Iran-Russia relations have reached an unprecedented peak, fueled by military cooperation in Syria, a shared vision of the global order, and mutual criticism of Western policy in the Middle East. Tehran is a useful ally to Moscow in a highly unstable region, but it is just one thread in Moscow’s patchwork of important relationships that need careful balancing. Moscow offers Tehran a critical means of protecting its regional security interests. However, Iran’s leadership is divided on how best to hedge bets between Eastern and Western powers to achieve the country’s strategic objectives. Despite their differences, the war in Syria looks set to be the crucible of Moscow-Tehran cooperation for some time to come, given its centrality to the strategic ambitions of both parties. Instead of pursuing policies that attempt to exploit divisions between Iran and Russia, Europe should use its limited leverage to reduce violence in Syria and, if possible, pave road for political transition later down the road. This can only happen with better understanding of the drivers of Iran and Russia's policy in the region. In that context, Jahangir Karami, head of Russia department at Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran and senior fellow at IRAS, told Khabar Online (in Farsi) about Iran's Rouhani Government achievements in Russia and Central Eurasia. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Given US-Russia relations and the Russian problems President Trump is facing at home, what policy would you recommend to the upcoming Iran's government?
"In my opinion, the next Iranian government must continue the [current] policy towards Russia, and past mistakes must not repeat themselves. Basically, the Russians should not feel that Iran has no choice but to have relations with them. Always having more options for relations and creating balance in foreign relations make Russia willing to cooperate with Iran. The issues between Russia and America have a long history, and we should not rely on them much, since there is always the possibility that this relationship, even if temporarily, be improved. To deal with the West, Iran cannot rely on relations with Russia and China.
"The importance of their relations with the West is so that they cannot ignore it. However, this does not undermine the cooperation [between Iran and] Russia on bilateral and regional issues. But the trans-regional dimensions of these relations should be viewed with caution, and the experience of the past three decades should be always considered. I think the votes of Russia and China for six resolutions of the Security Council for sanctions against Iran should be always considered by all diplomats and decision-makers for Iranian foreign and strategic policy as a result of a miscalculation and misguided thinking in the foreign policy."
How do you assess the diplomatic achievements of Rouhani's Government with Russia?
"Unfortunately, the so-called ill-conceived “Look to the East” approach under Ahmadinejad’s government led to a horrible disaster in the Iranian foreign policy, and even led to reducing Iran’s [trade] relations with Russia from about $4 billion to about $1 billion. In the past four years and since the beginning of [the rule of] the eleventh government of Iran, it was tried to stop the downward trend in commercial transactions, and there gradually began a growing trend in trade relations, and the last year, for the first time, witnessed the volume of trade [between the two countries] get closer to the years before the sanctions were imposed.
"The relations with the West and the East have found a new meaning in the new government, and in practice, it was proved that even to have better relations with the East, it was necessary to regulate relations with the West and other important countries of the world, and revive the balance in the Iranian foreign policy. After the restoration of relations between the two countries since 2013 and writing multiple contracts and creating the necessary legal, institutional and banking infrastructures, these arrangements were designed to expand relations [between the two countries] for a decade as the Iranian President visited [Russia] in April 2017. This trip, the ninth meeting of the Presidents of Iran and Russia in the last four years and the third trip of Iranian President to Russia, was done under the situation that bilateral economic and trade relations between Iran and Russia have gradually increased in recent years.
"Currently, the bilateral trade of the two countries is about $3 billion, however, a series of agreements and documents signed between Iran and Russia during this trip in the fields of economy, trade, technology and tourism show a prospect for increased economic relations up to $10 billion. On regional issues, Iran and Russia have paid attention to key issues including the fight against terrorism, regional security and stability and the Syrian crisis. On international issues, Iran as a major regional power and Russia as a global great power have common interests in trans-regional and global issues, and the Iranian President’s trip [to Russia] was done to discuss these issues, and fortunately, important agreements were achieved in many fields."
What is your judgment of the Rouhani's Government diplomacy towards Central Eurasia?
"Since Mr. Rouhani came into power, much time and effort have been spent solving the nuclear problem and returning Iran’s case from the Security Council [back to the IAEA], because sanctions resulting from those resolutions and even further sanctions were imposed on Iran by all states, including Iranian northern neighbors and other regional governments. As long as the sanctions were effective, naturally, large companies and governments in the region were not willing to seriously cooperate with Iran. Fortunately, with the agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA) and the removal of Iran’s nuclear case from the Security Council’s [agenda], the ground was prepared to restore relations [between Iran and] the countries of central Eurasia, and in the last year, the latest statistics show the improved relations. In this context, the fact that regional countries’ officials visited Tehran, and the issue of raising Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as well as the recent visits of Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif to Turkmenistan, Georgia and Kazakhstan in the late April should be mentioned. Anyway, relations with this region have started more seriously, and hopefully, the results will appear in the coming years.
"Usually damaged and contained relations resulting from the hostile policies of America [toward Iran], and carried out through sanctions are not easily repaired, but the trend that has been started is very promising. This issue may be raised that an important part of relations between Iran and regional countries is not related to sanctions, but it should be said that the psychological space resulting from sanctions and the false expectation for increased series of resolutions have also limited the opportunity to develop relations on the non-sanctions fields, and even Iranian neighbors imposed further sanctions on Iran, because for them any pressure on the country called by the Security Council –of course, unjustly— as a threat to the international peace and security, would be rewarded by the West. Therefore, we should expect the serious development of relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the countries of Central Eurasia now that the sanctions are lifted."
To comment on this interview, please contact IRAS Editorial Board