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Russia-Iran: Difficulties and prospects of partnership

November 2017 has seen another example of the progress that has been observed in the Russian-Iranian relations since the signing of the deal on Iran’s nuclear program in 2015: last Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a working visit to Tehran. However, most experts in Russia and Iran are inclined to believe that it is yet too early to speak about strategic partnership between the states.

Putin came to Tehran to attend a Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran summit, but foreign observers covered mostly the Russian-Iranian contacts. First of all, Putin was the first foreign president to visit Tehran after the presentation of the United States’ “new Iran strategy”: in mid-October, President Donald Trump refused to ratify the Iranian nuclear deal and instructed the Congress to revise it and to toughen the U.S. sanctions against Iran. The congressmen were quick to respond and on Oct 25-26, they adopted sanctions against Iran’s major Middle East ally, Hezbollah, and against Iran’s missile program.

Right before Putin’s visit, the Americans approved a new package of sanctions against Russian energy companies.

On Nov 1, Iranian mass media quoted Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour as saying that Putin’s visit was a “message” to Donald Trump, who is going to kill the nuclear deal. “The meeting between Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan Republic would send a message to Americans that the regional countries are expanding their relations and not paying attention to what they say,” Rahimpour said.

Thus, the Russian and Iranian leaders were meeting amid growing pressure from the United States and therefore, were expected to consider joint aggressive countermeasures, like forming a military and political alliance. But experts believe that confrontation with the United States is not a sufficient basis for such an alliance.

During his meeting with Putin on Nov 1, Ayatollah Khamenei suggested isolating America and nullifying its sanctions, but that suggestion was better in form than in content. The point is that in the coming decade, Iran will hardly be able to replace the West for the Russian business, especially as despite their bad relations with the United States, the Russians still have quite good economic contacts with Europe but if they do as Khamenei suggests and decide to boycott USD, they may lose the European market.

In their turn, Iranian experts admit that their authorities’ statements that Iran is self-sufficient and survive the global sanctions are nothing but propaganda.

The Russians had better not get involved in this game, especially as the Iranians have made it clear that they will hardly have strategic relations with them.

The only way for the sides to attain strategic partnership is to be consistent in developing their economic ties

The “locomotives” that can boost those ties are nuclear energy, oil and gas, machine building and related fields.

Nuclear energy and oil and gas were the key topics during Putin’s visit to Iran. On Oct 31, the heads of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and Rosatom gave start to Bushehr 2 (1).

On Nov 1, Rosneft and NIOC signed a roadmap for strategic oil and gas project worth a total of $30 billion. According to Rosneft, this will be a platform for strategic cooperation and within a year, the sides will come up with specific joint projects.

This roadmap concerns not only oil and gas extraction but also swap operations, oil and oil product supplies, personnel training and modernization.

In other fields, the Iranians prefer partners from the West even despite high sanction risks. For example, they have stopped buying Russian Sukhoi Super Jet 100s from Russia and have given preference to Airbuses and Boeings (especially as SSJ 100s are vulnerable to sanctions as some of their components are produced in the United States).

The same is true for the military-technical cooperation. On July 20, 2015, the UN Security Council imposed a five-year embargo on arms supplies to Iran. So, the Iranians have time till 2021. In August, there were rumors that Russia had refused to supply 18 Su-35s and 6 Su-30SMs and offered instead Su-27SM3. The Iranians are said to have rejected the offer. The Russians’ arguments were the presence of sensitive technologies in the production of Su-35 and Iran’s inability to pay for them in hard money.

The Iranians are actively developing their defense industry, but they are short of warplanes, especially if compared with the air fleets of the Gulf monarchies. They have a lot of aid defense systems and ballistic missiles but without a strong air fleet, they will not be a true regional power.

Syria might have become a starting point for Russian-Iranian strategic partnership but here too, things are not as simple as they seem to be.

Iran, together with Turkey, opposes Russia on the Kurdish problem. The Russians support the Kurds’ right to have a role in Syria. For example, they realize the need to involve the Syrian Kurds in the Geneva talks on Syria. Recently, the Kremlin appeared with an initiative to convoke a congress of Syrian nations (a Syrian National Dialogue Congress), where the Kurds will have a vote on Syria’s future.

The Iranians do not like this, especially the fact that the Russians are not fighting back the U.S.-sponsored Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces from Deir ez-Zor, while the Americans are actively attacking the Syrian army and its pro-Iranian allies. They are so eager to keep the Syrian army off the east of Syria that sometimes, they even use ISIL for this purpose.

The Iranians are not showing their displeasure but are gradually restricting their cooperation with the Russians in Syria. They would like the Russians to be in the air only and to let them dominate on ground. But the Russians have quite strong land forces in the east of Syria and this annoys the Iranians.

They are also annoyed to see the “moderate Syrian opposition” in the south of Syria and in the provinces of al-Suwayda and Daraa. They believe that those forces are being actively supported by Saudi Arabia and constitute a constant threat to stability in Syria.

The Iranians are also skeptical about Russia’s tolerance towards Israel’s interests in Syria. The Russians are not pushing back the Kurds deployed in the east of Syria and are not using their air defense systems against Israel’s air forces in the west of the country. As a result, the Israelis keep striking the Syrian army.

We should not dramatize the problems existing between Russia and Iran, but we should be sober enough to admit that there are certain contradictions between the sides. But strategic partnership should still be a common goal for them.

Now that Iran’s confrontation with the United States is growing, it should be more active in its contacts with Russia and less demanding towards the Russians’ steps in the Middle East. Trump’s precarious position is urging him to be more bellicose and his major targets are Iran and North Korea.

Trump’s statement that Iran is a “terrorist nation,” the measures against the Iran nuclear deal and the steps to consolidate anti-Iranian forces in the Middle East are an unprecedented challenge to Iran. So, the Iranians need serious countermeasures, like advanced military-political agreements with Russia.

(1) According to the Bushehr 2 contract signed in Nov 2014, the Russians are supposed to build two more reactors with a total capacity of 2,100MW in addition to the operating Unit 1.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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