Last week, in what might be his administration’s last important foreign policy move, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concluded a major security treaty with Russia. Signed in Tehran by Interior Minister Muhammad Mostafa Najjar and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Kolokoltsev, the agreement represents a break with an old principle in Iran’s defense and security doctrines.
Ever since the 18th century when it emerged as an organized state, Russia has been a source of fear and fascination for its Iranian neighbors.
Having coped with attacks by Turkic hordes from the east for centuries, Iran perceived Russia as a new threat from the north. Several wars of varying magnitude proved that analysis right. In terms of territory, Russia became the largest empire in history. However, bordering on mostly frozen seas and thus virtually landlocked, it could not project naval power, the principal instrument of global domination. Successive czars dreamed of the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. And that meant annexing or dominating Iran.
In Iranian political folklore, Russia was depicted as a bear whose embrace, even if friendly, could smother you. Haj Mirza Aghasi, an Iranian Grand Vizier in the 19th century, insisted that Iran should neither get too close nor too far from the bear. If too close, the bear could crush it. If too far the bear could mount a deadly ambush.
During both world wars, Iran tried to stay neutral, a policy that antagonized the bear and led to invasion by Russia and its allies. The late Shah learned the art of living with the bear. While allying Iran with the Free World he also took care not to provoke the Soviet Union. Thus he would not allow Western business interests, including oil companies, to operate in provinces close to the Soviet border. At the same time, he resisted pressure to enter into security cooperation with the USSR, to allow the Soviet navy mooring facilities in the Gulf and to buy Soviet weapons on a large scale. Moscow tried to go around Iran by signing pacts with several Arab states, notably Egypt and Iraq, and establishing a foothold in Communist-dominated South Yemen.
After the Shah’s fall and the end of the USSR, the tradition of keeping the Russian bear at arms’ length continued under the Khomeinist regime.
The new Irano-Russian security pact provides for cooperation in intelligence gathering across the world and the fight against terrorism, people-trafficking, and drug-smuggling.
More significantly, it commits Russia to training and equipping Iranian security forces in crowd control and dealing with civil unrest. Tehran and Moscow are nervous about being hit by “Arab Spring” style uprisings. Under the agreement, Moscow will help Tehran create special police units patterned on the 500,000-strong internal army controlled by the Russian Interior Ministry.
Created in 1802 the Russian Interior Ministry has always been the principal security arm of the state.
Initially known by the acronym MVD, the ministry’s intelligence unit was renamed NKVD under Stalin. In 1953 it was absorbed into the security network controlled by Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s fellow Georgian and, for long, regarded as the most brutal member of the Soviet ruling elite. Under Nikita Khrushchev the NKVD was reborn as the KGB, impacting both domestic and foreign policies.
Contrary to expectations, the fall of the USSR did not spell the end of the dreaded security apparatus. It helped Boris Yeltsin crush the remnants of the Communist Party and, from 2004 on-wards, served as a ladder for Vladimir Putin’s ascent to the summit in the Kremlin. Last year, Rashid Nurgaliyev, the man in charge of the ministry for eight years, was sacked, ostensibly because he had grown too big for his boots. Nurgaliyev, who is of Muslim origin, played a key role in helping Putin crush Islamist uprisings in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan.
The Irano-Russian security deal is the latest sign that something may be changing in Moscow-Tehran relations. Last week, Iran played host to Russian warships visiting Bandar-Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz in what looks like the opening gambit for a Russian naval presence in the strategic waterway. Next week, Iran is slated to take part in naval exercises by the Russian fleet in Syrian waters around Tartus where Tehran and Moscow have mooring rights.
Ahmadinejad has always appeared keen on drawing the Islamic Republic closer to Moscow as part of his dream of a Tehran-Moscow-Beijing axis. Russia, however, has played hard-to-get, mostly because Yeltsin and, for some time after him, Putin hoped to strike a deal with the US. Yeltsin and Putin declined repeated invitations by the mullahs to pay a state visit to Tehran.
Observers in Tehran say the change in Irano-Russian relations is caused by several factors.
Both regimes are involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Both believe that the Arab Spring is the result of plots hatched by Washington under the Bush administration a decade ago. Both fear that the velvet revolution recipe for regime change could be used against them. They wish to draw a line in the sand: no more Arab Spring regime change! Moscow and Tehran regard what they see as an American strategic retreat under President Barack Obama as an opportunity. They think that, with the US out, no other hostile power has the capacity to check their regional ambitions.
Ahmadinejad and Putin also share an interest in curbing the appetite of Sunni Islamists, something that could threaten both regimes.
All in all, however, dancing with the bear would be unpopular in both countries. Many Iranians still regard Russia with suspicion while many Russians would rather see their country as part of the Western world and not an ally of a regime caught in the cobweb of time.