Iran wants to join the Eurasian Economic Union — but will Russia allow it?
The Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) might soon be acquiring a new member: Iran. Boxed in because of its sponsorship of disruptive proxies throughout the Middle East, and laboring under US-imposed sanctions, Tehran believes it needs to strengthen ties with such neighbors as might be willing to accept it.
Iran appears, in fact, to think that membership in the EAEU is a done deal, despite officials from the bloc denying they have received any formal request. When Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, speaker of the Iranian parliament, visited Moscow on Feb. 10, he declared Iran would “permanently join the EAEU in two weeks.” Apart from the fact that the date has passed, such optimism is extremely premature.
The response from Mikhail Myasnikovich, chairman of the board of the Eurasian Economic Commission, was telling. The union wants Iran to have “a special view on cooperation with Eurasia,” he said — which hardly sounds like a warm welcome. Other EAEU officials have stressed that Iran must formally apply for membership, a veiled warning, perhaps, that Iran cannot expect to bypass procedures.
On the face of it, there are reasons for Tehran and Moscow to support Iran’s addition to the bloc. Its economic area is an integrated market of 180 million people with a combined gross domestic product of more than $5 trillion. It encourages the free movement of goods and services and can formulate common policy in key areas such as energy, agriculture, transport, customs, and foreign trade and investment.
Iran has had a free trade agreement with the Eurasian union since 2018. In 2020, trade turnover between Iran and the EAEU increased by 2 percent, exceeding $2 billion, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Food products and agricultural raw materials accounted for most of that trade in both directions: 80 percent of the goods that the EAEU supplied to Iran and 68 percent of those sent the other way. Joining the union would improve Iran’s economic and political position globally and help to offset, at least partly, the cost of US sanctions.
On the Russian side, Moscow wants another pathway to the markets of the Middle East, which is why the Kremlin strongly supports the construction of the Nakhchivan corridor. This is a land route connecting not only Azerbaijan to its Nakhchivan exclave located between Turkey and Armenia, but also Russia to Turkey and, crucially, Iran. A future rail link between Russia and Iran, passing though Azerbaijan and Armenia, will undoubtedly enhance economic ties between the two countries, as well as Iran’s trading relations with other EAEU member states.
The normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE and other Arab states has changed interest dynamics in the region, tilting the balance further toward the Gulf’s anti-Iran alliance.
How receptive Arab states would be to Russian goods transiting through Iran is another question altogether. This might be a reason for Moscow’s distinctly lukewarm response to the possibility of admitting Tehran to the bloc.
In fact, there are several significant questions hanging over the induction of a new member into the bloc, which currently consists of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in addition to Russia. Uzbekistan, Moldova and Cuba have observer status.
It is not improbable that closer economic ties would lead to stronger military cooperation. The UN Security Council embargo on conventional arms shipments to Iran expired in October and it is no secret that Iran is interested in purchasing Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, as well as Su-30 fighter jets. But such a deal would almost certainly ramp up tensions between Moscow and Washington.
Then, there is Russia’s relationship with Israel. The Russians have not prevented Israel from striking at Iranian targets in Syria, despite operating S-400 units in the area. Russia was the mediator in a prisoner exchange between its ally, Syria, and Israel that took place in February and there are rumors of further ongoing negotiations on humanitarian issues and even on wider geopolitical matters.
Speculation aside, what is known is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin have discussed continued coordination between their two countries in light of developments in regional security. Was Iran also on the agenda? Moscow, after all, must maintain its own delicate balancing act and guard its geopolitical interests.
The normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE and other Arab states has changed interest dynamics in the region, tilting the balance further toward the Gulf’s anti-Iran alliance. How does Russia profit from the new Middle East?
Finally, there is the fact that there are others ahead of Iran in the queue to join the EAEU. Syria is one of them. Meanwhile, 40 other countries have stated that they wish to develop trade and economic cooperation with the bloc.
As well as declaring that Iran would soon join the EAEU, Ghalibaf said he had brought with him to Moscow “a very important message” from supreme leader Ali Khamenei. It may well be that Moscow is composing its own, equally important message to send back to Tehran.
* Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.” Copyright: Syndication Bureau