by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 10, Rabi' al-Thani, 1441)
On November 12, 2019, PressTV reported that “Iran is seriously rooting for the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a huge trading bloc in the mold of the European Union which seeks to connect Europe and the Asia-Pacific.”
While many view Iran’s interest in the EEU strictly from an economic perspective, Tehran’s interest should first and foremost be analyzed through a geopolitical angle. Iran’s main strategy today is to not give the US an opportunity of driving the Islamic Republic toward an extended conventional military engagement with Washington’s proxies.
Wars generally erupt between countries with common borders. The exception of course is the US that is engaged in attacking a host of countries worldwide far away from its shores. It has established more than 800 military bases that threaten almost every country in the world. Its vast navy prowls the seas and oceans and carries out military aggression on fake pretexts. And its pliant media never tires of telling their gullible and completely ignorant people that America is a source of good.
Soon after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in January–February 1979, the US initiated a war against Iran (September 22, 1980) through its then proxy Saddam Husayn of Iraq. That war molded Iran into a full-fledged revolutionary state system, with a sophisticated statecraft. As the Qur’an says, “Fighting is ordained for you, even though it be hateful to you, but it may well be that you hate a thing the while it is good for you; and it may well be that you love a thing the while it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, whereas you do not know” (2:216).
In September 1998, the US tried to destabilize Iran by getting it entangled in a protracted war with the Taliban movement in control of Afghanistan. The leader of the Islamic Republic, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei’s prudent restraint and patience rescued the region from another US-engineered war that would have shed much blood and cost many innocent lives.
Despite its huge military, from a political, economic and military point of view, today the US is constrained from launching a war against Iran on its own. Its most reliable proxy — the Saudi regime — is also incapable of taking on Iran. However, Iran’s southern borders are vulnerable to proxy pressure through the Gulf regimes and their takfiri mercenaries. In order to ward off that US threat, Tehran needs to keep its “back” safe and secure. It appears that Iran’s strategy is to maintain calm on its borders with Central Asia so that it can have a secure logistical route while engaged in a cold-war style confrontation with Western regimes.
The Arabian regimes on the western shores of the Persian Gulf have proved willing and eager to serve as economic tools of Western regimes against Iran. Thus it makes sense for Tehran to look for securing alternative trade and logistical routes through territories and institutions not under direct US control or supervision. For Central Asian states to block and isolate Iran logistically and economically, they would need to get a green light from Moscow, not Washington. Regimes that were formerly part of the erstwhile Soviet Union fully realize that to remain in power in this region, Moscow’s blessings and support are crucial.
Since Islamic Iran has similar views on many issues vis-à-vis Russia and Western regimes view Islamic Iran as a strategic regional challenger, Moscow views Iran as a crucial leverage against NATO regimes. In 2010, Crescent International pointed out that “on its own, Moscow is not a center of power; it lacks an ideological vision and the economic muscle to stimulate a global movement. Iran on the other hand is an ideological power and offers a clear alternative to the established hegemonic world order of which Russia is a product. By undergoing the Islamic Revolution, Iran opted out of this oppressive system. Moscow realizes this fact and uses its non-hostile relationship with Tehran as a bargaining chip against the West. Russia needs economic and political concessions from the West in order to maintain itself as a functioning state within its current borders.” Over the past few years, this factor has remained constant. In fact, it has intensified due to the Russia-NATO standoff in Ukraine and Syria.
By joining the EEU, Tehran aims to capitalize on Russia’s need for Iran. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement from which Tehran and Moscow benefit economically and geopolitically. Tehran gets to trade with a region outside of the primary US sphere of influence and thus bypass Washington’s illegal sanctions, while Russia receives Iran’s assistance in deterring US hegemony in the Muslim East, where Moscow is reviving its presence by cultivating relations with regional states.
Another geopolitical benefit of the EEU is that Russia and China will cooperate rather than compete for influence in Central Asia. However, apart from Kyrgyzstan, the other regimes in Central Asia are unelected and function as kleptocracies, Beijing can at any point simply buy them over. This is Russia’s primary weakness in the region. It relied on unprincipled rulers who are only concerned about their private bank accounts.
Since the Central Asian regimes are illegitimate, autocratic, and despised by their respective populations, the EEU will not be a smooth ride. The NATO regimes will do their outmost to destabilize the region and distract Moscow from Eastern Europe and the Muslim East. NATO’s ability to destabilize Central Asia should not be taken lightly due to the historical realities of the region. In 2011, Crescent International wrote that “Russia to the Muslims of the ex-Soviet Union is what the US and Britain are to the Iranian social psyche. Muslims of the ex-USSR have not yet experienced full-scale US imperialism due to their recent geopolitical history. To most Muslims of the ex-USSR, Russian imperialism was much more brutal because it was less sophisticated. Therefore, many political organizations and segments of the society will ally themselves with the US in order to counter Russian influence. The US will gain a tactical advantage in the region because it will not need to persuade the locals to resist certain Russian policies.”
Taking the above aspects into consideration, it is unrealistic to compare the EEU to the European Union (EU). The EU is a political alliance of regimes with the same socio-political value system and societies with a similar worldview. For the EEU to reach a level of economic and political cohesion even close to that of the EU would require drastic regional changes.