Russia and Iran: Strategic Partners or Competing Regional Hegemons? A Critical Analysis of Russian-Iranian Relations in the Post-Soviet Space
Implications of an Iranian Nuclear Programme for Regional Security
Russia does not necessarily share the security political concerns of the EU and US as regards the Iranian nuclear programme that was uncovered in 2002 (Jafarzadeh 2007: 127). Putin's presidency continued to distinguish between a security political dimension of Iran's nuclear programme ('military dimension is not proven') and a commercial dimension of bilateral relations, ranging from arms sales (Adomeit 2007: 21f.) to areas that touch upon the borders of the Wassenaar Agreement supposed to control the transfer of dual-use and weapons technologies, as evidenced by the contract to construct a nuclear power station in Bushehr worth 800 million US dollars, a project already started by German firms in 1975, but abandoned in the wake of the Islamic Revolution (Orlov & Vinnikov 2005: 50).
This two-dimensional approach was laid out as from Yeltsin's presidency.4 Such an approach is underlined by cautious and restrained voices from the Russian foreign ministry as seen most recently after the latest IAEA board report of November 2011, the latter of which marks a new climax in the organisation's reproaches against Iran's intentions (IAEA 2011). Russia's voting for UNSC resolution 1696 in 2006 and for resolution 1929 in June 2010 (UN 2006; 2010), however, bespoke growing concerns as to the regional security political implications of Iran's nuclear programme.
Implications for the Middle East and Central Asia are not far to seek: The perception of Iran possibly developing nuclear weapons might trigger a regional arms race that will increase distrust and regional insecurity. Allegations about Iranian intentions aside, it is not in the Russian interest to see a nuclear armed Iran constituting a destabilizing factor in the Middle East and Central Asia (cf. also Trenin & Malashenko 2010). The international attention concerning the Iranian nuclear programme constitutes a polarizing factor for regional organizations as siding with Iran on security and foreign political issues directly entails a positioning effect due to the anti-American rhetoric of the Ahmadinejad presidency and international pressure on Iran.
In fact, concerns about Iran's membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization were related to fears about an indirect anti-American tone that this accession would give the organization (Blank 2008). As long as the Iranian nuclear puzzle will not be solved, Central Asia and the Middle East will have to continue to cope with this very prickly issue that entails a constant security political destabilizing element.
All the same, it creates an obstacle for commercial-economic relations in the region and for projects such as the initiative of a 'new Silk Road' to promote trade along the ancient transcontinental Silk Road from China to the West (Kucera 2011): The economic sanctions regime on Iran prevents the passing through Iran, and thus Iran is currently being shut out of any commercial corridor strategies. The preferred passing through Afghanistan will exclude Iran because political framework conditions constitute a fait accompli.
"Failure [to let the corridor pass through Afghanistan]", Frederick Starr (2011), chair of the Washington-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute formulates, “will mean that the United States will have richly subsidized the transportation sector of Iran, and given the ayatollahs a veto over US strategy, at the expense of our friends in Azerbaijan and Georgia". Let alone the thorny political implications of Iran's nuclear programme, an internationally isolated Iran means a hindering factor for trade and cooperation in Central Asia, given the country's strategic position as a geopolitical hub.
Moscow and Tehran are not that close friends as some observers tend to generalize. Disagreements over oil pipelines (Bluestream, Baku-Ceyhan: cf. Katz 2008) and delimitation disputes in the Caspian or Moscow’s increasing cooperation with Turkey (Sezer 2000: 73; Hill & Taspinar 2006: 81f.) and Israel (Israel is home to a big Russian diaspora: Remennick 2004) are but a few examples of annoyances to Iran. Memories of historical enmities and ideological antagonisms, political divergences over Afghanistan and Iraq and mutually opposed longing for influence spheres in the Central Asian republics after the Cold War bespeak a dynamic bilateral relation that is far from being that of close friends.
Moreover, demographics necessarily is playing into Russia’s foreign policy choices, whether decision-makers in Moscow like it or not. Russia’s population is continually shrinking (estimated population of 100 million in 2050), while that of Iran is relentlessly growing (estimated population growth by 20 million in 2050). Together with an Iran “fully organized in terms of oil, gas, and nuclear technologies” in the future (Satanovksy 2006), Russia might face a densely populated, technologically equipped and assertively acting regional power Iran in the mid- to long term.
While the ‘new Great Game’ in the post-Cold War setting came off less strongly than expected, recent developments in regional dynamics and Iranian foreign policy especially under the Ahmadinejad presidential administration convey the impression of Iran establishing itself as a self-confident regional power.
Iran adamantly upholds its legitimate right to nuclear enrichment for civilian purposes and laments over Western arrogance and double standards (Perthes 2008: 24f.). Iranian fierce rhetoric against Western pressure regarding its nuclear programme does fit into this picture of a regionally strong Iran with the claim to being a regional hegemon. Should Russia’s power status in the CIS and Central Asia decline relative to a boost in power status on the side of Iran, the hitherto ‘centred’ Regional Security Complex comprising the CIS/Central Asia would gradually shift towards a ‘standard’ RSC (Buzan 2003: 473) or towards one gravitating toward Iran, at least towards a Russian-Iranian Regional Security condominium.
In other words, Iran’s regional flexing of muscles as testified by alleged advances in its nuclear programme, tactical alliance-seeking and exertion of politico-cultural influence throughout the region could take it geopolitically on par with the regional power Russia.
At the same time, Russia’s gas monopoly in Central Asia, membership in international organizations and its permanent UNSC seat secures it a regional and global power position that cannot easily be dismissed and overlooked. Iran knows its regional power status will not allow it to defy Russia. Tehran’s move to ‘expand ties with BRIC states’ (thus comprising Russia; Agha-Mohammadi 2011) indicates its understanding of Russia as a geostrategically inevitable country to arrange oneself with.
And Ahmadinejad’s ‘charme offensive’ in the context of the SCO summit in Astana in June 2011, suggesting a renewed friendship with Russia and the formation of a common security alliance against ‘the West’ (The Guardian 2011) bespeaks Iran’s understanding of a relation that it cannot boldly abandon. Russia, for its part, has long put commercial interests above potential security concerns relating to Iran’s nuclear programme and seems to experience a rude awakening as it realizes a nuclear power Iran could have regional power and security implications that are not in Moscow's interests.
Russia will have to learn how to arrange itself geopolitically in Central Asia and the Caucasus with a regionally assertive Iran. Moscow, however, does not appear to be willing to officially concede any regional influence to Iran. In that regard, it is most telling that Supreme Leader Khamenei’s suggestion in January 2007 “that the two countries share between them responsibility for the future of the Middle East and Central Asia” and form “a strategic alliance against common adversaries” (in Katz 2008: 206) fizzled out unanswered on the part of Putin since “this would imply that Tehran is the equal of Moscow, at least in this part of the world”, Mark Katz (2008) reflects, and concludes: “And it is highly doubtful that Moscow is willing even to contemplate acknowledging Iran as being Russia’s equal in any sense whatsoever” (ibid.: 207).
Geographically and politically, though, a fair glance at the world map indicates the inevitability for both states to coordinate their foreign policies as the latter will more often than not have transnational implications for Central Asia. Russia and Iran both constitute power poles in the region whose status entails chance and burden at the same time. Russia and Iran share responsibilities for future directions in geopolitical dynamics in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and even wider parts of the Middle East.
All the same, conflicts of foreign policy priorities and shifting geopolitical constellations will not suddenly ring down the curtain on Russian-Iranian relations. Deliberations about Russia ‘siding with the West’ and joining the Western camp in sanctioning Iran over its nuclear programme are born out of hasty political generalizations and wishful thinking (Trenin 2006: 5-6). As this paper has tried to show, Bushesque either-with-us-or-against-us templates certainly do not do justice to a more subtle and complex relationship which is motivated by long-term and pragmatic geopolitics, differentiated foreign policy decision-making processes and domestic considerations, both in Tehran and Moscow.
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1.) A Regional Security Complex is here referred to as “a set of states/units whose major processes of securitization, desecuritization, or both, are so interlinked that their security problems cannot reasonably be analyzed or resolved apart from one another (Buzan et al., 1998: 201).
2.) In fact, even before the death of Khomeini, Soviet foreign minister Shevardnadze had visited Tehran, followed by a visit to Moscow by aides of Khomeini (Golan 1992: 51-52).
3.) In the Middle East, deliberations about the existence of a Shia crescent, covering Iran, Southern Iraq and Hezbullah in Lebanon, derive from the conception of Iran actively exerting its influence in the region as illustrated most tellingly by proxy Hizbullah acting as Iran’s Shi’ite military arm in the Levant (Cordesman 2005: 46). As has been analysed above, in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Iranian regional influence was restrained due to primarily Sunni Islam and competitive Russian influence. Persian cultural and linguistic influence was strongest in Tajikistan.
4.) Far from the security concerns of the US, commercial opportunism and the fight for economic survival of Russian industries (Russia's military-industrial complex still accounted for a third of the Russian GNP; Kennaway 1998), combined with a lack of administrative oversight and control (MinAtom chef Viktor Mikhailov signed the selling of a gas centrifuge system to Iran without informing Yeltsin (Freedman 2000: 67)) set the agenda for business with Iran in post-Soviet Russia. Plus, divergent administration voices made difficult a clear foreign policy line: defense minister Igor Rodionov warned of the security threat that Iran increasingly represented while foreign minister Primakov’s overt flirting with the regime in Tehran told another story (Freedman 1998b).