Iran-Russia relations in historical perspective

Developing Just Leadership

Maksud Djavadov

Rabi' al-Awwal 15, 1431 2010-03-01

Special Reports

by Maksud Djavadov (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 1, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1431)

Many observers find it difficult to get an accurate fix on Iran-Russia relations. At times it appears as if Russia and Iran are strategic partners while at others they appear to be at odds. The confusion stems from a lack of proper understanding of either party. It is equally possible that neither Iran nor Russia fully understand each other or their relationship. The main reason for such confusion is that each side views the other through their not-so-great historical relationship. Misconcep-tions derived from the past, coupled with unfamiliarity with each other’s political culture, system and social environment make Russia-Iran relations vulnerable to faulty policy decisions. In order to understand why this might happen and how to avoid this scenario one must clearly outline the differences and commonalities between Iran and Russia.

The tangible and non-tangible sides of partnership

The famous 19th century Russian novelist Dostoyevsky once wrote, “To Europe we have come as beggars for a slice of bread; to Asia, however, we come as lords and masters.” Dostoyevsky’s statement perhaps best helps explain why Russia ventured into Iran, which ended in Russian troops occupying Tabriz in 1828. In the same year Russia and Iran signed the treaty of Turkmenchay based on which Iran lost the territory that today is called the Republic of Azerbaijan, to Russia. The Turkmenchay treaty has had a deep psychological effect on the Iranian perception of Russia which was later reinforced by Moscow’s support for Iran’s Tudeh Party.

During the process of Islamic revival in Iran led by Imam Khomeini, the relationship between Russia and Iran shifted from territorial grudge to an ideological battle. At first the Russia of those days known as USSR attempted to pull the Islamic movement in Iran into the communist orbit, but failed due to the sincere commitment of the Islamic leadership and the general masses’ devotion to Islam in Iran. Later the USSR attempted to create communist opposition to the Islamic government in Iran, but failed.

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia was in total ideological and social disarray. From 1990 until 1995 Russia was looking for opportunities to enhance its trade to save its decaying economy and get some backing in the international arena against the predatory forces of the West. Iran was one of the obvious choices to turn to since both were being targeted by the West politically and economically. However, in the early 90s Russia needed Iran more than Tehran needed Moscow. Iran however, was not able to see this due to the perception of Russia by many Iranian officials through the prism of the former USSR. The signing of the contract between Iran and Russia in 1995 to build the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran was an excellent opportunity for Russia to create jobs for thousands of laid-off scientists and generate much needed income. The Bushehr plant was not a political leverage for Russia back then because it still did not know its place in the global arena and was too weak to enter into any competition with the West. However, today the Bushehr plant offers strong political leverage for Russia over the West. Moscow understands that Iran is far more important to the US and its allies than Russia itself.

Today’s Russia is a Western protégé that poses no serious existential threat to Western hegemony. On the wider global level, Russia is largely an irrelevant force. However, in combination with other regional and world powers, Russia gains importance. On its own, Moscow is not a center of power; it lacks ideology, vision and the economic mustle to stimulate a global movement. Iran on the other hand is an ideological and clear alternative to the established hegemonic world order while Russia is a product of it from which Iran has opted out. Russia fully realizes this fact and uses its non-hostile relationship with Iran 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.

The political, economic and social dislocations that resulted from the collapse of the USSR are too damaging for Russia to generate an independent system of governance and survive within its vast borders. Therefore, Russia realizes that in order to stop Iran from becoming stronger the West would be willing to accommodate numerous Russian demands since Iran poses an existential challenge to Western imperialism. This pattern of thought is hard to see in the US behaviour towards Russia. At first glance it might appear that the US is implementing certain aggressive policies that are Russia-specific. Deployment of sophisticated missiles in Europe, building a missile shield and improving its nuclear arsenal are not aimed at deterring a Russian attack on the US or Europe. Russian political establishment recognizes Europe as a separate political entity and Moscow lacks strategic motives to attack the US or its allies. Russia also would not want to disturb its most stable and highly profitable energy market in Europe. The main reason for US moves that irritate Russia is to increase its own bargaining power, thereby convincing Moscow to use its UN Security Council veto in support of US interests.

At present, Moscow realizes that backing Iran provides much greater benefit than abandoning it. Russian society is still strongly nostalgic about the days when the Soviet Union was a great power and Russia enjoyed pride of place in the global arena. Today Russia is barely relevant. Therefore, partnering with Iran gives the Russian leadership an opportunity to portray itself to its domestic audience as being relevant to the most powerful nations in the world and reclaim its lost prestige. The current Russian leadership aims to revive Russia’s prestige on the world stage. However, it also knows that if it blends into the Western dominated world order it will simply be regarded as last among equals. Therefore, backing Islamic Iran and blackmailing the West with its partial support for Tehran gives Russia an opportunity to be regarded as special, because Iran is of great interest to world imperialism.

Prospects for contraction of Russia-Iran ties

Due to the West’s current policies, Iran and Russia share a large common ground for cooperation. Both have a solid base for cooperating in energy policies, trade and geopolitics. Both are also vulnerable to pan-Turkic sentiment that NATO is working so hard to foster in Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, there is a potential for Iran-Russia ties to be derailed.

The first would be if Russia decides to literally sell out to the West for economic incentives and give up its partial support for Iran against the forces of imperialism. This option cannot be completely ruled out because the Russian economy is facing serious difficulties at present. One only has to drive 50 kilometres outside of Moscow to confirm this. Another reason why Moscow might decide to sell out would be because Russia, unlike many other states, has no coherent internal system of governance. In the US regardless of any individual coming to power, certain fundamentals do not change. This is also true of Iran because there as well as in the US, governments are system- not individual-based. In Russia the opposite holds true. A quick glance at Russian history would show that from Vladimir Lenin to Vladimir Putin, Russian governments have been persona based. Once the person in power changed the strategic priorities and policies also changed. Therefore, if political personalities change in Russia, one cannot guarantee what approach Russia might take towards Iran.

The third reason why Russia-Iran cooperation might be downgraded is if Russia begins to aggressively push its ambitions in Central Asia and the south Caucasus. The fact is that Iran has legitimate interests in both that do not threaten Russia’s territorial integrity. However, because Russia sees the territories of the former USSR as its exclusive preserve it refuses to accept any partners even to resolve regional problems. Russia deliberately overstates its capabilities in the territories of the former USSR and most of the world including Iran buys into this bluff. The main reason is many states continue to perceive Russia through the prism of the erstwhile Soviet Union; Iran is no exception. The former USSR territories view Russian ambitions for restoring exclusive dominance as a real threat because they have experienced the brutality of Russian rule for many centuries. Russia as a state is greatly resented by large segments of Muslim populations in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Russia does not have credible and legitimate allies in these territories which would be required for restoring its dominance.

The reality is that the current regimes in Central Asia and Azerbaijan are illegitimate and will remain in power so long as they can continue oppressing their people. This cannot last forever and Russia will face the same dilemma it faced in Georgia after the US sponsored the so-called rose revolution toppling the dictatorship of Eduard Shevarnadze by installing its own puppets. A similar scenario occurred in Ukraineduring the orange revolution. Russia must realize that in certain cases it is better for Iran to fill the vacuum rather than the US or its NATO allies whose aim is to further disintegrate Russia for geopolitical reasons. In 2003 Iran and Russia came to a tacit agreement regarding changes in Azerbaijan; however, due to the weak foreign policy approach of the Khatami government the agreement was never taken to conclusion. Iran must, therefore, open a comprehensive and transparent dialogue with Russia over addressing its legitimate interests in places like Azerbaijan and Central Asia in order not to be caught off guard when the current systems in those regions collapse.

Prospects for expansion of ties

The Russian government realizes that in order to be a key player in the world a state needs a strong ideological foundation and coherent economic and political policies. Since Russia lacks a unique state ideology of its own, it lacks coherent economic and political strategies. Moscow is aware that building an ideology is not a simple task. It is not like devising a foreign policy doctrine; it requires a historical backing to be derived from and a strict hierarchy of moral and social values. The only thing of this nature Russia might come up with would be if it chooses to revive the Eurasianist policies based on the 19th century Slavophil ideals. This uniquely Russian intellectual doctrine is based on the principle of Russian traditionsand culture that reject individualism. The Slavophil movement shunned Western individualism and urbanization. Instead, it advocated a rural society based on the values of the Orthodox Church and Russian mysticism. Great Russian thinkers like Nikolai Gogal, Fyodor Tutchev and Leo Tolstoy were Slavophil oriented thinkers. The interesting part of the Eurasianist vision of Russia is that it sees the Russian civilization as a unique blend of Orthodox Russians and Muslims, mostly of Turkic origin. Eurasianists regard not so much Kievan Russia but the Mongol Empire as the true founder of the Russian statehood. It is also important to note that the communist movement exploited many Slavophil ideals of the Russian people to grab power.

How does this relate to Iran-Russia relations? When the USSR collapsed, Russian political elites totally capitulated to the Western model of society and statehood. However, because the Western capitalist system was exploited in the early 90s and caused vast corruption, human rights violations and crime, a large segment of the Russian society became disillusioned with this model. Many Russian intellectuals revived Eurasianism as an alternative and some saw Iran as an existential ally of Eurasianist Russia due to its Islamic system of government. One staunch pro-Islamic Iran ally was the head of the intergovernmental division of the Defense Ministry, General Leonid Ivashov. He viewed the course that the Russian leadership was taking as tragic and due to his disagreements with it, General Ivashov was forced to retire in 2001. The fact that a high ranking Russian military official was a staunch Eurasianist shows that Eurasianism has a broad support base among the Russian elite. If Eurasianism were properly supported by the Muslim world, Russia could turn into a strategic partner not only of Iran, but of the broader Muslim world. Currently Eurasianist forces in Russia are not as active as they were in the mid-90s; however, they still have a reasonable presence on the Russian political scene.

Islamic Iran should, therefore, actively pursue the revival of Eurasianist forces or at least their values in Russia in order to establish a durable partnership with Russia based on the Islamic principle of Dar-al-Sulh which the Prophet Muhammad (s) implemented during the migration of Muslims to Ethiopia. Eurasianist Russia is the only guarantee that Iran-Russia partnership can become durable and strategic.

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