The recent visit by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Moscow took place against the backdrop of a transformative period in Middle Eastern politics. The cooperation between the two countries undoubtedly reaches a new stage, as highlighted by their quasi-alliance in Syria as well as the prospective long-term economic projects at the bilateral level.
But the relations are yet to reach the level of strategic partnership, which has been their stated mutual intention for some time.
Simply put, a dynamic bilateral relationship, undoubtedly of mutual benefit to both countries, is playing out against a highly volatile regional and international environment whose trajectory is difficult to predict, where Russia and Iran, each in its respective way, are stakeholders too.
President Vladimir Putin succinctly described Iran as Russia’s «good neighbour and reliable and stable partner». During the Moscow trip, Rouhani took pains more than once to caution that the Iran-Russia relationship is not directed against any third country.
The accent is on the bilateral relationship on the economic side, where a take-off can be expected at long last if the current expectations are fulfilled, especially in the all-important field of energy. Moscow and Tehran have refrained from making unrealistic demands on each other, giving space to the other side to pursue national interests.
Putin said the talks with Rouhani showed that «the positions of the two countries are quite close on many issues of international politics». Indeed, «quite close» is not quite the same as «identical» or «similar». But then, Russia and Iran have their own specific interests to pursue in any given situation regionally and internationally while they would have common concerns where they strive to cooperate.
Importantly, there are no serious contradictions.
Rouhani said that the «ultimate goal» of Iran-Russia cooperation is the strengthening of peace and stability in the region». The two countries may not have arrived at the destination yet to proclaim that Iran-Russia cooperation is a factor of regional security and stability – and there is no knowing when that might happen – but it is nonetheless significant that Rouhani has articulated the hope.
No doubt, both countries see the fight against terrorism as a crucial template of their cooperation. Rouhani estimated that the two countries have «accumulated considerable experience in the joint fight against terrorism». While saying this, Rouhani couldn’t have been unaware that in the Middle Eastern politics, the fight against terrorism also assumes geopolitical overtones.
The heart of the matter is that both Russian and Iran are diversifying their relationships in the region. Several tracks have opened but which one(s) will outstrip the others is hard to tell as of now. To add to the complexity, some of them at least are criss-crossing each other.
Thus, Russia has a flourishing bilateral relationship with Israel, which is carefully sequesters from its regional strategies. On the other hand, Russia has been taking pains to give ballast to the ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council states also.
On the contrary, Iran is in a hostile mode vis-à-vis Israel and normalization seems highly improbable in a conceivable future. With the GCC states too, Iran’s relations are on the whole problematic and may remain so for the present.
Having said that, it must be noted that Russia has successfully brokered an oil production freeze deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is potentially the stuff of strategic congruence. Interestingly, one major outcome of Rouhani’s visit to Moscow is that Russia and Iran will continue on this track of fostering cooperation between the OPEC and non-OPEC countries for purposes of global energy market stabilization as well as to continue «meaningful interaction within the framework of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum aimed at forming a fair balance of interests of gas producers and consumers».
Quite obviously, aside the fight against terrorism where Russia and Iran are virtually aligned, each pursues own interests and objectives in Iraq and Syria. Iran and Iraq are bound together by geography, common history and civilizational bonds apart from the shared interests in regard of security and regional stability.
The democratization of Iraq and the Shi’ite empowerment in that country profoundly impacted Iran’s interests. Again, Syria’s unique importance to the so-called «axis of resistance»; the criticality of the accord reached in Lebanon putting Hezbollah in a commanding position; the stalemate in the war in Yemen threatening to be a bleeding wound for Saudi Arabia, the popular demand for Shi’ite empowerment in Bahrain – in all of these Iran has high stakes, which Russia may not share.
However, there is a significant level of convergence of interests too, as the joint statement issued after Rouhani’s Moscow visit underscores. From the Iranian viewpoint, perhaps, it does not enjoy a similar convergence to such an extent with any other big power today. The following excerpts of the joint statement alone brings out this salience:
«Russia and Iran support preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity, stand for lifting the blockade on Yemen, positively assess the Lebanon political process and express the hope for the fair settlement of the Palestinian problem».
There has been some talk lately by geopolitical analysts regarding a «Eurasian triangle» involving Russia, China and Iran. However, there is no evidence – and little likelihood – of any of these three countries harbouring any such «bloc mentality».
All three are genuinely interested in a constructive engagement with the «West» – United States, in particular. And this is where much uncertainty lies today.
Iran is exercising strategic restraint vis-à-vis the US despite the belligerent rhetoric by the Trump administration and the tightening of the sanctions. Iran takes note that Trump has backtracked from the earlier threat to tear up the nuclear deal.
Iran hopes to leverage its new post-sanctions market conditions to engage western companies. The latest $3 billion deal with Boeing Company on purchase of civilian aircraft signals that Trump administration may turn out to be pragmatic in its approach when American business interests are involved.
Equally, it is noteworthy that although there are hardly 8 weeks remaining for the crucial presidential elections in Iran, there is no sign of an American interference in Iran’s domestic politics, which has been traditionally a major cause of friction in the troubled relationship.
However, there is still the «unknown unknown» as regards the final outcome of the civil war between the two rival camps of President Donald Trump and his detractors who are unwilling to reconcile with his presidency. There could be any of three outcomes possible – Trump assertively establishing his authority and presidential prerogatives; Trump capitulating in sackcloth and ashes; or, a divided America that refuses to reconcile through the period of the Trump presidency.
The last prospect seems increasingly likely, given the acuteness of the fratricidal strife. The implications are serious for both Russia and Iran. A disoriented American presidency may engender inconsistent regional policies, which can complicate Middle East security. There is every likelihood, therefore, that the interdependency between Russia and Iran may only increase in the near term.