After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between Iran and Russia went through ups and downs. During the Iran-Iraq war, for example, Russia armed the Iraqis against Iran, but over time their relationship improved and today the two are strategically aligned in opposition to the United States. .
Currently, most Iranian officials believe that the Western bloc is losing power and the East is gaining influence. Thus, although it previously adhered to its “Neither East nor West” mantra born of its 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic today increasingly seeks economic, political and military collaborations with the major eastern powers.
Indeed, Tehran has moved ever closer to China and Russia over the past year. In March 2021, Iran and China signed a twenty-five-year cooperation agreement that caught the West off guard, and Iran became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in September. . Then, in January 2022, Iran and Russia began to finalize the details of their own twenty-year agreement.
Iran has always depended on Russia and China to circumvent US sanctions, and the three countries have agreed to use their national currencies rather than the dollar in trilateral trade.
According to an Iranian official, the volume of trade between Russia and Iran increased by 12% in weight and 41% in value during the first nine months of this Iranian calendar year (March 21-December 21, 2021). In addition, the trade figure between the two parties amounted to more than 3.5 million tons for the same period.
As a key member of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Russia stands to benefit greatly from trade with Iran if the deal is revived. Tehran and Moscow are eager to increase their trade volume once US sanctions are lifted. Iran is also buying a variety of Russian weapons, and the two countries are looking to advance their military cooperation alongside their broader bilateral relationship. For example, in January 2022, Russia, China, and Iran held a trilateral naval exercise in the Indian Ocean with an official saying they were supposed to “enhance security.” According to reports, Iran is also considering buying Russian Su-35 fighters.
Iranian officials see Russia as one of their closest allies against US pressure. In recent years, Russia has used its veto power to protect Iran in the UN Security Council, including over its missile program and the illegal use of Iranian-made missiles by the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. Russia has also cooperated with Iran in Syria to support Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered government. “Cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria can become an effective model for developing relations between countries in various directions,” Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told the plenary session of the State Duma during his visit to Moscow.
On the contrary, some Iranians view the Russians with pessimism. Over the past two centuries, Russian tsarism and then the Soviet Union had a colonial vision of Iran and sought to maximize their interests there. During this period, many exploitation concessions in the fields of mining, fishing and railways were granted to the Russians. Moreover, Iranians have not forgotten that parts of their country were occupied by the tsars from 1804 to 1813.
In fact, for most Iranians, anti-Russian sentiment grew out of anti-Soviet sentiments. Although the overly negative image of Russia is more reminiscent of Tsarist and then Soviet expansionist policies, pessimism about Russia is an issue that transcends history.
After the United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, Iranian officials accused Moscow of welcoming sanctions against Iran in order to raise oil prices. “Russia has turned our country into a bulwark against the United States. The negative view of a part of Iranian society towards the Russians has been unquestionable, and even today we can observe some of the biased behaviors of our northern neighbor, Russia, against the interests of Iran,” said said the former national security chief. Committee of the Iranian Parliament.
Some analysts believe that Russia is not interested in seeing Iran realize its potential as a military power, which explains why Russia has refused to sell its best military weapons to Iran for the past decades. Instead, Russia only sold obsolete weapons, like submarines and fighter jets from previous generations.
In addition, Iran could challenge Russia’s position in the European gas market. Russia has the largest natural gas reserves in the world, followed by Iran. Iran took major steps to export gas to Europe in the 1990s, but was robbed of market share by US sanctions. Since then, Russia has attempted to control Iranian gas fields to ensure that Iran will be kept out of the European gas market.
Not surprisingly, Russia will not tolerate a new nuclear power in its neighborhood either and has sought to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons and mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. Some observers believe Russian officials have used nuclear cooperation with Iran as a bargaining chip with the United States. For example, Russia agreed to complete Iran’s Bushehr power plant in 1992, but did not fully implement its commitments on time.
Recently, Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian envoy to the JCPOA talks in Vienna, posted a photo of his meeting with Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran. The image caused a negative reaction from Iranians on social media. Some Iranians believe that throughout the talks in Vienna, Russia is only pretending to defend Iranian interests while prioritizing its own in any future deal.
“The photo shows a paternalistic role for Russia in the talks, and Russian officials are concerned that the nuclear deal could be the starting point for improved Iranian-American relations in the future,” said Javid Ghorbanoghli, a former Iranian diplomat.
More importantly, Iran and Russia share the Caspian Sea, a precious treasure trove of many resources, including oil and natural gas reserves. Iran dominated 50% of the Caspian Sea during the Soviet era. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, three post-Soviet states, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, demanded their share of the sea bordering their countries’ territories.
Moreover, Russia enjoys warm relations with Israel, a staunch Iranian adversary. Russia has sought to balance its relations with Iran and Israel at the same time. For example, during the 2020 conflict between Iran and Azerbaijan, Iran urged Russia to stand firm against Israel’s presence in Azerbaijan, but Moscow ignored Tehran’s concerns.
For Russia, engagement with Israel is more important than its relationship with Iran. While Iran targets Israeli interests in the Middle East, Russia is committed to safeguarding Israel’s regional interests. In fact, Jerusalem is a close ally of Moscow while Tehran is only a partner of the Kremlin.
“Comprehensive solutions to the region’s problems must take into account Israel’s security interests as a matter of principle,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote in an article for the Israeli newspaper. Yedioth Ahronoth Daily.
Although Russia wants to prevent a new Iranian-Israeli conflict, the country has persuaded Iran to agree to Russia pursuing closer relations with Israel. In fact, although Israel has carried out several covert attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities in recent years, Russian officials have always tried to prevent Iran from retaliating against Israel. “If Iran attacked Israel, Moscow would stand with the Jewish state. In the event of an aggression against Israel, not only will the United States stand with Israel, but Russia will also stand with Israel,” the former Russian deputy ambassador to Israel said.
While opponents and reformists of the Iranian government see Russia as an enemy, Iranian officials believe that Moscow is sympathetic to Iran. Iran’s overreliance on Russia is dangerous for Tehran, but the Islamic Republic needs both Russia and China to balance its poor relationship with the United States. Both seize this opportunity to gain influence while taking advantage of the sanctions against Tehran.
From experience, Russia and China will not support Iran at the expense of their interests with the United States. So, perhaps it is time for Iranian officials to ask themselves how much they have gained in exchange for their concessions to Russia.
Mohammad Javad Mousavizadeh is a journalist and analyst in international affairs and foreign policy. He has written numerous articles for digital publications around the world. He is also an English translator for Iranian newspapers and news agencies. Follow him on Twitter @mousavizadehj.