Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: Russia and Iran: Neither friends nor foes

In the emerging multi-polar world, the relationship between international and regional powers is much more complicated than readers of the major newspapers might assume, writes Dmitry Shlapentokh

Al-Ahram Weekly

The mainstream press often presents Iran and Russia as strong allies and almost an “axis of evil”. The mass media, especially in the United States, usually follows the over-simplistic narrative, reflecting views of the general public and briefings by the State Department.

In the context of this approach, the “good” guys — the US clearly among them — engage in friendly relationships with other “good” guys, whereas the “bad” guys engage in alliances with each other.

The complexity of the global picture and the pragmatic aspect of the relationships between world powers are often ignored. The West’s approach to Iran and Russia is a good example. Both the people in Moscow and Tehran are dubbed as “bad” guys. Thus all of them are seen as being strong allies and partners working in cahoots against the coalition of “good” guys.

On the surface, it appears as if Iran and Russia have common interests. First, both continue to strongly oppose the “West”. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, support of East Ukrainian separatists and the clash with Turkey, a NATO member, Russia’s relationship with the West returned almost to its Cold War position. At the same time, Iran continued to be strongly anti-Western, or at least anti-American and anti-Israeli.

Washington also viewed Russia’s involvement with Syria with either suspicion or disapproval and consequently dismissed Moscow’s assertions that its main goal is dealing with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) group.

Washington assumed — and certainly not without reason — that Moscow’s major goal was not IS but those who are fighting against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, seen here as a Moscow proxy. This certainly does not reduce the tension between Moscow and Washington.

Teheran also supported Al-Assad, and both Iran and Russia seemed to be working together to prop up the Assad regime. Iran and Russia clearly emerged as allies; at least this appears to be the case at first glance. Taking a closer look at the relationship between the two countries reveals that their relationship is hardly trouble-free and the Russian side has sent Iran various signals indicating its displeasure. The problem with oil and gas is the main sticking point.

 

PUTIN’S GRAND STRATEGY: Since the beginning of his rule, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grand strategy has been based on the assumption that the price of oil and gas would remain high and thus assure Russia’s economic well-being almost indefinitely.

This approach has recently faced serious problems. Oil and gas prices have collapsed and Moscow has had serious problems in its attempts to monopolise European markets. All of this made it impossible for Moscow to keep oil prices at acceptable levels.

As a result, Russia attempted to cooperate with other oil-producing countries to freeze oil production and in turn increase prices. Iran, however, refused to cooperate and stated that its efforts to end Western sanctions was due to its desire to sell as much oil on the world markets as possible.

While Iranian oil sales are a serious matter, Moscow would be even more disgruntled if Iran tried to send gas to Europe, the market that the Kremlin has tried to monopolise. Tehran has already explored the possibility of doing this by having talks with nearby Georgia, and even Azerbaijan, despite a tense relationship with Baku.

If this were to happen, Iran could well replace Russia’s planned South Stream and Turkish Stream, both designed by the Kremlin to deliver Russian gas to Europe from the south, but both of which have led nowhere.

 

GREAT GAME FOR GAS: The Kremlin watched nervously during Iran’s rapprochement with Turkmenistan, a state that has one of the world’s largest deposits of gas. Turkmenistan has had a decades-long dream of sending its gas to Europe via a gas line on the bottom of the Caspian Sea.

The Kremlin strongly opposed the project and, while strengthening its naval presence in the region, stated that it may declare war if Turkmenistan were to start to engage in the project. Landlocked Turkmenistan had no option but to send most of its gas to India and Pakistan.

Still, the proposed gas line would run through unstable Afghanistan and, anyway, it would be years before the project could be completed. Ashgabat’s desire to send gas to the West continues to be strong, and Iran could consider providing Turkmenistan with the option of sending gas to Europe if this was a precondition for sending Iranian gas to European markets.

None of this has pleased Moscow, and the Kremlin sent several messages to Iran to indicate its displeasure. The first was related to the delivery of S-300 missiles, surface-to-air long-range missiles that could well protect Iran from possible American and/or Israeli strikes. The original contract was signed in 2007, scrapped in 2010, and reconfirmed in 2015.

 

IRAN’S LONG WAIT FOR S-300S: There were several recent cases when both Iran and Russia proclaimed that the S-300s were either about to be delivered in the near future or already on their way to be delivered. Still, nothing came from these announcements.

For example, in December 2015, Russia announced that the delivery had been set in motion, as was proclaimed by Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin. Still, nothing has ever been delivered. By February 2016, Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan was in Moscow to discuss the delivery of the missiles and the purchase of other Russian military hardware in the future. It was implied that the S-300s would be delivered in the near future.

Almost on the very same day of the optimistic announcements about Russian-Iranian cooperation in the military realm, however, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “It is too early to name the exact delivery date for Russian S-300 air defence systems to Iran.”

In April 2016, Teheran announced that it had finally started to receive missiles. Even so, the Iranian Ministry of Defence said that it was in “the beginning phase” of delivery, and the Russian Ministry of Defence provided no confirmation of the start of delivery. On 17 April, a big military parade took place in Tehran that showed the S-300 missile. However, it was not the assembled and ready-to-be-used system — just “parts”.

The Iranians continue to be unhappy with Russia’s procrastination, and the Iranian minister of defence plans to visit Moscow soon. One can assume that the S-300 delivery will be one of the topics of discussion.

The delayed delivery of the S-300 was not the only signal that Moscow sent to Tehran. The second message was related to Syria.

Preservation of Russia’s bases in Syria was the main reason, or at least one of the main reasons, for the Kremlin’s involvement in the conflict. It is not so concerned with the fate of Al-Assad and his complete control over Syria.

Tehran has a much bigger stake in the region. By the withdrawal, or at least partial withdrawal of its forces, Russia clearly indicated to Tehran that it will not help Iran emerge as the dominant force in Syria at Russia’s expense.

All of this friction does not imply that Moscow and Tehran will be transformed into bitter enemies, but the possibility is there. Tehran could well get the S-300s anyway. Russia and Iran could be engaged in mutually profitable projects in the future, and Russia is still engaged in the Syrian war.

The point is different: Russia’s engagement with Iran demonstrates that in the emerging multi-polar world, the relationship between powers is much more complicated than readers of the major newspapers might assume.


The writer is associate professor at Indiana University South Bend, US. He is the author of articles and books on the former USSR.

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