Russian-Iranian Relations

Background of Russian-Iranian Relations

For much of their history, Russia’s relations with Iran were characterised by economic, territorial and political aggression. Under the Shah, Iran was an important American ally in the containment of the Soviet Union. Following the Islamic revolution, relations were still difficult because the USSR was a principal arms supplier to Iraq during the latter’s 1980-1988 war with Iran.

Relations began to improve during the Gorbachev period when the Soviets sold weapons to the isolated Islamic Republic. Throughout the 1990s, the two countries found many other common interests including aiding Christian Armenia in its war with Muslim Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, resolving the1992 Tajik civil war and opposing the Taliban. Furthermore, Iran has not intervened in the Muslim-led conflicts in southern Russia, such as in Chechnya.1

Russia had become more uncomfortable with some of Iran’s activities since the election of Ahmadinejad as President in 2005. Russian officials have condemned Ahmadinejad’s comments on Israel and the Holocaust.2 Nevertheless, by 2006 ties between the two countries were so good that President Vladimir Putin said “Iran is our long-standing and, without any undue exaggeration, historical partner. Over the past few years our countries’ relations have developed increasingly quickly.”3

Why Is Iran Important To Russia?

  • Good relations ensure that Iran does not support Muslim rebels fighting the authorities in southern Russia, e.g., Chechnya.
  • Rather than having confrontations, Iran and Russia can cooperate on the exploitation of the resource-rich Caspian Sea basin;
  • In Putin’s second term, Russia has become more active in the Middle East and Islamic world, both to gain political influence and to increase trade. Russia views Iran as a regional power that could dominate the Gulf region and with which it must work. 4
  • Russia and Iran are part of an effort to examine the idea of creating a natural gas cartel similar to OPEC.
  • Iran is a large market for Russian arms and other products.5 Since 2001, Russia and Iran have signed arms agreements worth between $2-7 billion.6 Russia needs to ensure that the Iranian market remains unimpeded by UN actions. As leading Presidential candidate and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said recently when he confirmed the completion of a billion-dollar sale of anti-aircraft missiles, “Iran is not under international sanctions.”7
  • Russia And Iran’s Nuclear Programme

    One of the most important links between Russia and Iran is the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Russia took over the project in 1995. Although the complex was supposed to complete by 20038, it has still not been commissioned. Russia wants to complete Bushehr that is reportedly valued at between $800 million and $1 billion. An extra incentive for Russia to have taken on the Bushehr project was that 80% of the cost was to be paid in cash.9 Bushehr is also an important source of employment for Russians.

    Russia may have slowed down the completion of Bushehr to exert pressure on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA with regard to its previously clandestine nuclear research. Russian officials continue to question the amount of progress that the Iranian nuclear programme is making. For example, a foreign ministry spokesman recently cast doubt on Ahmadinejad’s announcement that Iran had moved to an industrial level of production.10 That Russia is unconvinced about Teheran’s ultimate goal may be surprising because as early as the 1980s Soviet officials had concerns about Iranian nuclear activities.11 In the mid-1990s, Moscow took steps to stop Russian involvement in missile design and Iranian nuclear energy activities with the exception of Bushehr.

    Russia accepts Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power but, as President Putin said, “our Iranian partners must renounce setting up the technology for the entire nuclear fuel cycle and should not obstruct placing their nuclear programmes under complete international supervision.”12 Russia has signed an agreement to reprocess all fuel from Bushehr to ensure that this fuel could not be diverted to Iran’s other nuclear programme.13 Russia also pressed Iran to sign and ratify the IAEA Additional Protocol. Furthermore, officials have also recently stated their concern about Iran’s refusal to cooperate with the UN Security Council and the IAEA.14

    As expressed in various fora, including in Putin’s recent 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy15, Russia believes that the international system should be based on a multipolar model where several dominant countries, such as Russia, provide leadership. In this model, multilateral mechanisms like the UN will have a central role in the resolution of international disputes.

    The Iran nuclear situation can been seen as test for Russia’s world view as the EU3 of France, Britain and Germany, along with Permanent Security Council members, Russia, the USA and China, are cooperating to find a solution. As Putin said in Munich, failure to resolve this dispute could mean the world will continue to suffer similar, destabilising crises because there are more threshold countries than simply Iran. – We are going to constantly fight against the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”16 For these reasons, Russia voted for the UN Security Council Resolutions that Foreign Minister Lavrov said served as enticements for Iran to resolve the dispute. 17

    The Way Forward

    Russia is anxious to resolve the Iranian crisis for several reasons. Russia needs a stable Middle East to rebuild its links to the region. Russia also wants to complete Bushehr and to expand trade with Iran. Despite the heating up of Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric, to ensure continued growth of its economy and political influence, Moscow wants to avoid any disputes over Iran with its European and North American partners.

  • Iran’s refusal to follow the UN Security Council resolutions would undermine an essential element needed to create a stable multipolar world. Iran’s rejection of the resolutions undercuts the authority of the UN in which Russia exerts significant influence because of its veto. The most recent sanctions expire at the end of May. If Teheran still refuses to cooperation, Russia will have to decide whether it can support harsher measures and alienate Iran or oppose additional sanctions and distance itself from its European and American partners.
  • The non-proliferation regime, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty, is an important part of Russia’s foreign policy.18 Failure to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions could lead other countries in the region to begin their own programs. This, in turn, could lead to a Middle East nuclear arms race that would lead to the collapse of the non-proliferation regime worldwide and an increased risk of nuclear war.
  • Military action against Iran would be a significant defeat for Russian foreign policy in the region in which it has tried to create a larger presence, in part by preventing any strong action against Teheran by the UN Security Council. Attacks against the Iranian nuclear facilities could lead to increased instability on Russia’s southern border and in the regions that produce much of the world’s energy.
  • Moscow must be concerned that Iran could equip their existing intermediate range missiles, which can reach Russian territory, with nuclear weapons.
  • An Iranian nuclear weapon would cause instability and threaten the peace in a fragile region. Whether the world follows the ideas of one or several countries, all people will be at risk when a country whose President has called for the destruction of another country can command nuclear weapons. Russia, a country with strong political and economic links to Iran, should use its influence to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambition.

    1 Carol R. Saivetz, Russia’s Iran Dilemma, P.9, Russian Analytical Digest, Research Center for East European Studies, University of Breman and the Center for Security Studies, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich

    2 Russian MFA Information and Press Department Commentary Regarding the Iranian President’s New Holocaust and Israel Remarks, Information And Press Department of Ministry Of Foreign Affairs Of The Russian Federation, 12-15-2005

    3 President Vladimir Putin, Transcript of the beginning of bilateral meeting with the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, June 15, 2006, Shanghai, on the occasion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting, Speech section, President of Russia Web portal

    4 Comments of Eugene Kolesnikov, New Showdown With Iran , March 29, 2007 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel

    5 Saivertz, opt cit. p. 50

    6 Saivertz, ibid, p.50

    7 Gregory Feifer, Russia Finds an Eager Weapons Buyer in Iran, NPR report, January 18, 2007

    8 Pavel K. Baev, The Iranian Test For Putin’s New Course, The Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 4, Issue 39, February 26, 2007

    9 Vladimir Orlov and Alexander Vinnikov, The Great Guessing Game, Russia and the Iranian Nuclear Issue, The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2005 P.50

    10 Mikhail Kamynin, the Spokesman of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Answers a Media Question Regarding the Iranian President’s Announcement of the Start of the Production in Iran of Nuclear Fuel on an Industrial Scale, Information And Press Department of Ministry Of Foreign Affairs Of The Russian Federation, April 10, 2007

    11 Vladimir Orlov and Alexander Vinnikov, op cit. P.50

    12 President Vladimir Putin, Press Statement and Answers to Questions Following Talks with President of Israel Moshe Katsav, April 28, 2005

    13 Kamynin, opt cit

    14 Kamynin, ibid

    15 Vladimir Putin, Speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy, 02/10/2007

    16 Putin, ibid

    17 Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Transcript of Remarks and Replies to Media Questions by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov Following Talks with Montenegrin Minister of Foreign Affairs Milan Rocen, Moscow, Information And Press Department of Ministry Of Foreign Affairs Of The Russian Federation, March 27, 2007

    18 Vladimir Frolov, Getting a Fair Deal with Iran, Russian Profile, March 20, 2007

    Source: REALITE-EU – affiliated with International Media Intelligence Analysis