@@ Dirty Russia as always is double-faced, but where it matters it has tilted towards the U.S. and European side @@
- From: "Arash" <A7000@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Fri, 31 Mar 2006 22:08:22 -0500
March 30, 2006
Russia and Iran: old neighbors, new rivals
The already entangled history of two post-imperial, post-revolutionary states ?
Russia and Iran ? is being complicated today by strategic competition, reports James
By James Owen
London -- Russia's relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran are undergoing a
gradual change. The last decade has been a period of bilateral bonhomie fuelled by
shared commercial interests, arms sales, common views of the threat of Islamist
radicalism, and the transfer of nuclear expertise. Indeed, Iran has in this period
constituted a crucial part of Russia's overall approach to its Eurasian ("near
abroad") neighborhood. Today, Russia is starting to see Iran as a geopolitical rival.
Russia's central role in the crisis over Iran's nuclear-research programs, currently
a matter of intense negotiation in and between the United Nations Security Council
and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is only the most visible indicator
of a relationship becoming more uneasy and competitive.
The history of the relationship has not been smooth. Russia has at various points
invaded, annexed and bullied Iran. Persia lost all its possessions in the Caucasus to
Moscow by 1828 and in subsequent decades became a mere pawn in the "great game" of
the period where Britain's protection of its interests in India collided with
Russia's ambition to have access to the Persian Gulf.
A century later, an era of separate spheres of influence broke down under pressures
of war. The Soviet Union mounted a full-scale invasion of northern Iran in 1941, and
after 1945 its refusal to withdraw from the Iranian part of Azarbaijan was one of the
cold war's opening gambits. The dispute was a portent: it helped cement a United
States-Iranian strategic alliance that was to last (with an interruption during the
Mossadegh period and the US-sponsored coup of 1953) until 1979.
The revolution in Iran in 1979, followed ten months later by the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan and a decade-long war against jihadi militants, did nothing to draw the
two countries together. It was only in the 1990s ? after the death of Ayatollah
Khomeini, the end of the devastating Iran-Iraq war, Soviet withdrawal from
Afghanistan in 1988-89, and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Union itself at the
end of 1991 ? that the Russian-Iranian relationship thawed.
The new post-cold-war, post-Soviet era transformed geopolitical realities in the
region and fundamentally altered the strategic mindset of Moscow and Tehran. The
still embryonic Russian state encountered an Iran still counting the cost of its long
conflict with its Arab neighbor. The newly-independent lands between them ? from
Armenia to Tajikistan ? were brimming with ethno-nationalist discontent; the United
States, an ideological fixation of Russian and Iranian elites alike, had emerged as
the sole global superpower. In short, the conditions were ripe for cooperation.
A blossoming relationship
Iran lacked the muscle to challenge Russian hegemony. It could scarcely influence the
secular, nation-building projects of central Asia's new republics. Iran thus
calculated that Russian preponderance there was preferable as a counterbalance to the
U.S. and a possible proxy through which to secure Iran's own interests. As a result,
it refrained from proselytizing political Islam, criticizing Russia over Chechnya, or
showing any sympathy with the Sunni, jihadi worldview of al-Qaida [al-CIA-duh] and
other Islamist groups in central Asia (such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
[IMU] and Hizb-ut-Tahrir).
Russia and Iran discovered (somewhat to their mutual astonishment) that in face of
regional instability and vulnerability to domestic separatism, that they shared
common interests and perceptions of broader threats. A honeymoon blossomed.
In the 1990s, Russia and Iran cooperated in the south Caucasus, central Asia and
Afghanistan. Iran conformed to the Russian lead on Nagorno-Karabakh, the
Armenian-majority enclave inside Azerbaijan [Arran] that was the occasion of a bitter
war between Yerevan and Baku. Together they enforced a ceasefire to end the bloody
civil war in Tajikistan. Russia and Iran also aided Ahmed Shah Massoud and the
Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The defeat of the Taliban ? whose hosting of al-Qaida [al-CIA-duh] and radical jihadi
currents sent ripple effects across the region, making it as much a threat to Russian
interests as to Shia Iran ? presented a further cause for bilateral cooperation: the
drugs trade. Russia and Iran combined to combat the trafficking networks that began
(after Kandahar's collapse in December 2001) to link Afghan poppy-fields to markets
in and via Iran, central Asia and Russia.
But the main stimulant to new bilateral cooperation was trade. The Russian desire to
sell in areas where it still produced marketable goods, and the Iranian demand to buy
(supported by high oil revenues) developed apace. Moscow has provided consumer goods,
foodstuffs, and oil and gas equipment, and has assisted Iran on infrastructural
projects. It has also supplied ballistic-missile technology, chemical and biological
programs and a range of lucrative contracts for aircraft, helicopters, submarines,
tanks and air-defence missile systems.
Most controversially, it has provided the religious oligarchy in Iran with a nuclear
reactor at Bushehr and associated fuel-services technology. On its side, the
military-nuclear nexus has served a regenerative economic function, a means for
Russia to match capabilities to great-power bravado and to redeploy Soviet expertise
in lucrative new ways (the Bushehr contract in 1995 was worth $800 million for Russia
and employed up to 1500 on-site Russian scientists).
The nuclear partnership reflects institutional forces at work in the developing
Russian state. It may have been the Pakistani scientist and proliferator of nuclear
technology Abdul Qadeer Khan who supplied nuclear material to Iran, but Russia has
also played a part in servicing Iran's nuclear ambitions. Vladimir Putin's abrogation
of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement in November 2000 (set up to ensure Russian
compliance with the non-proliferation treaty [NPT] and the IAEA) sent a defiant
message to the U.S. and underlined the importance of the profit-motive in Russian
decision-making. It also reflected the sectoral influence of the military-industrial
complex on state policy and corruption.
At the same time as these commercial and nuclear linkages were being forged, the
praetorians of the oil-and-gas sector were becoming the ascendant force in Russia.
This was an early signal that the honeymoon was turning sour.
The most evident arena of tension is the Caspian, where Russia and Iran are becoming
increasingly hostile towards each other. Moscow, which views oil and gas as both a
strategic asset and an instrument of geopolitics in this region, is at odds with
Tehran on two key points: the legal status of the Caspian Sea and the export of its
energy resources. When the Soviet Union existed, it controlled the Caspian along with
Iran under the legally-codified principle of joint ownership (entailing equality of
access and use). In an era when several new littoral states have a stake in the sea
and what lies within, Russia supports the view of Azerbaijan [Arran] and Kazakhstan
that the seabed and its resources should be divided along national lines.
Alongside the Caspian resources issue, Russian-Iranian relations are in flux over
energy pipelines. Russia's opposition to the (US-sponsored) Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and
Trans-Caspian pipelines has receded, while Iran has signed gas agreements with
Armenia, negotiated potential export terms with Ukraine, and seeks an edge over
Russia as a producer and provider of gas to Turkey.
A different symmetry
The fall of the Soviet Union provided a clear rationale for Russian-Iranian
cooperation. Russia and Iran came together in the face of common interests and
threats, and to offset United States hegemony. In this context, Russia's relations
with Iran underline its rejection of a unipolar world, its sense of itself as a
Eurasian state, and its continued avowal of derzhavnost (great-powerness). For most
of its life this relationship has been one of asymmetrical balance, involving Russian
predominance and Iranian concessions or pragmatism.
Today, an Iran more assertive since the election of Mahmood Ahmadinejad is disruptive
to that balance, and incidentally exposes Russia's deep-rooted westerncentric
Russia has pursued a careful line over the Iran nuclear controversy, but where it
matters it has tilted towards the United States and European Union ("EU3") side.
Russia, after all, cannot avoid a concern that Iran could one day point nuclear
weapons in its own direction.
Russia still holds limited influence in Iran. But the failure of the compromise deal
it offered over enrichment of uranium for Iran's civil nuclear-research purposes is a
further sign of a developing trend. The components of this long, complex relationship
may be stuck with each other, but each is looking for new partners.
* James Owen is a British agent at the Foreign Policy Center in London
(http://fpc.org.uk/advisors/). The Foreign Policy Center was recently launched by the
British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, on 17 January 2006.
23-25 Great Sutton St.
London, EC1V ODN , UK
Phone: (+44) (0)20-7608-2000
fax:: (+44) (0)20-7608-2666
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