Russia and Iran: Strategic Partners or Competing Regional Hegemons? A Critical Analysis of Russian-Iranian Relations in the Post-Soviet Space

By Moritz A. Pieper
2012, Vol. 4 No. 04 | pg. 1/2 |

Russia and Iran have a long history of being geographic neighbours, rivals, competitors and partners - a history which has coined mutual expectations, stereotypes and interactions. Still present in the Iranian collective memory, Tsarist Russia expanded territorially into wide parts of what had hitherto been part of “Greater Iran” in Central Asia and the Caucasus. That way, Tehran lost Tbilisi and Baku to Russia in the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan and the khanates of Yerevan and Nakhichevan in the 1828 Treaty of Turkmanchai (Katouzian 2009: 144) - a historic disgrace which not only took from Iran important former politico-cultural spheres of influence but also granted Russia an exclusive navigation and trading right in the Caspian Sea.

While the 1921 Soviet-Persian treaty later conceded Persia an equal navigation right in Caspian waters, it maintained the Russian-Iranian borders defined by the 1828 Turkmanchai treaty. At the turn of the 20th century, Iran had irretrievably fallen behind the imperialist Great Powers and was subjugated into a de facto quasi-colonial dependence, being divided into a Southern British and a Northern Russian sphere of influence by the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907 (Kinzer 2010: 21), an imperial division which in effect survived as a Soviet-British occupation into the Second World War.

This sense of domination and humiliation by the Russians set the tone for the frosty post-WWII relations between Iran and the Soviet Union and the closer leaning of the Shah towards the US (Katouzian 2009: 277f.). The Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the establishment of a Shia Islamic, anti-imperialist theocracy raised hopes of a closer Iranian-Soviet cooperation that were soon dashed with Khomeini famously aligning himself neither to the West nor to the East (Ramazani 1989: 208).

Relations deteriorated when Iran on 11 May 1979 unilaterally annulled articles of the 1921 Soviet-Iranian treaty providing safeguards for mutual neutrality in case of third party aggression (Parker 2009: 8); the same year in which Moscow invaded Afghanistan, Iran’s neighbour. Likewise, during the Iran-Iraq war starting the next year, the Soviets pursued an ambiguous policy of providing both sides with weapons (as did the US), but began to supply more weapons to Iraq after 1982 (ibid.: 14).

In the long-term Cold War logic of thinking in proxy arrangements and spheres of influence, however, Moscow still hoped to establish ties with the Iranian regime, fueled by the latter’s fervent Anti-American rhetoric (Golan 1992: 47). Slowly, pragmatic voices even in Iran argued for economic and military cooperation with the USSR as from the second half of the 1980s, domestically opposed, however, by the religious fundamentalists, who did not consider collaboration with the atheistic communists a viable option (Katouzian 2009: 344f.).

Against this background, this paper to analyzes how the collapse of the Soviet Union constituted a window of opportunity for a re-start in Russian-Iranian relations. It will thereby be shown how the 'new Great Game' over spheres of influence in Central Asia between Iran and Russia that many observers had suspected was limited in practice by certain politico-pragmatic factors.

Applying the concept of a 'Regional Security Complex,' it is revealed how Russian-Iranian relations have a significant impact on Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the wider Middle East. With a view to Iran's recent flexing of muscles as an assertive regional power pursuing a nuclear programme that causes headaches not only to Western policy-makers, it will be analysed to what extent Iran is becoming or already is a regional hegemon that strains Russian-Iranian relations and challenges Russia's geopolitical power status.

Russian-Iranian Relations After the Soviet Union: Expectations of a New 'Great Game'

 With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the former Central Asian Soviet republics grouped themselves together in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose confederation in which Russia quickly emerged as the still predominant bloc-leader. Central Asia and the CIS in particular in a post-Cold War setting thus had become what Buzan and Waever (2003) call a Regional Security Complex ‘centred’ around the regional hegemonic power Russia (423f.).1

Fearing Russian neo-imperialist hegemonic ambitions with regard to the Collective Security Treaty of the CIS, Moldova, Ukraine and Turkmenistan did not sign at all, while Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia left the Treaty later on (Sakwa 2002: 388f.). Officially embracing multilateralism in a new historic era, Russia’s rhetoric of fervently clinging on to what it called its ‘near abroad’ spoke volumes about Moscow’s sense of loss and intention to defend its influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russian interest in the region is to be explained by its self-perception of a global power: the inter-regional dimension becomes a reflection of Russian global influence.

The rationale was to “avoid falling [from global] to regional power status” (Buzan (2003: 435). As Iran was sensing its chance of historic irredentism and spread its influence especially into its Azeri North now that the Cold War was over (Golan 1992: 53), many had expected a shift in geopolitical constellations, with Central Asia becoming a battle arena for a ‘new Great Game’ between Turkey, Iran and Russia (Buzan 2003: 423).

This, however, did not take place as expected, mainly due to the restrained behavior on the part of Turkey and Iran, as Rafsandjandi was sensing the secular impact and alienation from Muslim Iran that seventy years of Soviet rule had had on Central Asian republics (Freedman 1997: 101; Yazdani 2009: 61). Moreover, that the Iranian Islamic missionary role after the Cold War came off less strongly than many had expected was also due to the Sunni-Shia divide in Central Asian and Caucasian countries preventing an easy unification of Muslim states in the region and putting a damper on Iran’s Shiite missionary zeal.

Iranian missionary efforts and historic irredentism were complicated by a number of regional ethno-cultural particularities and nation-building attempts in the newly independent countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus that had a different focus than “cultivating religious consciousness” (Herzig 2004: 511).

In a mixture of realization of these ethno-religious givens and a pragmatic waiting position not to challenge post-imperial Russia, Iran did not recognize the proclaimed independence of Azerbaijan in November 1991 until after the USSR was officially dissolved in December (Freedman 2000: 69). Gradually, however, indirect competition over spheres of influence in Azerbaijan and, even more so, over Tajikistan became acid tests for the new Russian-Iranian relationship after the Cold War (Scholl-Latour 1998: 463).

From Tehran’s perspective, these territories were part of historical “Greater Iran”, while Moscow claimed a patronizing grip over what it regarded as its “near abroad”. Iranian influence ranged from investing in building new mosques in Uzbekistan (Yazdani 2009: 65) to more overt financial support of Islamic groupings. Especially the outbreak of the Tajik civil war in 1992 developed into an indirect battle arena for clashing regional interests, with Iran financing and supporting the Tajik opposition fighting the Moscow-backed President Rahmon Nabiyev (Gretsky 1995: 16f.).

It was under the impression of renewed US pressure as testified by tighter containment and isolation attempts against Iran and the first prospects of NATO enlargement in 1993 that Iran considered closer cooperation with Russia on Tajikistan and other issues such as drug trafficking. Tentatively, Russian foreign minister Kozyrev spoke with his Iranian counterpart Velayati of “strategic partnership” between Iran and Russia to end the destabilizing situation in Central Asia and the Caucasus (Hunter 2010: 111).

Especially pragmatic talks in Tehran of special emissary Yevgeny Primakov and his more assertive tone in Russia’s foreign policy as foreign minister as from 1996 set the tone for closer Russian-Iranian cooperation in Central Asia. Rapprochement with Tehran was largely motivated by pragmatic geopolitical reasoning: Good relations with Tehran were deemed to be crucial in common security concerns such as the staunch of Sunni Islamic extremism (Parker 2009: 101).

In Iran domestically, the pragmatists and reformers seemed to have gained the upper hand after former Majlis speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had been elected president in August 1989 after the death of supreme leader Khomeini in June the same year.2 Under Khatami, Iran even began discussing security issues such as the rise of the Taliban in neihbouring Afghanistan with the US through the Six plus Two format (comprising Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Pakistan (Afghanistan’s neighbours) plus Russia and the US), a format gradually giving way to the 2000 Geneva Initiative (Parker 2009: 181) consisting of Iran, Italy, Germany, the US and the UN (thus bypassing Russia as a direct mediator).

Iranian-American rapprochement, circumventing Russia, meant an alarming signal to Russian regional power status. The more so after the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001, when the formal Moscow-Tehran alliance, united in the desire to prevent the spread of Taliban Sunni extremism, gradually severed as both sides had their own visions of a post-Taliban Afghanistan and especially, as from 2003, of a post-Saddam Iraq. Russian-Iranian relations deteriorated when Putin approved of US-American air bases in Central Asian republics for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Kazantsev 2008: 1081), a move hardly agreed on with his Iranian counterparts.

A Regional Security Complex Between Iran and Russia

However short-lived, pragmatic and quickly shifting some of their common interests were, it becomes clear that important regional security issues always involve Russia and Iran at the same time. This holds true for the impact of Russian-Iranian geopolitical arrangements with regard to Central Asia, the Caucasus, and even the wider Middle East, if we remind ourselves of Russian-Iranian cooperation and overlapping interests on issue areas such as Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, common Russian-Iranian support for the Armenians in frozen conflicts such as Nagorno-Karabakh, drug trafficking or the US military presence in Central Asia (Freedman 2000: 77).

Especially Central Asia and the Caucasus are regions in which Iran and, historically even more, Russia heavily exert influence. During the Cold War, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East had been perceived as part of the great chess board in the US-Soviet superpower rivalry in which financial-logistical support to allies and regional proxy arrangements were meant to uphold exclusive spheres of influence in crucially important world regions. Soviet support, i.a., to Nasserite Socialist Egypt and the Muslim Socialist Ba’athist regimes in Syria and Iraq (Primakov 2009: 57f.) were to be seen in this context of superpower proxy arrangements and presented an illustration of external power penetration into the Middle Eastern Security Complex.

The end of the Cold War meant an end to (overt) superpower penetration into the Middle East RSC, so that the “main inter-regional link now goes via the newly independent republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia” (Buzan and Waever 2003: 433). Freedman (2000) even formulates: “Russia has tended to view the Middle East through the lens of its policy toward Central Asia and Transcaucasia” (65). In this sense, the Caucasus and Central Asia fulfill a crucial insulator function to the Middle Eastern Security Complex in the eyes of Russia, and vice versa. Buzan and Waever (2003) characterize the Central Asian region as one where “security problems are generally more transnational than interstate” and as one which “is relatively open to penetration by external powers” (426). They therefore call it a “subcomplex within the post-Soviet Regional Security Complex” (423).

Russia and Iran both see themselves as regional powers that traditionally claim and exert influence over partially overlapping space. By the mid-2000s, however, it had become clear that the post-Cold War geopolitical clash between Iran and Russia (the 'new Great Game') had not taken place to its suspected extent. Instead, bilateral relations had proven to be motivated by a pragmatic approach of cooperation on transnational issue areas of common concern.

Iran's Regional Policies as a Reflection of Geopolitical Parameters

Iran’s renewed interest in regional policy in the 1990s stemmed from the recognition of the power vacuum in the region the collapse of the Soviet Union had created and the willingness to make use of Iran’s location as a geopolitical hub. Renewed ties to other regional powers via infrastructure projects, energy cooperation and trade promotion with Central Asian and Gulf countries were born out of the awareness of Iran’s international isolation and Rafsandjani’s attempt to ‘liberalise’ its foreign policy and a pragmatic functionality with the realization that regional interdependence is inevitable to a country’s power status (Herzig 2004: 508).

Well knowing that the rationale behind the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had been the formation of a Gulf country alliance against a possible threat from Iran, the regime in Tehran undertook efforts to join the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and gain observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Arab League (ibid.: 505-07) and proposed the creation of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO; Collins 2009: 259) and a Caspian Sea Cooperation Organization (CASCO) as regional confidence-building measures (and in the latter case, arguably, to secure it a say in the Caspian oil field delimitation quarrel among the littoral states).

All these factors combine to the impression of Iran committing itself to regional organizations and establishing ties with other countries so as to scatter the perception of an assertive power vacuum-filling in the wider region.3 These observations, however, need not be overstated: “Iran’s actual engagement in multilateral regionalism remains minimal”, Herzig (2004) reminds us, and interestingly notes: “Iran lacks the political and economic resources to become a regional hegemon in its own right, and is effectively excluded by both geography and ideology from the main western- and Russian- sponsored regional initiatives” (516).

It is this assumption that the next section turns its attention to. Against the background of Iran's more recent flexing of muscles, the regional hegemony question is worth being revisited with a view to the country's nuclear programme and especially to the rhetoric of the Ahmadinejad administration, which in 2005 replaced the more liberal Khatami façade by an explicit hard-line foreign policy, backed by the religious fundamentalist establishment.

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