Russian-Iranian Relations in the Putin Era

By Katz, Mark N. | Demokratizatsiya, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Russian-Iranian Relations in the Putin Era

Katz, Mark N., Demokratizatsiya

During the first year and a half of the Putin presidency, Russian-Iranian relations appeared to be improving steadily, and it seemed that the two countries were pursuing a common set of anti-American interests. There was some degree of disagreement between them, but it appeared minor and easily resolvable. Overall, Russian-Iranian relations had become so close that some Russian and Iranian (as well as Western) observers saw Moscow and Tehran as being "strategic partners." Since mid-2001, however, Russian and Iranian interests have diverged to such an extent that they now appear to disagree far more often than they agree.

In this article I will explore the rise and fall of the Russian-Iranian "partnership" that has taken place since Vladimir Putin became president. I argue that the convergence of Russian and Iranian interests, culminating in the state visit that Iranian president Mohammad Khatami paid to Russia in March 2001, was revealed to be more illusory than real in the aftermath of the events that took place first on 23 July and then on 11 September 2001. I then discuss the future prospects of Russian-Iranian relations. Something must first be said, though, about Russian-Iranian relations prior to Putin.

Before the Putin Era

Although Iran under the rule of the shah was allied with the United States, Moscow and Tehran maintained generally cordial, if not friendly, relations during most of his rule. Moscow seemed to expect that the rise of the virulently anti-American Islamic Republic of Iran following that country's 1979 revolution would lead to close Soviet-Iranian cooperation, but its hopes were dashed when the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini proved to be as anti-Soviet as he was anti-American. With Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan on Iran's eastern border and Moscow supplying the bulk of the weapons used by Iraq in its 1980-88 war with Iran, it is hardly surprising that Khomeini viewed the USSR as an enemy. (1)

Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and both the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the death of Khomeini in 1989, Soviet-Iranian relations suddenly grew warm. The Gorbachev administration began selling arms to Iran, and Moscow also agreed to complete the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which a West German firm had begun building in the 1970s but ceased work on at the time of the Iranian revolution. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Moscow and Tehran found that they both favored Armenia in its ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan and that they both wanted to prevent the growth of American and Turkish influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. After some initial disagreements over the civil war that erupted in Tajikistan in 1992, Moscow and Tehran cooperated to bring about a power-sharing agreement in 1997 among the antagonists there. Moscow and Tehran also cooperated against the Sunni-fundamentalist Taliban regime that seized most of Afghanistan in 1996 and that proved to be virulently anti-Russian as well as anti-Shia and anti-Iranian. (2)

In response to the desire of Western oil firms to exploit the significant oil reserves discovered off the coasts of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Moscow and Tehran both initially claimed that the Caspian was not a sea to be divided territorially but a lake whose resources were to be shared by all the littoral states. An important factor motivating their common view on this matter was the belief that there were no significant oil deposits off either Russia's or Iran's Caspian coasts. In addition, Moscow and Tehran were both opposed to the American-proposed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline route that would bring Caspian Basin oil to the world market without going through either Russia or Iran (thus depriving both those countries of the transit fees that would accrue to them otherwise). (3)

Yet despite those common interests, Russian-Iranian relations were not particularly close during the Yeltsin era.

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