Yulia Sveshnikova, research fellow at the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” and consultant at Russian Center for Political Studies (PIR Center), sat down with IRAS some days ago for an interview about different aspects of Iran-Russia bilateral and regional ties.
What are the real capacities of Iran and Russia in collaborating against US sanctions?
“It seems that the political elites in both Iran and Russia feel even more desire to strengthen bilateral ties after CATSA was signed by President Trump on 2 August this year. This rapprochement now might pursue two goals at the same time – to play on nerves of the US by visibly emboldening alternative pole in the international structure and to diversify ways of bypassing the sanctions. The Supreme Leader of Iran at the meeting with president Putin on 1 November this year mentioned, for example, replacing dollar with national currencies in bilateral and multilateral trade exchanges, the method Iran has been already using for quite some time. Other means to facilitate financial transactions is the integration of bank card systems that Iran and Russia talked about recently. Also recently the discussion about the oil deal (“oil for goods”) between Iran and Russia – selling Iranian oil partially in exchange for goods and partially for payment made in Euro – resurfaced between the Iran’s Oil Ministry and Russian Ministry of Energy. To me, developing interaction in various spheres, especially in economic, cultural, promoting academic exchanges with a long-term vision for bilateral ties, will render a better help in tackling the US policies against both parties, than ad hoc political statements upon every such an act.”
Given US intention to violate and annul JCPOA, what are the Russian policies and tools against such violations?
“Russia insisted on many occasions that no other plan of action will be negotiated and expressed its full support for Iran and its effort in abiding the agreement, however its abilities to affect the European parties to the JCPOA are limited and same way as in Tehran, Moscow is looking at how the EU will react to the American position, which is to be presented yet after the Congress decides what to do with Trump’s decision.
“I believe the plan that will eventually be adopted in the US, is to remain a party to the JCPOA and not enter into international squabbles about it, but to devalue it as much as possible by re-securitizing Iran via its ballistic program, human rights issue and its efforts to influence the regional balance in its own favor (by supporting its allies and being condemned for it as a terrorist supporter).
“The ability of Russia to talk the European parties to the agreement into pressuring the US on this issue will depend more on the political will in the main European capitals, rather than Moscow diplomatic skills.”
What is Moscow’s expectation from Iran in dealing with West Asia and Persian Gulf crises?
“Russia took a neutral, equally remote stance since the beginning of the Qatar crisis that erupted at the beginning of June this year. Moscow maintains longstanding relations with the Gulf countries. Probably at the inception of the crisis there were hopes that Tehran’s prompt offer to help Doha combined with the support of Ankara and neutral, pacifying approach of Moscow, could in perspective help Astana process where Russia, Iran and Turkey are main guarantors. But in general, I do not think there was or is any particular expectation from Iran.”
Given simultaneous Russia’s cordial ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia, why has Moscow not decisively mediate between Tehran and Riyadh so far?
“I would not call the ties between Moscow and Riyadh cordial, neither Moscow’s relationship with Tehran. Let us remember about pragmatic orientation of Moscow and thus its according attitude towards its partners or parties it negotiates with. For various reasons, one of which is that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are major oil producers and coordination on the market is important to Russia, Moscow prefers to maintain good relationship with different regional players. Russia suggested its help in the beginning of 2016 when the crisis between Riyadh and Tehran erupted after the execution of Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by the kingdom and the subsequent protests in Iran that culminated into the attack on Saudi embassy.
“In October 2017 Russian President special representative on the Middle East issues Michail Bogdanov repeated Moscow’s readiness to become a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia – to provide a playground for negotiations as well as pass the messages, reminding that the offer remains at the tables of both our Iranian and Saudi colleagues. So probably, both parties did not see Moscow as the best possible mediator, but most likely it is that there was no decision taken to at least ask any of the volunteers to become the mediator. Recently, after the King Salman’s visit to Russia, the rumors appeared that Moscow was able to receive preliminary consent from both parties for applying its mediating skills. Let’s see how it goes.”
What are the viewpoints of Russian society’s towards Iran itself and its policies in Middle Eastern developments? With respect to the Middle Eastern crises, do the Russians believe that Iran is part of the problem or is part of the solution?
“If we talk about society in general, Russians do not think much about Iran’s foreign policy. There is not much talk about it in the media and thus, tops what people know of is the Iranian nuclear issue and the American wrath towards it. If you try to dig more about perceptions, maybe you might extract that it is a kind of pariah country with many legal limitations inside, inequality for women and limited opportunities for youngsters, or maybe that it is a country with developed handicrafts (due to limited development of industry) and more organic agriculture (due to limited import of chemical products). People basically do not have a need to raise information about Iran. So, the public opinion does not go that far to contemplate about Iran’s foreign policy. It is probably different from Iran where politicized nation watches the outside world including Russia with great attention, partially due to the coverage provided to the issues related to Russia in media. Remember the reaction of Iranians to Russia’s refusal to supply S-300 missile system after the UN SC resolution 1929?
“I think on the level of the Russian political elite, there is understanding and maybe at times sympathy to the problems Iran experiences due to the international pressure, but again decision makers in Moscow are guided by their national interest in a very pragmatic sense. So, it is believed that regional issues, like Syria, require Iran as a part of solution, and that is why now it is an active party in the Astana process. Or support for the JCPOA comes from the effort Moscow invested into resolving the issue as well as its understandable desire to maintain both global non-proliferation regime and stability in the Middle East. Therefore, in a pragmatic sense Iran is seen as a part of a solution and as a crucial element of regional balance.”
Given the majority of Iranian’s anti-Russian sentiment, what are the Russia’s soft power tools for influencing the Iranian society and amend the negative impression?
“The more I delve into this sentiment in the Iranian society, the more I see that Russia does not exert enough of its soft power to improve its image. You can see opened earlier this year representative branch of “Russkiy Mir” foundation on the basis of the University of Tehran, or our colleagues from both sides paying many visits of academic or business nature. One of its examples is our recent conference co-organized by Alexander Gorchakov Fund for Public Diplomacy and Shahid Beheshti University at the end of October. Russia supports visits by scholars to conduct lectures in Iran and our scholars publish research papers together with their Iranian colleagues, at times with support of the Iranian embassy and Russian think-tanks and research institutions. Business delegations pay visits in order to get acquainted with the situation on the ground on both sides. Apparently, all this comprises only a small share of what could be done. For example, we still keep talking about withdrawing visa regime to enhance mutual visits between the two countries. Recently Russian ambassador again mentioned the perspective of visa regime withdrawal, however Iran keeps being in the list of “migration dangerous countries” as designated by Russia’s MFA, which means tourist visa for Iranian citizens must be obtained only from Iran itself and cannot be requested from a Russian embassy in some third country. It also implies other limitations.
“However, speaking of Moscow not doing enough, we return to the question what Tehran is doing or what it is neglecting that hostility toward Russia amongst Iranians is this high that you speak of (although I believe now it is still better than several years ago)? Isn’t it too much stress on what Russia did unfair with regards to Iran and isn’t it enough effort made to explain why Moscow acted in a certain way, all this seasoned with still hurting historical memory that dates back to more than 100 years ago? I ask my Iranian colleagues, that there must be the reason why Iranian memory is so attached to the Gulestan and Turkmanchai Treaties, while none of them really defines our current needs and ability for cooperation. Maybe too much emphasis is on it in school program or some everyday narratives? So, when we combine it with the high expectation of expression of some irrational “brotherhood” from the part of Moscow in Iran, there is an explosive mix as a result. I see it as both parties still have a long way towards mutual understanding, which reconciling with the past must be a part of it.”
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