Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Iran and Russia: Similarities and Implications for Decisionmaking

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Iran and Russia: Similarities and Implications for Decisionmaking

Article excerpt

In light of the July 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers, as well as Russian involvement in Syria, Russian-Iranian relations deserve special attention. This article argues that Russia and Iran have both common interests and cultural similarities that simultaneously foster their bilateral relationship and complicate these ties. This is also reflected in the foreign policies of both countries. Russia has been managing a "hybrid war" in Ukraine through pro-Russian separatists. Similarly, Iran relies on proxies in several Arab countries. Despite shared interests, Russia and Iran harbor suspicion towards each other, which has hindered the transformation of their bilateral ties into something more than ad hoc alliances.

The negotiations between the P5+1 powers and Iran, which concluded with the signing of an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program in July 2015, has brought the subject of Russia-Iranian relations into the limelight. Russia did not aid Iran in reaching the deal nor did it attempt to lift the Western-imposed sanctions. Still, since 2013, the dynamics of domestic politics in both Russia and Iran has brought these two countries closer to one another. This article argues that both shared interests and cultural similarities foster the relationship between the two while also complicating it.

It is common knowledge that Iran and Russia are "compelled friends yet pragmatic pals." 1 Russian-Iranian relations have never been smooth, as Russia, which had a colonial interest in Iran, is the only Christian power to have occupied part of Iran in modern history. The Russian Empire was thus encroaching upon Iran. Following the Communist revolution, there was still no improvement in relations. Today, however, by contrast, more and more voices in Russia are urging the country to turn to Iran. Among these are Alexander Dugin, Sergey Kurginyan, and other public intellectuals and opinionmakers who have stressed the importance of Iran. It is not fortuitous that those calling for closer ties with Iran are staunch proponents of "Eurasianism" and a "multi-polar world." The latter two terms are nothing more than a euphemism for Russian hegemony over its "near abroad."

Iran indeed plays a role in Russian geostrategic calculus. First, Russia and Iran have common goals and strategy with regards to Syria and Afghanistan, though for different reasons. Second, Russia views Shi'i Iran as a counterbalance to the Sunni Muslim radicalism which is overtly hostile to Russia. In addition to these two strategic calculi, there exist some more nuanced motivations.

An analysis of Russian media, including social media, highlights the following image of Iran:

* Iran is a Muslim state, but it follows a highly respected, "civilized" form of Islam completely different from that of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, Russia's out-and-out foe.

* Iran and Russia are partners in the war on terror.

* Iran is a conservative, traditionalist state that fights homosexuality. While it may sound ridiculous, for some Russian elites, Iran serves as a sort of alter ego in the sense that they project on Iran their dreams about how Russia should be. To some extent, it is similar to the "imagined Russia" of the French radical Right: Some sympathizers of Le Front National imagine Putin as "a strong, wise leader who cares for his country and keeps traditions, hates America and homosexuals"the leader we would like to have in France but it is impossible.

While Russia's domestic policy is far from being purely ideological or theological, the Russian Orthodox Church would like to wield more influence. The church, similar to the ayatollahs, opposes "Western liberalism." While the distinction between domestic "traditional" and foreign "Western values" does exist in the discourse of both countries,2 the above image of Iran often contradicts pure geopolitical calculus, which leads Russia to act against its own interests. On the one hand, Russia backed the Western-imposed sanctions on Iran, but Russian diplomats later attempted to persuade the West to lift the sanctions. …

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