Those following the development of Russo-Iranian relations may have been surprised by the current intensification of exchanges between the two neighbors.
Since the start of this year, the two sides have exchanged no fewer than 40 high-level official visits including some at ministerial and presidential levels. There have also been exchanges at various levels of the two nations’ top brass, albeit without a formal pattern emerging.
To highlight the new upgrading of relations, Russia has started delivering the S-300 anti-aircraft defense systems that Iran ordered and paid for almost a decade ago; ending what had been an undeclared embargo on the supply of high grade weaponry to the Islamic Republic.
Russia has also provided Iran with credit lines worth $5 billion, a largely symbolic figure but the biggest loan that Iran has ever taken from its northern neighbor. Contracts have also been signed for Russia to build two more nuclear power stations in southern Iran, dashing China’s hopes of getting a share in the Iranian nuclear industry.
In less than a year, the two sides have signed more than 30 agreements or memoranda of understanding to expand trade and scientific, cultural and sportive exchanges.
As far as Tehran is concerned, Moscow is the current favorite. The Kremlin has allowed Tehran to open two branches of the so-called Imam Khomeini University in Russia to propagate the Iranian brand of Shi’ism. Iran has also received preferential treatment in investing in Darband, Dagestan, the only Russian city with a Shiite majority.
President Vladimir Putin’s dramatic visit to Tehran, during which he ignored President Hassan Rouhani and drove directly from the airport to the office of the “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for an unusually long tete-a-tete, took bilateral ties to a new high level.
Putin had not appreciated Rouhani’s statement that the modern world was like a village in which the United States was “Headman.” It was after that visit that Khamenei declared his “Looking East” strategy aimed at “strengthening strategic ties with Russia.” He also put his foreign policy adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati in charge of a secretariat to “oversee and deepen” that partnership. The Quds Corps Commander General Qassem Soleimani, a protégé of Khamenei, has been sent to Moscow on at least two occasions to coordinate policy on Syria.
In exchange, Iran has kept quiet about Russia’s decision to ignore at least three treaties under which the Caspian Sea, an inland lake of which both nations are littoral states, is supposed to be a demilitarized zone. In fact, Russia has deployed a war fleet in the lake, using it to fire missiles at targets in Syria.
More importantly, Iran allowed the Russian Air Force to use the Shahrokhi airbase near Hamadan, west of Tehran, for bombing raids against targets in Syria. Despite some speculation that Russia was to secure permanent bases, however, the presence in Hamadan lasted no more than a couple of weeks. A small contingent of Russian military technicians is still there, just in case there is need to use the base in future. But no Russian aircraft is parked there. In the same way, a visit by a Russian military team to the Jask Peninsula, east of the Strait of Hormuz, has not led to the granting of military facilities to Moscow in that strategic outpost on the Gulf of Oman.
Being opportunist powers, both sides try to make maximum use of the opportunities provided by the US retreat under President Barack Obama. Regardless of who succeeds Obama, Tehran and Moscow are convinced that the future US administration would not do them the favor that Obama has since his election.
“Obama was a chance of a life-time,” says Nasser Hadian, a Tehran analyst. The idea is to exploit that chance to the full to consolidate their respective positions in the Levant, which means keeping Bashar Al-Assad in power for as long as possible, strengthening the Iranian position in Lebanon and Iraq, and forging alliances wherever possible.
In that context, Russia plans to join the Chahbahar trade and security “hub” project on the Mokran Coast to counter the Chinese “hub” being built, partly with Arab investment, further east in Gawadar, Pakistan.
India, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan have already joined the Iranian project, providing the nucleus of a new regional alliance where Russia could project power beyond its traditional sphere of influence.
The next step could be for Iran to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, designed to realize Putin’s dream of reviving the Soviet Empire in a new form. The Putin-Khamenei honeymoon, however, may have a sinister hidden theme. Russia has always stopped at least one step from fully helping Iran. For example, it has denied Iran access to the top notch of Russian weaponry, materiel that is routinely sold to other nations such as India or even far-away Venezuela. Underhand Russian behavior may also be partly responsible for Iran’s failure to secure a larger share of the Caspian Sea’s resources in the context of a global settlement of the sea’s status.
Even worse, it is quite possible that Russia, regarding Iran as a potential rival for regional hegemony, may want to keep it on a tight-leash. What if Putin is anxious to prevent Iran from rebuilding its ties with the Western powers for entirely selfish reasons? Right now the only card that Putin could play against NATO powers and their allies in Europe is Russia’s stranglehold on energy supplies, especially natural gas.
Yet, Iran is the only power capable of breaking that stranglehold. Holding the world’s second largest gas reserves, Iran could replace Russia as Europe’s principal supplier through two pipelines built under the Shah and ending in the Turkish port of Yomortalik.
Iran could also become the conduit for energy exports from the whole of the Caspian Basin, including through swap deals with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, shattering Putin’s dream of Russia as the sole host of the region’s pipelines.
Unlike crude oil that could be sold anywhere in the world, natural gas requires long-term contracts with fixed buyers capable of building refineries that operate for 25 to 30 years. If allowed to enter the global market in a big way, Iran could replace Russia within a decade or so, a serious blow to Putin’s dream of transforming Russia into a super-power once again.
However, developing Iran’s energy resources needs capital; lots of it. The Oil Minister Bizhan Zangeneh says something like $100 billion would be needed to start with, and over $300 billion to tap all of Iran’s resources. Obviously, only Western powers with China as a partner could provide finance on that scale. It is, therefore, essential for Russia to keep Iran away from the West, thanks to “Death to America” slogans, and away from China through the Mokran Cast “hub”.
In Persian folklore, Russia is the bear while the nursery rhyme says: “Cuddle the bear but don’t embrace him, he’ll crush you!”