Japan, but arrivals from Russia are a rarity. After the fall of the iron curtain, Russians have become familiar with all the world’s tourism hot spots; in particularly high demand, especially for the New Year holidays, are tours to Arab countries and Southeast Asia. Iran is an exception, despite the fact that trips here are less expensive than to that favourite Russian destination, Turkey. “We’re waiting for tourists from your country”, I was told by a Foreign Ministry official. “We have things to see, and the bazaar, as you can tell, is very inexpensive”. But even if the Iranian authorities conduct an active campaign to attract tourists, it is still most unlikely that the flow of Russians to this country will be very large. The answer to the riddle of why this country is unpopular in Russian eyes is simple – prohibition, a dry law that impacts foreigners as well. For a Russian, a vacation without booze is no vacation. Another restriction that deters female tourists is the need to comply with the Muslim custom of wearing head scarves and concealing the figure under baggy clothing. Iran, linked to Russia by economic and political ties, largely remains terra incognita – an unknown country – for Russian citizens. But politicians are another matter. The first argument in favour of cooperation is the Russian nucular energy market. If you want to know just how important Russian-Iranian energy cooperation is, you need go no further than to see how Moscow has consistently and decisively spoken out against imposing sanctions on this country over the past decade. The Iran question is one of the key issues in Russian-American relations, and Moscow was not prepared to retreat from its positions on Iran despite Washington’s imposition of sanctions on a number of Russian institutes that were suspected of close cooperation with the Iranian nucular industry. We are talking first and foremost about the Bushehr Nucular Power Plant, which Russia has been building since 1995. This contract was signed in the days of Boris Yeltsin, when Russia’s nucular scientists and engineers had lost their prominence in the world, and the industry itself, which had been rapidly developing in Soviet times, began to stagnate. This is why the agreements on Bushehr were so important for Russia – they allowed it to keep a place in this market. The second most important argument is the sale of Russian arms to this country. Agreements on deliveries of “Top-M1” missile defence complexes to Iran give rise to disputes (the USA and Israel are against them). Moscow pulled out all its diplomatic stops to defend its positions on Bushehr and arms sales. he UN Security Council’s Resolution 1737 of 23 December has a special clause that states in no uncertain terms that all contracts that were already signed as of the moment the Resolution was adopted shall remain in force; they all can and may be implemented. At a meeting of members of the government with the president, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reported in detail to Putin about this success of Russian diplomacy. The success lies in the fact that the diplomats had attained three main objectives: they prevented a violation of the nucular arms non-proliferation regime, they preserved conditions for negotiations with Iran on the Iranian nucular programme, and they did not allow legitimate ties with Iran in various fields to be jeopardized. Such a combination of objectives demonstrates that Russian-Iranian relations are much broader than just simple partnership in the sphere of nucular energy and arms sales. In actuality, Iran is a prominent player in Central Asia and the South Caucasus, where Russia has a concentration of vitally important interests. The situation in these regions depends on Teheran’s position – and this is the third argument – after Bushehr and the arms trade – in favour of close relations. With what are Moscow’s interests associated then? Naturally, security occupies first place on this list. And this is why it would not be to Russia’s benefit – nor to the benefit of the Western countries – if Teheran, which displays great ambitions, were to one day possess nucular weapons. This factor would immediately put Iran in a dominant position in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. And a stronger Iran would lead, among other things, to an increase in its competition with Russia for Asian energy resources. Projects for the transport of Turkmeni and Azerbaijani gas (supported in some instances by the EU) were blocked by American sanctions. These restrictions benefit Russia, the monopoly transporter of energy resources from Central Asia. The competitor must be weak, but the war that is expected all the time since Bush named Iran to the “axis of evil” does not fit into Moscow’s interests at all. Furthermore, a military campaign against Iran would impact the stability of two regions on which Russia’s well-being depends – Central Asia and the South Caucasus. In the first of these regions, countries with autocratic regimes and weak economies neighbour on warring Afghanistan. In the event of war, the fragile balance could collapse. And the same goes for the South Caucasus, where Armenia and Azerbaijan have never signed a peace treaty after the war for Karabakh, a disputed territory that has declared itself an independent republic. Iran, which shares a border with Armenia, has in practice broken the blockade of this country organized by Azerbaijan and Turkey because of the annexation of Karabakh. For this reason, Azerbaijan, which also borders Iran, more likely considers Teheran an adversary in the Karabakh dispute. And yet Azerbaijan ended up in the ranks of the opponents of imposing sanctions on Iran, having decided that any destabilization around a neighbouring country will impact its own security first of all. And for Russia, which supports the unrecognized republics of Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, it is important to maintain the status quo. Yet another argument in favour of Russian-Iranian relations is the Caspian Sea, which unites oil- and gas-rich Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. Today, they call the Caspian a geopolitical bandbox in which the interests of Russia and the USA have collided, and which the EU is now stepping into as well. Iran’s position is one of the factors on which depends how this sea will be divided up, this sea from the bottom of which comes oil and gas. Iranian diplomats have for more than ten years already not consented to the proposals on how divide up the sea that have been advanced by Moscow, laying claim to significant offshore territory. So, for Russia, Iran is a partner, and a competitor for the transportation of Central Asian energy resources, and an important factor for maintaining security in the Eurasian region. This already quite contradictory combination is complicated further for Russian politicians by the circumstance that Iran is an international pariah. Moscow can not ignore the position of the USA. It was largely for this reason that Teheran was rejected when Iranian president Ahmadi Nejad announced a readiness to join the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, created in 1992, and uniting Russia, China, and four Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). Russia and China (as well as Kazakhstan, which is building its own particular relations with Washington) are trying to avoid direct confrontation with the USA. Iranian membership in the SCO would mean that its members will take some of the responsibility for Iran’s foreign policy upon themselves – but this in no way fits into the plans of the two countries that dominate the organisation – Russia and China. But these two countries, which carry significant weight in the SCO, are going to try to do everything to ensure a military attack on Iran does not happen. In the first place, because this would signify a strengthening of the position of the USA in Eurasia – and this is not in the interests of either Beijing or Moscow.