The significance of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Russia on March 27-28 goes far beyond the bilateral relationship. Iran is one of the main actors in Syria and Iraq. It has an importance place in the geopolitical plans of US President Donald Trump. Its relationship with Russia is an important factor of international politics. The future of the entire Middle East depends to a great extent on what Russia and Iran do and how effectively they coordinate their activities.
Less than two months are left till the presidential election in Iran. The presidential race formally starts on April 17 and Rouhani has a good chance to win. True, the country’s foreign policy at the strategic level is defined by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but the executive branch of the government led by president implements it. The spiritual leader does not pay visits to other countries but Russian President Vladimir Putin met him in Tehran last year – the second time in the recent 17 years.
This was Rouhani's first official visit to Russia and the first time he and Putin met within a bilateral framework. The trip took place against the background of growing partnership as both countries have become leading forces of the Astana process that made Iran, Russia and Turkey guarantors of the Syrian cease-fire.
True, the cooperation in Syria is of utmost importance but there is each and every reason to believe that Russia and Iran will have to join together in an attempt to settle the conflict in Afghanistan. As a regional superpower, Iran will gain much by coordinating activities with Russia in that country after the US withdrawal that seems to be inevitable. Such cooperation would become a game-changing factor with far-reaching consequences for the region from the Mediterranean to Pakistan.
The emerging triangle, including Russia, Iran and Turkey, becomes an alliance, could reshape the region. A ceasefire in Syria reached as a result of the Astana process led by the «big three» would reduce the clout of the US, the UK and France. Actually, their influence has already been diminished. The neighboring states will see that progress can be achieved without the «traditional players» representing the West.
Russia is the country that can debunk the myth that the Middle East is threatened by a «Shia threat» emanating from Tehran. It can use its close and friendly relations with leading Sunni states – Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and, perhaps, Saudi Arabia – to play the stabilizing role of mediator between the Shia and Sunni camps. Russia has a unique position to act as an intermediary between Iran and Israel – something nobody else can do.
It’ll take years to heal the wounds and mitigate the contradictions between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Today, the West does not enjoy the clout it once had there. The borders drawn by Western countries caused many conflicts; direct military interventions made them lose trust and support. Under the circumstances, Russia is not exactly an outside actor. Moscow needs peace and stability in the region. This goal can be achieved in tandem with Turkey and Iran. Iraq and Syria can join the trio after they overcome the devastating results of wars. It makes the cooperation with Tehran an issue of paramount importance for Russia.
The bilateral relationship is going to be strengthened by large-scale economic projects.
Despite the importance of foreign policy issues, the talks mainly focused on prospects for deepening trade, economic and investment cooperation, including under large joint projects in energy and transport infrastructure. More than ten major trade and economic agreements were signed during the visit. Russia has already pumped about one billion euros into Iran' railway network, with serious financial injections into bilateral projects yet to be implemented.
Exports to Iran stand at only around 1 percent of Russian foreign trade, but a trade surplus and the existence of a large market for Russian manufactured goods make Iran an important partner. The bilateral trade grew by 60 percent from $1.2 billion in 2015 to almost $2 billion in 2016.
The resumption of weapons deliveries and participation in infrastructure projects financed by Russian loans have led to the doubling of exports of non-energy products from Russia to Iran. The first batch of S-300 air defense systems was delivered in April 2016.
Russia has agreed to provide Iran with a loan of $2.2 billion for infrastructure projects involving Russian companies. It is planned to build a power plant and enhance generation at another in Iran in a contract worth several billion dollars. Under an agreement signed between the two sides, the Russians will improve efficiency at the Ramin power plant in Khuzestan province to 50-55% from 36% now. Another Russian company will build a 1,400-megawatt power plant in the Iranian city of Bandar Abbas in Hormuzgan province. Russian truck manufacturer Kamaz plans to export 300 trucks in 2017, GAZ signed a memorandum with the Iranian authorities for the supply of 900 buses.
Russia’s role in reaching the Iran nuclear deal, the cooperation in Syria and the allegiance to the policy of rapprochement declared by President Putin provide ample evidence of Moscow’s desire to boost the bilateral ties.
A momentous event to take place this year will provide an impetus to the development of Russia-Iran relations. Tehran is expected to become a full-fledged member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) this June. Iran also has expressed interest in signing a trade agreement with the Eurasian Union.
Russia and Iran are united by common goals and interests. The development of relations between the two great powers is a significant contribution into creating alternative poles of power to change the world for the better.