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Iran and Russia – Allies or Mutually Assured Acquaintances?. Print E-mail

By: Meir Javedanfar - meepas.com


Death to the Soviet Union was one of the standard chants heard over and over again during revolutionary demonstrations in Iran. After the break up of the USSR many Iranians continued to view Russia with suspicion due to historical and political differences between the two countries. Russia too viewed Iran as a potential competitor and threat to its interest due to the Islamic government's support to Muslim movements worldwide, some of whom are against Russia.

However during the last 15 years there has been a rapprochement between the two countries especially in areas of defence and scientific co-operation. Furthermore politically both governments have formed an alliance for the defence of their relationship. This was witnessed in Tel Aviv yesterday when President Putin again justified and defended Russia's relationship with Iran with the argument that this relationship is mutually beneficial and none threatening. President Khatami of Iran has done the same on numerous occasions.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that both countries do not have much in common and thus would have no reason to support each other as they are currently. Iran is an Islamic Republic who claims to champion and defend the rights of Muslims worldwide. Therefore why is it awarding billions of dollars of contracts to Russia who at times it accuses of mercilessly murdering thousands of Chechen Muslims?

At the same time Russia has been competing with Iran over influence in Caucus region for the last 15 years. Islamic movements are viewed as a threat against Russia's interests, especially Iran's as in the past the Iranian government has supported anti-Russian movements. Therefore why is Russia who is trying to develop its economy through increased investment from Western companies risking the ire of many Western governments over its defence and scientific cooperation with Iran? Logic would suggest that better relations with the world's wealthier Western nations would be far more rewarding than military and scientific relations with Iran.

meepas© will answer the aforementioned questions through the following two part analysis. The first part will examine Russian motivations and aspirations for relations with Iran. The second part of the analysis to be released on Monday May 2 nd addresses Iran's ambitions for its relations with Russia.


Iran's relations with Russia from 1790 – 1990 can be described as suspicious, difficult and at times hostile. Many Iranians still have not forgiven Russia for what they consider as stealing parts of the Caucus which used to belong to Iran. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution Russia (which later became the USSR) continued to be a source of suspicion and hostility for Iran. This was due to the fact that to many Iranians (majority of whom are Muslims) Communism with its agnostic philosophy is an infidel ideology which Russia was using as a tool to spread its influence in the region. Furthermore Russia's support of Iran's arch enemy Iraq heightened Iranian suspicion, plus the fact that Moscow actively supported subversive Communist movements in Iran since the 1950s.

As a result both the regime of the Shah and later Ayatollah Khomeini took extensive measures to repel Russian plans to intervene in Iran's affairs. The Shah did this by investing heavily in Iran's armed forces and by aligning himself with anti-Soviet pro-western regimes in the Middle East such as Turkey and Israel. To show that Iran meant business in the defence of its territory the Shah ordered Iran's Air Force to shoot down intercepting Soviet planes. In 1976 at over 50000 feet Iran's newly acquired F-14 aircraft shot down a Soviet BQM-34E drone flying illegally over Iranian territory thus putting an end to all illegal Soviet aerial activity over Iran.

After the 1979 Islamic revolution Ayatollah Khomeini ensured Russian ambitions in Iran are kept in check by arresting and even executing almost all of Iran's Communist ‘Toudeh' party. Furthermore the new religious regime in Tehran also provided assistance to anti-Soviet Afghan Mujahedeen forces.

Change in Russian political landscape

The fall of Communism brought new realities. Gradually and one by one countries which were ruled from Moscow started to break away. First Eastern European countries, then the Baltic states followed by the Eurasian ‘Stan' states such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and others. Economic problems also weakened Russia's position as a super power as it no longer could afford to run its massive arsenal of aircraft carriers, long range bombers and military bases around the globe.

Despite its problems Russia did not give up on its ambition to remain an important player in the international arena. As a result it started to look for new alliances. However this time due to changing economic priorities and the change of political landscape (away from Communism) Russia looked at new candidates. The criteria this time attracted Russia towards countries that would provide Russia with immediate economic benefits. Furthermore the post USSR Russian foreign policy moved Russia towards the direction of countries whose relationship can provide Russia with new spheres of influence in a world becoming more and more dominated by the US.

Islamic Republic of Iran was the perfect candidate on both accounts. Boycotted by the US and battered by eight years of war against Iraq the Iranian economy was in the search of new technology providers especially in the spheres of energy, transportation and military. Free of its Communist image Russia became a more acceptable ally to Iran. Therefore after many years of chanting “Death to the USSR” on the streets of Tehran, one year after the break up of the USSR in 1990 Iran concluded a deal for the purchase of state of the art Russian MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum' and Sukhoi 24 ‘Fencer' fighter aircraft. This was followed by purchase of diesel submarines by Iran for its Navy in the Persian Gulf.

Iran was such an enthusiastic customer for Russian goods that it started buying Russian Tupelov-154 and Yakovlev-42 passenger aircraft at a time when Russian and Eastern European airlines were busy ridding themselves of such antiquated low performing aircraft and replacing them with new Boeing and Airbus planes. Furthermore Iran also became a new destination for the export of Russian know how, both in the military and energy production fields. This was a good opportunity for Russia to earn extra revenue from exports whilst providing jobs for its legions of unemployed scientists.

Since coming to power President Putin has followed a policy of consolidating Russian political and strategic interests. This has become a more urgent priority recently as Russia is feeling the noose of American and EU expansionism tightening in its backyard.

Ukraine is one example where Russia lost an important ally (Viktor Yanukovich) to the US and European backed candidate Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's elections. Furthermore America's growing relationship with Azerbaijan who is at dispute with Russia's ally Armenia is also a source of concern for President Putin. Meanwhile America's improving relationship with Georgia is also viewed as a threat against Russian interest as Georgia is currently involved in a military dispute with Russian backed South Ossetia. Furthermore the inclusion of many former Easter European allies in NATO has further heightened Russia's sense of isolation.

Therefore unlike the Yeltsin era, President Putin has placed Russian political and strategic consolidation as number one priority whilst the economy has taken a second position. This can be witnessed today through Putin's fight against powerful Russian oligarchs many of whom were viewed as essential players for the progress of Russia's economy during the Yeltsin era.

Based on this observation of President Putin's strategy it is forecasted by meepas© that Russia's relations with Iran is here to stay and will in fact strengthen in the future.

This forecast is based on the hypothesis in a world which is becoming more and more concerned about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, President Putin's close relationship with Tehran is a very sought after commodity especially by Western governments. As Russian political and strategic consolidation is President Putin's priority, he will use his relationship with Iran to extract political and economic concessions from the West in order to consolidate Russia's position in the international arena. This is something which his relations with the West can not provide as most Western countries are viewed as competitors to Russia's strategic position. Thus explaining why Moscow is currently risking the ire of Western governments over its relationship with Iran.

At the same time Iran's relationship with Russia also serves President Putin's priority number two which is Russia's economy, especially the expansion of the employment intensive Russian manufacturing sector. Therefore the argument for

relations with Iran are becoming more valid as Tehran continues to be one of the biggest markets for Russian heavy engineering products. This was witnessed recently when Tehran signed a new agreement for the purchase of 25 TU-204 passenger aircraft, making it the biggest customer for the type. This is alongside other recently signed contracts for the energy sector which add to Iran's attraction as a suitable Russian ally.

To conclude Iran's strategic fit in Russia's economic and foreign policy plans will serve to consolidate Tehran's position in the eyes of the Kremlin for the foreseeable future. This is a fact which Western governments must take into consideration when analysing Russian foreign policy and political strategy.

The next section of this analysis which will be released on Monday May 2 nd will address Iran's motivations and aspirations for its relationship with Russia.

For the last 15 years the Iranian government has made improvement in economic and political relations with Russia into a sustained policy. As a result Russia is now one of the main trading partners for Iran supplying billions of dollars worth of transportation, energy and military equipment and know how to Tehran. Furthermore the Iranian government now counts on Russia as one of its main supporters in the international arena. This is illustrated by the fact that both Presidents Putin and Khatami defend their bilateral relationship time and again during foreign visits and at home.

The newly formed alliance flies in the face of official Iranian government policy as the Islamic Republic of Iran's foundations are built on protecting Islam and Moslems in Iran and worldwide. So why is the regime in Tehran strengthening relations with Russia whom it has accused of “mercilessly murdering thousands of Chechen Muslims”? Furthermore Russia and Iran are both major competitors for influence in the Caucus region, therefore why is the government in Tehran assisting another country which is a political and economic rival?

Part 1 of this analysis examined Russian motivations for relations with Iran. This analysis by meepas© will address the Iranian government's motivations for improved relations with Russia whilst forecasting its impact on Iran's foreign policy.

New realities and necessities

Iran of 1989 was a different country to the revolutionary Iran of 1979. After fighting the world's longest conventional war (lasting eight years) Iran was in need of new suppliers for the reconstruction of its cities, economic infrastructure, armed forces and its international relations. At the same time the US embargo was hurting the Iranian economy as it reduced investment and technology supplied to Iran. Meanwhile with falling oil prices and a war damaged oil infrastructure the oil sector could not provide the energy requirements and jobs for the hundreds of thousands of young unemployed Iranians. Therefore new equipment and technology suppliers were needed to diversify the economy in order to create new jobs and energy resources.

The changing strategic landscape of the region was also becoming another risk. Iran's sense of isolation was heightened upon the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq which lead to the arrival of the much despised US armed forces right at Iran's doorstep. With depleted military resources the Iranian government decided that Iran's military infrastructure needed to secure the purchase of new equipment, especially tanks and aircraft. The Iranian government also decided that Iran's own military industries needed to develop its own capabilities in order to reduce reliance on foreign suppliers. However foreign assistance was required to start the project. This was a painful lessons learnt after the war against Iraq, due to the fact that the US military embargo against Iran badly reduced the performance and capability of Iran's armed forces.

Another area of focus for the Iranian military strategists was Iran's non conventional capability. After witnessing the international community's almost indifference to the use of chemical and biological weapons by Saddam against Iranian forces and Iraqi Kurds, Iranian strategists decided to develop Iran's non conventional capability. This was part of a three fold strategy. The first part consisted of using the non conventional option to create a defensive umb rella . This defensive strategy is almost a carbon copy of the Soviet strategy used to deter an attack from the US, based on the realisation that the current conventional capability is inferior to that of the potential aggressor.

The second goal of the non conventional strategy consisted of using the non conventional option to advance the Iranian government's offensive capability should it choose to exercise that option in the next conflict. The third part of the strategy was to use nuclear energy to replace oil as a source for local energy production. This capability would therefore allow oil to be used almost exclusively for export purposes.

Changing priorities

In a famous speech towards the end of the war against Iraq in 1987 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is said to have told to a gathering of Iran's ambassadors “today Iran is so isolated that we can count the number of our friends on one hand. It is your job to change that”. The consequences of Iran's anti East and West foreign policy chanted every morning by hundreds of thousands of Iranian students “no to the west, no to the east, yes to the Islamic Republic” was hurting the Iranian economy and military capability as it prevented any military or technology import from the US or the USSR. After the end of the war against Iraq and the end of Communism in the ex-USSR Iran found a more acceptable ally in Russia. This was due to the following political and economic advantages which Russia could offer to the Islamic regime:.

•  High quality weaponry which Iran could use to replace its depleting stock

•  New (and old) equipment for Iran's transportation sector

•  Know how and equipment for Iran's nuclear energy programme (which Iran used indirectly for its weapons manufacturing programme).

•  Backing to Iran's plans to reduce American influence in the region

•  Political support to Iran in international organisations especially the UN where Russia is a permanent member of the security council

As discussed in the first part of this analysis Moscow also gained from its relationship from Tehran, therefore the alliance between Tehran and Moscow has strengthened over the last 15 years.

According to meepas© the Tehran-Moscow relationship is forecasted to strengthen further as relations with Russia provide Iran with secure access to the supply of technology it needs for important parts of the economy such as the transportation, energy production and the military production sector. More importantly Iran is forecasted to strengthen its relations with Russia due to the fact that Tehran continues to be isolated by the US and parts of the EU due to its nuclear programme and support of terrorist groups in the Middle East. However relations with Russia who is a member of the G8 and a permanent member of the Security Council reduce Iran's isolation in the international community. This factor provides the Iranian government with crucial political capital when it comes to dealing with international issues. Therefore as relations with the US and the EU are expected to worsen due to the questions surrounding Iran's nuclear programme, Russia's importance as a gateway out of isolation for the Iranian government is expected to become more and more important to Tehran.

Implications for the future

Iran's relations with Russia will have a number of implications for the region. The most notable is Iran's posture towards the US. Emboldened by the political backing it receives from Moscow in the defence of their relationship Tehran is expected to continue its hard line stance against the United States. The recent anti aircraft missile deal with Syria by Russia is further sign that there are other countries outside the region (i.e. Russia) which also like to see Israel's military superiority reduced. This factor, plus Iran's own growing military capability will give further confidence to the continuation of Iran's anti-Israeli stance in the region. The form of this stance is likely to include continuation of anti-Israel propaganda and extension of financial and military support to anti Israeli groups in the region such as Hezbollah.

Iraq is another area which is likely to be affected as a result of the growing Iran-Russia ties. Covertly (i.e. Russia) and overtly (ie. Iran) would both like to see the departure of US forces from Iraq as soon as possible. Russia can not actively and directly encourage this as economically it would have too much to lose. However as the Iranian government has very little economic ties and no political relations with Washington therefore it has little to lose by assisting anti-US forces in Iraq. Therefore although Russia does not support Iran's subversive activities in Iraq, it is very likely that Moscow's military and political support to the government in Tehran will embolden the Iranian government to continue with its anti-US rhetoric and activities in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

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