Is a Strategic Partnership between Russia & Iran in the Making?

Comment by Guest Editor, Conflicts Forum, (first circulated 27 Nov 2015)

Western Europe and the US are hopeful that a deal on Iran’s nuclear program and the impending lifting of sanctions will undermine the partnership between Iran and Russia, and that, in the long run, this would also lead to Iran turning to the West. In a commentary from the Financial Times of 20 November, “West Looks for Splits in Russia’s alliance with Iran over Syria”, perfectly representative of this narrative, the authors state that Russia and Iran have common short-term interests, but irreconcilable, divergent long-term goals in Syria. They highlight as the main point of contention a power struggle over the future of the Syrian para-military National Defense Force, which Russia would like to see disbanded or integrated into regular Syrian Armed Forces, while Iran views them as a closest ally and guarantor of Iranian interests in Syria. Unnamed western officials are also quoted as saying that their highest hopes of splitting the alliance are set on a potential divergence of Moscow’s and Teheran’s views on the fate and role of President Assad.  

There have indeed been some differences between Iran and Russia concerning President Assad in the past. Ali Aqbar Velayati, the former Iranian FM and current advisor to the Supreme Leader, Sayyed Ali Khamenei, has acknowledged that at the beginning of the crisis “None supported Syrian President Bashar Al Assad like the Islamic Republic of Iran did. Even Russia did not offer the necessary support. With the help of Hezbollah and Iraq, we provided the necessary support to President Bashar Al Assad and we aborted the American plan in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. We will never abandon President Bashar Al Assad…”. However, Russia and Iran have come to a common position on this issue, and official statements coming from Moscow and Teheran have since been almost identical. The fact that Russia has pushed for, and succeeded in including Iran in the Vienna talks is also an indication of a united and coordinated approach.

Russia-Iran relations must nevertheless be analyzed in a broader context beyond the Syrian crisis. They have a high level of commonality between their respective strategic interests, first and foremost the protection of their natural resources, preventing the spread of radical Salafist ideology and Daesh militancy, ensuring their respective security interests in the Caspian basin, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Middle East, and the Gulf, and finally, preventing the so-called color revolutions and regime change under pressure and influence of the US and the West. The confluence of the highest national strategic interests between the two dictates a sensible choice to cooperate on a whole range of issues, including Syria, and to reconcile whatever differences they may have.

The ascending trend of cooperation is visible on many fronts. Russia is, and will remain, the main supplier of arms and nuclear technology to Iran (it seems that they have sorted out the last of the hurdles for the supply of S-300 air defense systems; Russian companies have contracts to build eight more nuclear reactors in Iran).  Russia represents for Iran a vital counter-balance to the West, especially taking into account the strengthening of Russia’s regional and global influence, and its demonstrated commitment to protecting and supporting their allies. It is also taking concrete steps to further integrate Iran into its own security and economic structures, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (at the last summit of SCO, it was decided to accept Iran as a full member after the lifting of the UN sanctions). This will facilitate further cooperation between the two, in addition to China, in countering the expansion of Daesh and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Central Asia, as well Northern Caucasus.

The West probably has its highest hopes of a split over the issue of oil and gas. The question is whether Russia and Iran will remain partners or become competitors in the future when it comes to the exploitation and transportation of oil and natural gas to world markets. This issue will become acute as soon as sanctions against Iran are lifted and it re-enters the world energy market.

A strategic priority for Russia is to remain the major supplier of natural gas to the European market, and to continue to use this position as a political lever in their policy toward Europe. Although Iran may look as a dangerous competitor with the highest reserves of natural gas, and with the geographical position to supply both Europe and Asia, there is a number of reasons for Russia and Iran to cooperate instead of becoming competitors in this field. They both have high stakes in the future of this industry and in the price of gas on the international market, and they will advance their common interests, such as control of the transportation, supply and prices of natural gas. Being competitors instead of partners would be to the detriment of both.

A strategic partnership would entail an agreement on dividing the world market, joint projects to connect their networks of pipelines, and promoting regional cooperation concerning energy deposits in the Caspian basin, including an agreement on controlling the export of gas from Turkmenistan. Currently, such strategic cooperation is promoted on three different levels: through a bilateral agreement on oil and gas cooperation, through the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), comprized of thirteen largest gas producers, and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which has as its members the biggest oil and gas producers and consumers in Asia. The recently signed agreement whereby Russia would deliver oil to the northern border of Iran, and Iran would pump its oil to Russian tankers in the ports in the Gulf, illustrates such cooperation trends.

The question, in fact, is not whether the alliance between Russia and Iran will split over Syria, as the Western narrative suggests, but whether this alliance has already become strategic or is still driven by current practical considerations.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister and a close associate of President Putin, was quoted as saying in a TV interview, “You cannot exactly say that all political forces in Iran fully share the view that Russia should become a strategic partner. Therefore, we still have to do some serious work on that.” Ali Aqbar Velayati, advisor to the Supreme Leader, Sayyed Ali Khamenei recently said, “Regardless of how you call it, our cooperation with Russia is growing and increasing. I personally believe that our relations with Russia are heading in the direction of becoming strategic relations. The same goes for China…”.

We will have a clearer idea of how far cooperation talks have come by this week, after President Putin and Supreme Leader Khamenei meet in Teheran, but there are sufficient indications to suggest a strategic partnership between Russia and Iran in the making. 

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