Russia and Iran draw close, again

The second half of August may witness a blossoming of the Russian-Iranian ties.It follows a sterile 3-year period. The promise held out by the then President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran in October 2007 was never fulfilled and both sides seem eager to recapture the verve.

The consultations of Russia’s national security chief Nikolay Patrushev to Tehran on Monday and the ‘working visit’ by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to Moscow on Wednesday will be keenly watched in the world capitals.An element of uncertainty always remained in the Russian-Iranian ties ever since the revolution in 1979 and the relationship was highly accident-prone. But, this time around, if the relationship lost verve, it because Russia unilaterally consigned it to a state of benign neglect as a matter of expediency.

Why this happened or how this could happen in a country like Russia blessed with great ‘orientalists’ who know Iran’s centrality as a regional power in the Middle East, can be explored, but that will be a complicated voyage of discovery into what Russia’s intellectual climate has become despite the treasure-troves of high caliber intellect it still possesses. The fact is, Russia’s dalliance over the ‘reset’ with the United States practically led to a shutdown of the Iran ties in Moscow’s diplomatic priorities.

The American pressure compelled Moscow to roll back weapon sales to Iran and resort to delaying tactic in the commissioning of Bushehr nuclear power plant. (President Dmitry Medvedev’s weekend telephone conversation with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and his assurance that the Bushehr project will be commissioned on schedule becomes a much-needed confidence-building measure in the present context.) Unfortunately, Russia also began harmonizing with the US over the situation around the Iran nuclear issue, knowing fully well that the nuclear issue was a barely-disguised US attempt to bully Iran and that there was no shred of evidence of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapon programme.

At any rate, Tehran continued to view the document signed during Putin’s 2007 visit with nostalgia. Russia’s summary decision to cut off arms supplies and to play hide-and-seek over the commissioning of Bushehr did test Iranian patience, which at times was wearing thin, but Iranian diplomatic temper somehow seemed confident that Moscow would have another leap of faith sooner rather than later.

Certainly, it would have rankled the Iranian sense of national pride that Moscow made Iran a ‘victim’ of its ‘reset’ with the US, but it didn’t show indignation. Somehow, the thinking in Tehran seemed to be that it all formed part of a difficult phase that Russia was passing through, juggling so many balls in the air that human ingenuity cannot possible handle. Tehran seemed convinced that Moscow would ultimately take note of the contradictions in the US-Russia ties. Equally, Tehran viewed the US-Russia reset as a contrived atmospheric that enabled Washington to selectively take help from Russia on various pressing issues. Most important, Iranians were convinced that the US deployment of missile defence systems in a concerted move to establish nuclear superiority and encircle Russia would ultimately compel Moscow to search out for partners in the region.

Tehran has been proven right. The US-Russia ‘reset’ is meandering aimlessly and its immaculate creator, President Barack Obama no longer possesses the energy or political capital to pay meaningful attention to Russia through the remaining part of his term. And two years is a long time in Russian-American relationship; stagnation can easily set in. The US is ignoring Russia’s pleas for co-option as full-fledged partner into its missile defence programme. On the other hand, the ‘informal’ summit meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO] in Astana on Friday exposed once again that the alliance is falling short of its much-flaunted objective to shape up as the ‘NATO of the East’. Uzbekistan is passing through another zebra crossing zone in its foreign policy and President Islam Karimov failed to show up at the Astana summit. The fate of the CSTO’s rapid reaction force hangs by a thread.

However, more than in Central Asia or Afghanistan, Iran’s usefulness to Russia is nowhere as compelling as in the Middle East. The developments around Syria are fraught with devastating consequences for both Russia and Iran. The two countries are sailing in the same boat in the fateful weeks that lie ahead and will suffer a big setback to their regional influence in the Middle East if a NATO intervention in any form takes place in Syria.

The signs are growing that an intervention is on the cards. Common sense would suggest that US has no financial capacity to undertake a military adventure. But, on the contrary, a spectacular intervention in the Middle East, which is manifestly supportive of Israel’s interests, is precisely what can undercut the Republican Right and uplift Obama’s steadily sagging political fortunes at home in his re-election bid. Ambitious politicians set their own priorities.

A regime change in Syria is almost certainly going to deprive Russia of its only Soviet-era naval base in eastern Mediterranean. Kommersant newspaper reported quoting the Center for Analysis of Strategies & Technologies in Moscow that Russia may lose as much as 3.8 billion dollars from Syrian arms contracts after the US urged a halt to sales. These sales reportedly account for 10% of Russia’s military exports. The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton pointed finger at Russia last week to demand cut-off in trade and arms sales to Syria and ‘get on the right side of history’. (The two other countries, interestingly, that Clinton saw on the wrong side of history are China and India.)

But Syria is much more than a market for arms sales. Syria impacts the situation in Iraq and Lebanon and is a ‘pivotal’ state in the Middle East. The zest with which Obama consulted Saudi Arabia (and Britain) on the action plan for Syria speaks volumes of the geopolitics of the situation around Syria. On the face of it, Obama and King Abdullah make strange bedfellows when they “expressed their shared, deep concerns about the Syrian government’s use of violence against its citizens… [and] agreed that the Syrian regime’s brutal campaign of violence against the Syrian people must end immediately.”

Suffice to say, it cannot be a mere coincidence that just ahead of Obama’s telephone call to Abdullah, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told a high-profile delegation of US congressmen visiting Ramallah that the security of the future Palestinian state will be handed over to NATO under the US command. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Abbas’s political advisor Nimar Hamad since clarified that the Palestinian president is not against the inclusion of Jewish soldiers in the NATO force. These strange utterances are predicated on the assumption of regime change in Syria and the expulsion of the Hamas leadership from Damascus, which would hopefully help Abbas become an adjunct to the US-Saudi axis.

Therefore, Iran’s firm stand against a US-led campaign to intervene in Syria serves Russia’s interests. The NATO is slouching toward the Middle East and bringing that strategic region under its umbrella. The western alliance has already negotiated partnership agreements with Gulf Cooperation Council.

The outcome of the NATO intervention is going to be the deployment of the missile defcnce systems all along Russia’s southern tiers. Salehi was literally touching on this grim scenario when he said in a recent interview with Russia Today that but for Iran’s staunch opposition to the West’s regional policies, the US’s encirclement of Russia’s southern flank would have been complete by now. The Russian stance as conveyed in the account of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent telephone conversation with his Syrian counterpart bears striking similarity with Iran’s approach on Syria, although Tehran is proactive, given the compulsions of regional politics.

In sum, Salehi’s visit to Moscow on Wednesday is taking place at a crucial juncture in regional politics. Iran happens to wield considerable influence in all the four regions bordering Russia to the south where the NATO is seeking expansion of its influence – Caucasus, Central Asia and the Caspian and the Middle East. In immediate terms, Moscow and Tehran would agree that the indifferent nature of their relationship worked to the advantage of the US’s Middle East project.

The author Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR is a former diplomat.

This article is obtained from the Strategic Culture Foundation.

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