Russia and Iran: A Postmodern Dance

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Niccolo and Donkey
Russia and Iran: A Postmodern Dance

Asia Times Online

M K Bhadrakumar

July 26, 2013

If, as expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin undertakes the trip to Tehran in August, it will be rich in symbolism - even if he were to give up the travel plan to take a boat across the Caspian Sea to reach the Iranian shore. The congruence of interests of the two regional powers, which are neighbors, has never been in doubt.

But then, this year is also, by a curious coincidence, the 70th anniversary of the Tehran Conference of 1943, which was a poignant event in Russo-Iranian relations in their rich tapestry of history dotted with blood and betrayal.

The history of Russian-Iranian relations is stunning. Putin has been the only Russian leader to visit Tehran since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Yet, both countries are ancient players on the geopolitical arena.

Putin's return to Tehran nearly seven years after his hugely successful first visit in 2007 leaps out of a morality play. Russian foreign policy has come full circle. Putin hopes to clean up the Aegean stables, by literally removing the debris that accumulated during the years when he was not in the Kremlin.

Will he succeed? To be sure, Putin is a charismatic figure for the Iranians. Yet, how will his hosts assess Moscow's intentions? This latter question makes Putin's mission challenging - and risky.

Unkindest cut of all
The "distance" that crept into the Russo-Iranian relationship is to be seen as a legacy of the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev (2008-2012), a period during which Moscow was preoccupied with exploring the content of the "reset" with the United States, which President Barack Obama offered on a platter. The "Westernists" who occupied the Kremlin during those years viewed Iran with distaste and disdain.

Iran took a back seat in the Russian priorities and the strategic understanding that Putin had forged during his landmark visit began atrophying. Russia kept dragging its feet to commission the Bushehr nuclear power plant in deference to the US demarche.

The Kremlin didn't resist when the US introduced Iran nuclear issue as a vector of the Russian-American cooperation within the ambit of the "reset". Russia's cooperation, being a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, was vital for the Obama administration to tighten the screws on Iran further with what has turned out to be a crippling sanctions regime of its own, which most countries (such as India and Japan) have grudgingly accepted.

Yet, Moscow knew all along that the Iran nuclear issue raised certain fundamental issues of international law and the UN Charter and held out profound implications for the working of the international system.

Moscow was not lacking in understanding, either, that the West's real problem with Iran has been over its ideology of justice and resistance and had nothing to do with a nuclear weapon-free Middle East.

The unkindest cut of all was that Medvedev interpreted the UN sanctions as an obligation on Russia's part to resile from an arms deal signed in 2007 for the supply of S-300 missile, which Tehran had been counting as crucial for its defense against US and/or Israeli air attacks.

Medvedev took the "final decision" to scrap the deal under American pressure and the Kremlin overruled the prevailing perception among influential sections of the Moscow establishment that Russia could still fulfill its contractual obligations to Iran.

The then head of the International Committee of Russia's State Duma, Konstantin Kosachyov said, "Eight items have been added the [UN list of armaments liable for sanctions. However, there are no defensive systems, such as S-300 missiles, on that list. The [UN] resolution has no direct effect on Russia."

Looking back, the People's Daily was not far off the mark when it noted wryly in a commentary at that time that "contradictions abound over Moscow's intentions toward Iran". Indeed, without Russia's big hand, the US would have never been able to transfer the Iran file to the UN.

Seize the moment
Today, the balance sheet of the "reset" tells a story by itself. The Collective Security Treaty Organization still remains a pariah for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's war in Afghanistan. Kosovo's independence has been solemnized.

NATO cast its net over the post-Soviet space and keeps advancing toward Russia's borders, and may have arrived in the Caucasus. The US has vowed to defeat Moscow's Eurasia Union project. Of course, Russia couldn't prevent the "regime change" in Libya and its objections to the US missile defense system are being ignored.

Suffice to say, there is a complex backdrop to the latest Russian initiative to mend fences with Iran. Russia's dalliance with the "reset" hurt Iran immensely at a time when it needed all the friendships it could count on to ward off the relentless pressure from the US. But at the end of it all, Iran survived.

A military attack on Iran is no longer conceivable except at enormous costs and mammoth risks to regional scale and the high probability is that the US-Iran standoff is lending itself to negotiations.

Direct US-Iran talks are on the cards. Therefore, Russia is doing the right thing to "seize the moment." Putin will be the first visiting head of state in the Rouhani presidency.

On the other hand, Russia's understanding and support could help create space for Iran to negotiate with the US more optimally. From Iranian perspective, Russia's recent assertiveness as a veto-holding member of the UN Security Council is an encouraging trend. Russia's firm refusal recently to approve a UN report critical of Iranian missile tests virtually ruled out any expansion of the sanctions regime.

However, the Russian backtracking on the S-300 missile deal still rankles. Iran has filed a US$4 billion damage claim against Russia at the international arbitration tribunal in Geneva. Iran has a good case, but the real issue is political - a crisis of confidence arose in the relationship when Medvedev issued the decree in 22 September 2010 unilaterally jettisoning the S-300 deal and a host of other contracts for supply of arms to Iran as well as banning entry to and transit via Russia for a number of Iranian nationals connected with the country's nuclear program, and preventing Russian individuals and legal entities from rendering financial services Iran's nuclear-related activities.

Iran's Defense Minister General Ahmad Vahid almost instantaneously commented on Medvedev's decree with acid criticism, saying it showed "they [Russians] cannot be trusted, which we already know", and the embargo was evidence that Russia "cannot act independently, even when dealing with such a simple issue".

Russia's Kommersant newspaper reported this week on Wednesday citing foreign ministry sources in Moscow that Putin would offer to Tehran an alternative air defense system, Antey-2500, which the latter may find agreeable as a substitute for S-300.

Antey-2500 is a formidable weapon system, which can simultaneously destroy up to 24 aircraft within the range of 200 kilometers or intercept up to 16 ballistic missiles. Arguably, the system is specifically tailored for the needs of ground forces and may match meet Iran's requirements.

Kommersant also reported that Putin would discuss the expansion program for Bushehr nuclear power plant. Other reports indicate that Iranian nuclear physicists are resuming their studies in Russian institutions. A week ago, Russia held a rare naval drill with Iran in the Caspian.

During the recent visit of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad to Moscow in the context of the summit meeting of the gas producing countries, discussions took place regarding cooperation in the field of energy.

Seamless pragmatism
Russia and Iran are great practitioners of diplomacy, but with all the seamless pragmatism at their command, it is still not an easy task that Putin is undertaking by trying to revive trust in the Russo-Iranian ties.

The point is, an underpinning of strategic understanding for the two regional powers to move forward becomes necessary. For instance, the impetus for Iran's policies in Syria is derived from the regional politics of the Middle East and it is unclear whether or to what extent Moscow is willing to identify with it.

To be sure, the newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, has repeatedly emphasized that Iran's relations with the regional states will be his foreign-policy priority. Some major changes can be expected in Iran's ties with the GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The cautious approach by Tehran toward the events in Egypt underscores the thinking in this direction.

Equally, the templates are shifting in Russian-American relations. Despite the grandstanding over the case of Edward Snowden, the whistleblowing ex-CIA contractor, Moscow has been careful not to rip apart the equations with the Barack Obama administration.

The last thing Iran would want is to figure as a bargaining chip in the US-Russia detente. Rouhani is credited with the view that under Ahmedinejad's "Look East" policy, "Iran has had to rely on the dual policies of countries like Russia, China and India at the international level." He was quoted as saying,
That said, Russian experts are realistic about Rouhani and see him as a "moderate" member of the ruling religious elite in Iran - "prepared to compromise with the world and realizing that tilting at windmills all the time is pointless", to borrow the words of the prominent scholar Vitaly Naumkin, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

There is cautious optimism among the Moscow pundits that a "thaw" in Iran's relations with the West does not necessarily mean a setback for Russian interests. The estimate that any such thaw will be a limited one and will be incremental, since the "Iranian regime is unable to immediately renounce all its basic values that cause discontent in the West," as Naumkin noted.

It helps that Iran is not perceived in Moscow as a source of religious extremism and Russia faces no threat of Shi'ite extremism. In principle, therefore, there are no obstacles to Russian-Iranian cooperation. The challenge lies in building complementarity of interests.

The Iranian middle class and technocrats prefer western technology - and the Russian elites (unlike the Soviet "Orientalists") do not have any real passion for Iran. Meanwhile, China is unmatchable as a trade partner and source of investment for Iran.

When Iran opens up as a last frontier gas exports, it might even create some heartburn in Moscow as such exports would reach the European market some day and compete with Russian supplies. The advantage lies with Russia in two key domains - military cooperation and nuclear energy.

Meanwhile, Russia is also diversifying its relations with the countries of the region, which means a privileged partnership with Iran cannot come at the cost of its flourishing ties with Turkey or Israel. In sum, the two regional powers are groping their way toward a postmodern relationship, unlike anything they have known before.
Niccolo and Donkey

Iran will find that the more it compromises with the US, the more the US will demand and the more virulent The Israeli government will become. The US caged Iran at AIPAC's command, Iran's defiance a justification. Once Iran complies and denies Congress and the UN any justification for a hostile Iran-policy, and Iran begins shaking hands with and opening up to representatives and firms from the US.. Israel will be forced to strike unilaterally. Such an action would sabotage all Iran-America relations. The Occidentophiles in Tehran will be discredited after having looked so vindicated, and the Iranian right will swell up on popular support.

Gruppenführer Glitter

Every year there seems to be some scare of an impending war between the US/Israel and Iran, and it never happens. It's getting less and less likely every year. There is no stomach for another war among the US military establishment and few politicians are for it given the terrible state of the economy along with the debt crisis.

I don't see why Israel would attack Iran in a risky unilateral strike against hardened underground bunker sites spread out across the nation. The window of opportunity to destroy Bushehr is long past. The political and international fallout Israel would suffer from conducting such a strike would be too much when the only gain is a temporary setback of Iranian ambitions, and this is on the assumption that IAF strikecraft burdened with large ordinance payloads are even able to successfully reach their targets. Israel isn't going to attack unless it has the backing of the United States and will content itself with acts of sabotage. The Israelis simply don't have the airpower needed to damage Iran significantly. They need the US.

Niccolo and Donkey
What many don't understand is that Russia doesn't want Iran to go nuclear either as the two have had much longer periods being at each other's throats than at being allies, even de facto . This slow, methodical crisis plays into Moscow's hands as it keeps the price of oil high which helps Russian state coffers and fends off American hegemony in the region.
Gruppenführer Glitter

Interesting. I'm always struck by how few dependable allies post-revolutionary Iran has. I can only think of Hezbollah, Syria, (Iraq after withdrawal?) and Armenia as consistent supporters of Iranian positions.

Niccolo and Donkey
Iran has always been a regional behemoth with many natural enemies due to not only being in that role but also because of the natural hostility it faces from Sunnis that surround it.

Russia only delivers weapons to the middle east after consultation with Israel and America about what they should they deliver and when. This whole Russian-Iranian cooperation thing seems fake to me(atleast from the Russian part), the Jewish lobby is too strong in Russia.

As an energy importer, China should be at least a tacit ally of Iran, an energy exporter. As Nic pointed out, Russia has a vested interest in prolonging the antagonism between US-Israel and Iran in order to maximize oil profits. If not for Israel and some unnecessary US meddling in Iran's affairs, there would be really no reason for the US and Iran to be at odds that I can see. AIPAC affects the world in a number of ways.
Anglo-American oil firms had contracts with the Shah that contradict Sharia.
Such examples as Iran remind Western firms why they should oppose Islamism abroad, and why the US government does what it can to counteract it by supporting violently oppressive anti-Islamist regimes.
The same reason the US, NATO, and Japan opposed the spread of Communism was that it evicts their firms from the countries it seizes. Islamism is the modern equivalent, and so next to the Neo-Cold War against The Moscow-Beijing Axis, which is essentially a competitor for the profits that can be reaped in these lesser nations, the West has been waging an anti-Islamist war.

As for Israel and Iran. Israel has been hoping for too long that the Neoconservative Jews in Wasington could manage to steer the US into war with their Persian nemesis for them. Obama refuses. Now Israel's only hope is that the next president will do it.
However, if it seems to Israel that the US & Iran will make a peace, that lifting sanctions and Irano-American contracts are on the table... Israel must attack unilaterally if only to scuttle such a thawing of tensions between DC and Tehran. Israel does not want to see Iran opened up, they want to see it strangled by sanctions at the least. This is why Netanyahu shit talked the new Iranian reformist government, why Tel Aviv makes comments about wolves in sheep's clothing. A unilateral Israeli strike would accomplish little in setting back Iran's nuclear program, but it would end any possibility of an Iran with weight in DC. An Iran open to the US, on the road to becoming a second Saudi Arabia, is worse for Israel than even giving up the West Bank. Israel imposes itself on the region via America imposing itself in the region on AIPAC's order. They already have to contend, in DC, with the demands of American oil firms and American defense firms. If Iran has a say, as the Saudi lobby does, it could in a decade see Israel recognizing the right of return, tearing down the security barrier, lifting its seige of Gaza, etc. Striking Iran would be an absolute necessity, if even to bomb an Iranian goat... just as long as Israeli-Iranian hostilities are opened such that Congress can not so much as mention the word 'Iran' but with derision.