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The winner will be who establishes relations with Iran without looking back at U.S.: interview with Alexander Knyazev

Alexander Knyazev, political analyst. Photo: caravan. kz

Alexander Knyazev, the head of the Strategic Culture Foundation, well-known orientalist, addresses Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Iran, prospects of economic and military and political cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.

The Russian leader is attending the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF). What opportunities for Moscow-Tehran cooperation do you see if we set aside all formalities?

Iran is one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, and coordination of the energy policy would be useful to both Russia and Iran. Yet it is not the only benefit for Russia. About a year ago, together with a group of colleagues we discussed the probability of a Moscow-Tehran geopolitical axis. The Russia-Iran axis as a vector of inter-state relations has always existed and will always exist. The matter is that in the light of the nowadays challenges and threats, the two countries need to bring their relations to the level of a strategic partnership. The prospects of that “axis” depend on the quality of these relations that have been developing quite dynamically recently. For a remote prospect, the sides need to keep up-to-date the issue of establishing a multipartite union/alliance (involving EEU, CU, with Russia’s lobbying for Iran joining SCO and improvement of all these international platforms) with further highly efficient functioning of the union for all the participants through cooperation, reduction of the internal competition in the strategic export sectors.

Being regional powers with a common border in rather an explosive geo-strategic area – the Caspian Sea region, and having common stances in such issues as priority of sovereignty, non-interference into internal affairs, opposing external interference into the conflicts in the Middle East and Near East, Central Asia and the Caucasus, Moscow and Tehran are actually doomed to a close political partnership. Coordinating their regional strategies, the two countries could play not only more important, but even a revolutionary role in forming a new order and relevant executive agencies in the regional politics. Economically, everything will as well depend on whether realistic comprehension of what is called “rescinding sanctions” will grow. Many still have too optimistic expectations from such a generally insignificant document as the Vienna Agreement between Iran and U.S. The country that will enhance its relations with Iran not waiting for any permission from U.S. or UN will gain.

What are major obstacles on the way to economic cooperation?

Iran’s economy is a desirable piece of cake. A day late, a dollar short. Iran and Russia do not use their economic cooperation capacity at full. For instance, they do not cooperate in the banking sector systematically, which, in turn, creates obstacles to cooperation in many other fields. A close economic partnership with Iran would be extremely beneficial for Russia’s economy, but only for the industrial sector manufacturing specific products. As for the services sector of Russia, the Iranian market is not attractive. On the one hand, Iran is interested in bringing the Russian business into the Iranian market. On the other hand, the economic cooperation with Russia is possible only within state corporations, as the Russian business is technologically backward, dependent on the Western financial organizations and not familiar with the specifics of the Iranian market.

This circumstance, in turn, shifts the economic cooperation issues to the political field where decisions not always meet the national interests of all countries. Here are a few bright examples of this: supply of S-300 missile system to Iran failed, Russia’s entry to the Iranian nuclear market has been protracted for decades, and this cooperation is being hampered continuously. Some forces in Moscow use the Iranian factor just as a bargaining chip in the relations with the West.

The major hindrance to a more intensive cooperation of our countries, if not formation of a strong geopolitical axis, is the closely intertwined issues of strategic partnership and domestic political struggle. That struggle is between the so-called Westward economic elites and part of the nationalist elites. The lobbying communities of U.S., Israel and some of their allies (the groups lobbying the interests of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have become more active recently) have reached high enough positions to influence not only the decisions of separate financial and economic groups, state corporations, but also the narrow political decisions. It is natural that U.S. and its Middle East allies will not be happy with the strategic partnership of Russia and Iran.

The West-backed lobby in Tehran has enough influence despite the known general policy of the Iranian leadership. As a consequence, many economic and political partnership projects of the two countries’ leadership face a strategic sabotage. This seriously affects the mutual confidence of the political and business elites. It is noteworthy that part of the political elite in Russia is, to put it mildly, not happy with Iran’s growing influence in the region, which does not help upgrading that confidence.

The actions of the Western-backed lobbyists in Moscow and Tehran are supported by relevant organizations, including analytical centers, security services, foreign ministries that make recommendation to the top leadership of the two countries on how to develop strategic decisions on both bilateral relations of Russia and Iran and their stances on the West. To put it in a nutshell: the current contacts of the top leaders may catalyze a rapprochement between Russia and Iran overcoming the influence of the Western-backed lobby, the external influence and others. Let’s wait and see.

Iranian officials say gas swap deals with Iran are possible. Gazprom could supply gas to the north of the country via Armenia or Azerbaijan and receive gas from the south of Iran in exchange. How promising is this initiative?

Gazprom as well speaks about this. Kazakhstan had oil swap deals to the north of Iran with further shipment in the Persian Gulf before the UN imposed the sanctions. The supplies were not large. They are considering resumption and increase of the supplies. The usual supplies and access to the Persian Gulf may appear to be little interesting for the market. In the markets of the South-Eastern Asia, Pakistan, and India, we will find only stiff competition with Saudi and Qatar companies. Meantime, our relations with these countries are inherently not easy. A project of the Russian gas swap deals would be interesting if we could reach the Iranian gas mains in the east. I am speaking about Mir gas pipeline that looks to access Karachi and Gwadar in Pakistan and the north of the country. Russian Gazprom is currently building that gas main. It will run along Karakoram highway to China. If such project were implemented by the Moscow-Tehran-Islamabad-Beijing format, we could speak of a claim for reshuffling the entire Asian gas market. There are certain problems here, the first one is security in Belujistan, but they are not as high as the ones of the widely publicized TAPI gas pipeline.

It is important to settle the problems in the Caucasus territory. It is much easier to do it via Azerbaijan rather than via Armenia – no need of transit via Georgia helps settling many problems. If such corridor is built, the issue of gas supply to Armenia may be settled through withdrawal of the relevant pipe from the territory of Iran. Armenia’s needs are not very high in terms of such a global consortium.

How much did the Syrian campaign soften the discrepancies, or more precisely, the mistrust between Russia and Iran? Can the political coordination of actions in Syria develop into a certain economic alliance?

Although the history of the bilateral relations is rather contradictory, political forces seeking rapprochement have been in power in both the countries during the last decades. The so-called “reformers” who advocate for rapprochement with the U.S. and the West, generally, dominate in Iran’s government, including President Rouhani. Fortunately, it is not them who decide upon the key strategy of the country’s development. The forces that adopt important political decisions have high expectations from the partnership with Russia and China.

For Russia, Iran was an extremely underestimated partner until recently. Iran’s place in the Russian foreign policy and the foreign economic field was “residual.” Russia used it as an instrument – argument in the conflict situation with U.S. and Europe.

Until most recently, the relations between Russia and Iran developed without a slightest hint at a strategic or at least permanent cooperation. Russia’s policy toward Iran was situational. The most recent declarations by the political leaders do not settle the problem either. Yet despite certain contradiction in the history of the bilateral relations, there have been political forces seeking rapprochement in both countries during the last decades. An efficient cooperation of Russia and Iran has frightened, if not shocked, many in the West. If everything is good in such a sensitive field as the military one, it is necessary to find solutions to less acute problems too. I am speaking about economy, of course.

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