Russian-Iranian Relations through the Prism of the Syrian Crisis

By Kozhanov, Nikolay | Insight Turkey, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Russian-Iranian Relations through the Prism of the Syrian Crisis


Kozhanov, Nikolay, Insight Turkey


Introduction

Since 2012, Russia and Iran have been undertaking serious efforts to improve their relations and bring them to a new level that would imply strategic partnership between them. In 2013-2015, the Russian authorities intensified their efforts to settle the Iranian nuclear issue. Moscow helped to facilitate Iran's negotiations with the international group of negotiators whereas Lavrov's 2012 proposals on the settlement of the nuclear issue laid the necessary ground for the resumption of talks. In this case, Russian motifs were determined by a number of factors. First of all, Iran armed with a nuclear bomb was not desirable for Moscow, as this would change the balance of power in the region and encourage other, even less stable, Middle Eastern regimes to join the nuclear club. Secondly, Russia believed that an unsettled nuclear issue could have hypothetically led to the destabilization of Iran as it created pretexts for a potential military conflict between the U.S. and Tehran. Under these circumstances the Kremlin did not want Iran to become another failed state near the border of the post-Soviet space in addition to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Thirdly, Russia's role in the multilateral negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue helped to promote Moscow's importance as a constructive international player. The latter was also important given the negative reaction of the international community to the annexation of Crimea and Russian support to the separatist forces in the East of Ukraine. Thus, Moscow's involvement in the negotiation process with Iran was considered by some U.S. analysts as one of the main factors that guaranteed the success of the negotiation process. (1) In July 2015, the U.S. President, Barack Obama, even telephoned Putin to thank him for Russia's role in reaching the P5+1 agreement with Iran. (2) Finally, by helping Tehran to settle the nuclear issue and lift international sanctions, Moscow was creating the positive image of Russia as a reliable partner. The latter brought obvious results by helping to revitalize Russian-Iranian relations.

Yet, in spite of strong mutual intention to bring the bilateral relations to a new level, the pace of their development obviously dissatisfies both sides. Thus, in spite of the positive media coverage, Rouhani's visit to Moscow (March 27-29, 2017) ended with very modest results. Most of the documents signed during the visit were either non-obligatory memorandums or supplementary agreements that were supposed to add some minor details to existing treaties. Moscow even refrained from promising the reciprocal visit of Putin to Tehran. The Iranian side was obviously disappointed by the absence of a breakthrough during these negotiations, although Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, and the President of Iran Hassan Rouhani himself remained determined to seek further progress in Russian-Iranian relations.

The limited results of Rouhani's visit could be explained by several reasons. First of all, most of the economic projects discussed by Moscow and Tehran are still raw. Secondly, the Kremlin also wants to keep its relations with Tehran low-profile as it does not want to irritate other Russian partners in the region such as Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Finally, Russia simply does not believe that it should be in a hurry when dealing with Tehran. Trump's anti-Iranian rhetoric naturally pushes Iran towards Russia and keeps it in the sphere of Russian influence. Meanwhile the communalities in Russian and Iranian approaches to existing regional issues (such as the security of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; legal status of the Caspian Sea; cross-border crimes; Eurasian transit routes; situation in trans-Caucasia and Central Asia) can always ensure the minimal positive degree of bilateral dialogue. Under these circumstances, Moscow prefers to work on the improvement of bilateral relations thoroughly and without making rushed decisions. …

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