Each event, both in the past and present, could be approached from a different perspective and placed in various contexts. Russian President Vladimir Putin's trip to Iran is no exception. Some implications and expectations of this visit are clear. Still, there is another aspect of the story, and observers usually overlook it: in visiting Iran, Putin or some other members of the Russian elite might think about following the Iranian path. Yet, it is hardly possible in present-day Russia.
Russia has become increasingly similar to Iran, at least externally, for both countries have become relatively isolated. It is quite possible that, if not President Putin himself, some segments of the Russian elite have thought about imitating Iran, which has survived and strengthened its power, despite more than 40 years of Western sanctions.
Russia as Iran's unreliable partner
Most Russian elites have never appreciated Iran much. Moscow, indeed, decided to engage Iran after the collapse of the USSR. Still, it had little intention of being an honest partner. According to the 1995 agreement between Vice President, Al Gore, and Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia would not deliver any weapons to Iran after 1999. It is true that Putin scrapped this agreement upon taking power. Yet, it was hardly a genuine embrace of Iran. It continued to be viewed as a bargaining chip in dealing with the West.
There were numerous examples. Iran purchased S-300 missiles and even made a down payment. Soon, however, Dmitry Medvedev, who formally replaced Putin as President, scrapped the agreement despite Tehran's protests. The missiles were delivered only after several years of delay when Russia's relationship with the West worsened visibly. Russia had also been engaged in building the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. The construction had been delayed for years.
Tehran's appeal to Moscow's expertise induced the Russian elite to follow the Western elite in a predictable vision of Iran's scientific and technological potential. Western, especially American, elite proclaimed that science and related technology could be developed only in the context of Western "democracy" and related philosophy of "diversity", "inclusion" and "affirmative action", which in real life implied the importance of a quota of racial minorities and females. This theory did not fit reality. Red China developed its science without mandated "diversity" and "inclusion". Still, it quickly caught up with the US.
In the case of Iran, the model was even more straightforward: Iranian universities and research institutions ceased to exist in American academic discourse. Russian elite did not share the US's concern with "diversity" and "inclusion" and mocked this with the entire cultural framework of American society and culture. On the other hand, they shared the American contempt for Iran as "a country of religious fanatics and primitive Asiatics who could not offer anything but gas and oil". Now, the eyes of at least some members of the Russian elite, if not Putin, were opened. And, some of them, possibly subconsciously, looked at Iran, isolated for more than 40 years, as a model for Russia.
Iran's achievements and the reason for Iran's endeavours
Putin discussed many subjects with Iranian leaders and was pleased by their full endorsement of Russia's venture into Ukraine as "a preventive war against NATO's inevitable strike". Among the many subjects discussed, Putin asked Iran to deliver several hundred military drones. Some observers believed that some of them had already been delivered. This request for drones is telling. It indicates that Iran is not a scientific and technological backwater, but a country with a highly developed, modern science and solid industrial base, without which drones could not be produced.
The fact that Iran is likely moving toward the creation of nuclear weapons is additional proof of the state's high scientific and technological abilities. One might add that Iran has developed this scientific ability despite isolation from Western universities and think tanks and the continuous assassinations of leading Iranian nuclear scientists, most likely by Israel. Why is Iran able to sustain the pressure? The real explanation could be found in the socio-economic framework of Iranian society. The State controls around 60 per cent of the Iranian economy, making it possible for the elite to plan for the future and limit the country's dependence on imports.
Iran, in short, with its strong corporate ethos, and elements of "neo-socialist" structure in neo-medieval Islamic garb, is indeed "de-Westernised". Or, to be precise, Westernised garb, e.g. appreciation of Western technology, is placed on an essentially "post-Western" or "non-Western" body. The story is quite different with Putin's Russia.
Why Russia is not Iran?
Indeed, with all its changes, the foundation of Russia's socio-economic life has not changed much since the beginning of the 1990s, the era of "privatisation." Most tycoons operate as independent players, and the very notion of state planning, in this or that form, not saying much about nationalisation, is out of the question. For this reason, "import replacement", essential for the country's economic and geopolitical resilience, has stalled. Corruption is rampant, and related socio-economic inequality is glaring.
It is not surprising that cash is the major motivation for Russians from depressed provinces to join the army to fight in Ukraine. Russian elite pronouncements about distinct Russian values and civilisational differences are basically a sham. And, while in the case of Iran, the Western garb is placed on a basically "non-Western" corporative body, in Russia's case, some segments of the elite want to put Russia's traditionalist vestments on the basically capitalist body of the modern West. These arrangements will not work well in the long run.
Not only could present-day Russia not be Iran, but a strong alliance with Iran is also out of the question, due to the memories of recent history. Consequently, one should not expect many results from Putin's travel to Tehran, for either Russia's internal evolution or foreign policy. Consequently, the regime could well be unstable in the long run, despite recent conquests.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.