Iran’s relations with Russia to be tested under Raisi
After Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line judge, secured victory in this month’s Iranian presidential election, what will be the implications for Tehran’s relations with Russia? Among experts, there are two main positions. Firstly, that Russia and Iran will continue their strong and strategic alignment. This view has been expressed by Araik Stepanyan, a member of the presidium of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, who told Russia’s RT: “Russia has always had favorable relations with Iran, especially with its conservative part. The countries traditionally resolve bilateral issues in a constructive manner, through dialogue and mutual concessions. For many years, Iran has not undertaken any aggressive actions against the USSR and Russia.”
The second position, as held by Guy Burton of Vesalius College, Brussels, holds that, despite collaborations over Syria and defense supplies, there are factors holding back relations between the two countries. One of them is Russia’s desire to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Another factor is mutual vigilance. Tehran has been suspicious of Russian ambitions in the region since the days of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and this is unlikely to change under Raisi.
What we can say is that the dynamics of the relations between Iran and Russia will alter under Raisi’s leadership, primarily due to the US factor. Relations between the two have commonly rested on a shared perception of the threat presented by America. The natural assumption is that, since Raisi is a conservative figure who is already subject to US sanctions over human rights abuses, Iran’s tone toward the West will harden. This, in turn, ought to promote closer cooperation with Russia. However, this scenario must be balanced against wider geopolitical dynamics.
During an interview with Andrew Parasiliti, Fyodor Lukyanov, the chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, stated: “Russia’s relationship with Iran should not be seen through the prism of Russian relationships with the US. It has much less to do with the US and the position of the US of 10 years ago, when Iranian sanctions and negotiations around the nuclear program were an important part of the so-called ‘reset’ between Russia and the US, launched by President (Barack) Obama. At that time, Iran was a very important element of this relationship; this is not the case anymore.”
He summarized his position with the thought that “Iran is changing, and Iranian interests should not necessarily be seen as Russian interests. They are not against each other, but they are simply different.” This appears to be an effort to leave plenty of flexibility in Russia’s moves going forward, where different priorities and relationships need to be balanced.
Russian and Iranian interests certainly do overlap in several areas, including Syria. While both states support Bashar Assad, they also have different views about post-conflict Syrian governance, state-building and military reform. Russia’s diplomacy concentrates on finding a balance with all sides in the region, which has resulted in close collaborations with other regional actors, including the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Israel. One side effect of this has been a growing level of distrust from Iran.
The dynamics of the relations between the two countries will alter under Raisi’s leadership, primarily due to the US factor.
Dr. Diana Galeeva
Russia still recognizes Iran as an important player in the Middle East and North Africa region (and also in the South Caucasus and Caspian Sea). However, it has, over time, been building equally important relations with Iran’s regional competitors. Moreover, signing a US-Russia joint presidential statement on strategic stability — the outcome of the Geneva summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin — means that Moscow will play an important role in the Vienna talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal. This is a strike against Russian-Iranian collaboration, since Tehran is desperate for sanctions against it to be lifted. However, the nuclear deal is widely regarded as a much higher priority for Biden and the US than it is for Putin and Russia, so participation in the talks may not lead to a break with Iran; pragmatic relations are certain to continue, though perhaps with Iran’s importance somewhat diminished.
If Moscow and Tehran do curtail their “special relations” under Raisi, the US factor might actually bring China closer to Iran instead. These two states have already signed a sweeping economic and security partnership that clears the way for billions of dollars of Chinese investments in energy and other sectors. In exchange, China secures a regular oil trader. The document has also been described as deepening military cooperation, potentially giving China a foothold in a region that has been a strategic preoccupation of the US for decades.
Finally, another possible challenge for Russia-Iran relations is Iranian influence on Russia’s domestic issues as, under a conservative Raisi leadership, ideological tone may be a priority for Iran’s foreign policies. Ahmed Yarlykapov, of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, gave a notable presentation at March’s Oxford University-hosted conference entitled “Russia and the Muslim World,” in which he illustrated the growing influence of Iran in the North Caucasus. He shared some results from his fieldwork, illustrating the variety of points on which Moscow will need to evaluate its relationship with a Raisi-led Iran, with a pragmatic, multifaceted approach the most likely shape of things to come.
• Dr. Diana Galeeva is an Academic Visitor to St Antony’s College, Oxford University, having previously also been a Scholar-in-Residence at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. She is a co-editor of the forthcoming book, “Post-Brexit Europe and UK: Policy Challenges Towards Iran and the GCC States” (Palgrave Macmillan).