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Russia-Iran relations and lessons learnt from Yemen

May 11, 2015 at 11:46 am

The identical political positions displayed by Moscow and Tehran regarding most of the key issues in the Middle East raise questions about the nature of Russia-Iran relations; Moscow’s stance on developments in Yemen is one example. So how are we to interpret this and what are the relations between the two countries? Where are they headed?

Heated confrontation between Russia and the West over the Ukrainian crisis added a special importance to relations between Russia and Iran, which have witnessed a major development since the late nineties. That’s when Moscow took advantage of the Western boycott of Iran to strengthen and expand its cooperation with Tehran in all areas. Estimates vary regarding the level of this cooperation and its ability to remain at the same level in the future.

The arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria opened the way for a major convergence of Russian and Iranian attitudes towards the region, which was demonstrated by Moscow and Tehran both supporting the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. As far as they are concerned, the on-going struggle in Syria targets the higher interests of both countries; this was hyped up in official statements to the effect that, “The West and its allies seek to overthrow the most important ally for Russia and Iran in the region as a prelude to targeting them directly.”

The Kremlin also believes that building strong links with Iran serves Moscow’s policies for stability in Central Asia, in parallel with Turkey opening up to various countries in the region with the support of the US and the West. From this angle, we can understand Russia’s opposition to any military action against Iran, or the tightening of economic sanctions in a manner likely to lead to its political and social destabilisation.

Russia relies on developing relations with Iran to ease fears about the collapse of security in the Caspian Sea, which will open the floodgates to refugees, arms smuggling and drug trafficking, all of which would threaten Russia’s own security and stability. It worth noting that there are hundreds of thousands of deaths annually in Russia and neighbouring countries to the south because of drugs, which are smuggled mainly from Afghanistan through Central Asia.

Of course, the Kremlin realises that Iran is the growing regional heavyweight following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its holding of strong cards in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon; Tehran also has links to the Palestine-Israel conflict through relations with major Palestinian groups. What encourages Russia to develop its relations with Iran is the lack of a unified Arab response to the growth of Iranian influence which has a regionally-influential weight.

In the balance also are the economic benefits gained by Russia through its cooperation with Iran, mainly in light of the western sanctions imposed on Moscow last year after its annexation of Crimea.

However, there are many obstacles in the way of the relations between Moscow and Tehran moving up in status to become a strategic alliance. Not only that, but Iran will also be interested in rebuilding its relations with the United States and EU countries after the signing of a framework for the Iranian nuclear programme, and the likelihood of reaching a permanent agreement before the end of next month.

One of the barriers is Russia’s uncertainty that Iran won’t expand its regional ambitions in a manner that could hurt Russian interests. Behind the scenes of the “5+1” group, Russia was insistent — no less so than America and Europe — about having safeguards in place to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons; Moscow does not want a country with nuclear arms on its southern borders.

In addition, Russia’s need for balanced relations with active regional powers and its priorities in international alliances hinder any further development in its relations with Tehran. For example, Russia does not support Iran’s membership of the “Shanghai Cooperation Organisation” because China and Kazakhstan oppose it, and Moscow’s relationship with those two countries is more important than its relationship with Tehran.

According to estimates by a number of experts, lifting sanctions on Iran is expected to lead to negative consequences in terms of its mutual interests and trade cooperation with Russia, especially in the oil sector. Iran’s return to high pre-sanctions levels of oil production will create an excess in the market and have an adverse effect on prices for at least a year. This would exacerbate difficulties within the Russian economy due to falling oil prices and the economic and financial sanctions.

Analysts in Moscow suggest that Iran’s need to cooperate with Russia will be reduced and limited mainly to peaceful nuclear energy, electric power and railways, as well as military links. Russia will face fierce competition from European countries in the Iranian market, which will give Tehran more room to expand trade and economic relations, and to reconsider pivotal aspects of its foreign policy.

There are also domestic Russian factors that could limit the possibility of Russia-Iran relations becoming a strategic alliance, but they have been ignored so far. Observers of Russia’s internal affairs believe that support from Moscow for Iran could have a long-term negative impact on relations with its own, mainly Sunni, Muslim citizens.

All of this suggests that cooperation out of mutual interests could be the most that Russia-Iran relations can expect to become; that a strategic alliance is out of the question. However, the concept of intersecting interests as interpreted politically by Moscow and Tehran, and its application on the ground in the foreseeable future, has produced policies and positions that are ambiguous and volatile regarding regional issues.

Developments in Yemen since last September have provided a vivid example of the confusion behind Moscow’s policies — at least from the point of view of many Arab countries — about some regional issues in a manner that serves the Iranian positions directly. The Russians, for example, refrained from condemning the expansion of the Houthis and their control over the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and even the coup against President Hadi. Moscow kept emphasising its support for a political settlement through the efforts of the UN Special Envoy, while the Houthis continued to use force to expand their control over the country.

Moscow was quick to take a tough stance against “Operation Decisive Storm” and it opposed a strong resolution from the UN Security Council against the Houthis and followers of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. It then made a dramatic U-turn and decided not to use its veto on an Arab draft resolution; it simply abstained from the vote, noting that the decision was made under Chapter VII, which disturbed Iran and raised its concerns.

The significance of this change lies in the fact that Moscow did some calculations which showed that it was not in its best interest to block the resolution, in a departure from its usual practice since 2011 in which a semi-match in the Russian and Iranian positions emerged. This confirms that the intersection of interests between Moscow and Tehran is necessarily met by an intersection of Arab-Russian interests which, if managed well, will cause more changes in Moscow’s positions on numerous issues in the region, just as happened with the Yemeni file.

It is clear that interests between Russia and Arab countries are more numerous and broader than those between Russia and Iran. When we exclude the possibility of an alliance between Moscow and Tehran, the Arabs can change Russian priorities and positions through endorsing common interests and employing them, provided that there is a clear and united Arab plan in place.

Translated from Al Jazeera net, 2 May, 2015.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.