Russia and Iran: A postmodern dance
By M K Bhadrakumar
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.
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,
Despite Iran's "look East" policy, Russia has found its interests in strengthening its relations with the West. Russia's support of the sanctions resolutions against Iran in the Security Council and the suspension of some military commitments have been some of Russia's anti-Iran measures. Using the Iran card in its game with the West and particularly the US has always been beneficial for Russia.
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.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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