Small Wars Journal

Russia & Iran: Strategic Alliance or Marriage of Convenience

Sat, 11/23/2013 - 3:17pm

Russia & Iran: Strategic Alliance or Marriage of Convenience

Njdeh (Nick) Asisian

Edited by Lieutenant Colonel Mark Sereduck

“In politics there are no permanent allies - or enemies – only permanent interests.”

-Lord Palmerston


The relationship between Russia and Iran since the collapse of the Soviet Union forms a necessary and essential aspect of international relations. Amongst the general public, and even within academic circles, misunderstanding and unease exist vis-à-vis Russian-Iranian relations. It is a fact that Russo-Iranian relations have never been close.

The two wars (1804-1813 & 1826-28) in the early 19th century that cost Iran a significant amount of financial and territorial losses in the Caucasus and Central Asia made close relations impossible, and Soviet intervention in Iranian domestic politics in the post WWII period was a vivid reminder of Russian imperial designs on Iran proper.

As a result, Iran and Russia have developed a widespread and deep emotional bias. Cooperation between both countries has been hard and sometimes annoying.  In the post Soviet era, despite the fact that they do not trust each other, geopolitical reality has forced them to find mutually reasonable grounds for cooperation.

In the post-Soviet era, the Russian Federation had geopolitical disadvantages, faced immediate Western expansion in Eastern Europe, and experienced strong economic collapse. At the same time, Iran also faced isolation from the rest of the world, and the destruction from the Iran-Iraq War  had a lasting impact on the state and character of the Iranian people.

Koulai who is the Professor of Political Science in Tehran University and she also was Majlis representative during the reform era, described the period and mentioned “in reality after reduction of the Russian threat along the 2250 KM of mutual borders and the fact Russia’s borders regressed 400 KM further north has provided a new opportunity to improve Russo-Iranian relations. The vacuum of power after the collapse of the Soviet Union has caused a serious [geopolitical] crisis in [the Eurasian vast land]. This crisis has encouraged the foreign forces to take advantage of the situation [and they tried to fill the vacuum]. The other important issue was the fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union left a collection of broken structures, unstable and needy [systems all over the area]. [At the same time], in the first years of the post-Soviet era, the Russian government filled by “Atlanticist” politicians who were eager to force Russia into the Western political structures. Therefore, the Russian foreign policy choices were [completely different]. [As a result,] the Russian foreign policy establishment did not take the Iranian factor [very seriously].”[i]

Russo-Iranian relations were improved since 1993 since the Russian nationalists [have become increasingly] anti-American. After two years of “Atlanticist” politics, the Russians [came to the conclusion] that it needs to achieve more [resolute] or even anti-Western policies; therefore, in the 1993 [Russian Federation] elections the radical nationalists and communists have won the majority of votes.” [ii]

In US and EU attempts to fill the Eurasian gap, they forced Russia and Iran to rediscover each other. Russia and Iran stopped acting like mortal enemies. They became allies against Western interests in Eurasia. Perceived US and West European threats have forced Iran and Russia to improve their relationship. The Western threat has provided both Russia and Iran the pragmatic grounds for mutually beneficial economic activities, geopolitical interests, and more importantly their struggle against a common Western enemy.

Despite Iranian government wishes to have closer ties with Russia the majority of Iranian analysts think otherwise.   There are three different schools of thought about Russian foreign policy in Iran.  Iranian Russian foreign policy analysts are divided into the good, the bad and the ugly camps. The first group has a positive [good] attitude toward Russia and believes that “Russia is just a global power that calls itself a friend of Iran and protects Iranian interests.  [The second group has a negative (Bad) attitude toward Russia. They have stated that] the current Russian policies are a continuation of Imperial Russia’s policies. Russia has long-term strategic goals regardless of who is in power in Russia. The country is in the process of extending its influence south of its borders and it has the economic, political, and military capabilities to do so.  [The third group (ugly) believes that Russia has] an opportunistic position based on its own national interest. Russia is not a strategic ally, but a tactical ally for Iran. [While on the one hand], Moscow profited from Iranian isolation, [on the other hand], Russia’s support reduces pressure on Iran.”[iii]

This paper tries to analyze the historical path of Iranian foreign policy after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Further, it searches the possibility of Russo-Iranian strategic partnership against the US-EU incursion within the Eurasian heartland and the Iranian wish to use Russia as a shield against the Western powers.  Despite much speculation regarding Russian-Iranian intentions for closer ties, the possible Russo-Iranian strategic partnership is not an easy task, and furthermore we have to respect their limitations and problems. There is a vigorous debate amongst the Iranian foreign policy analysts concerning Russia’s goals in the Eurasian land mass. The major goal of this paper is to introduce different schools of thought of Iranian foreign policy about Eurasia and particularly about Russia’s role in Iranian regional and international politics.

It is important to mention that this paper relies heavily on Farsi language open source analytical papers as a primary source.  Readers are provided with a first-hand look at Iran’s foreign policy choices at both the regional and international level. The analysis of contemporary Russian government foreign policy is introduced from English language publications. 

Iran and Russia: Different Past and Questionable Destiny

In order to understand the importance of Russo-Iranian relations in the present, the author has tried to answer a few possible questions concerning why Iran and Russia have tried to create new type of relationship. This analysis may assist the reader to gain some knowledge about both countries' political and strategic interests and how they may affect the international political system as a whole.

At the same time, it will allow the reader to understand the other chapters of this article which extensively analyzes Iranian foreign-policy in the post-revolutionary era and the particular needs of Iran in a historical time and space context.

Historically, the mutual distrust and conflict between Russia and Iran has made their collaboration more difficult than ever.  Despite all difficulties, Iran and Russia have been able to get some mutually beneficial ways to improve their relations with conventional military equipment and nuclear technology.  At the same time, there are some problems and challenges that both Russia and Iran needed to address such as, Iranian nuclear development, and the Caspian Sea status.

It is essential to understand, in the current situation, that Iran and Russia have geopolitical and policy similarities that they share from international pressure on both states' national interests.  In the case of Russia, its fear of strategic encirclement by NATO and its loss of significant geopolitical and economic dominance in the Eastern and Central Europe, Ukraine, and the Baltics have forced Russia to change its foreign policy and become more and more an undemocratic Asiatic state rather than one embracing European democratic values.

The fear of western incursion in the Russian heartland, Caucasus, and Central Asia has forced Russia to redirect its foreign policy toward Eurasianism, rather than Euro-Atlanticism. The redirection of the Russian foreign policy approach has been solely based on pragmatism and what Russian foreign policy makers can do.

In contrast, Iran comes from a remarkably different historical context than Russia. In pre- revolutionary Iran, Iran was an extremely close friend of the West in their mutual effort to control the Soviet Union’s expansionist policies. 

In their post revolutionary era, the Iranian Shia religious and political elites believed that they had offered a new way of life and social structure to the world, which would ultimately defeat Western materialism, and Soviet atheism. The Iranian Shia religious and political elites believed, through the Iranian Islamic revolution, Islam would be validated as the only true religion which can provide answers to all issues in the contemporary world.  Consequently, “Its ripple was to be felt across the region, despite the fact that this revolution had occurred in a non-Arab and Shia-dominated country.”[iv] The new Iranian government decided to take a different path in the post revolutionary era, and it vehemently opposed both the West and the former Soviet Union’s political and social values with an exceedingly popular slogan "not West, nor East, only Islamic Republic.”

According to Ehteshami who is the Iranian expert at Durham University, "This republic did indeed come to resemble neither, arguably evolving into an anti-imperialist Muslim version of the French Republic as one thumbs through its (1979 and 1989 amended) constitution!”[v] However, “the Iranian revolution, which bucked the trend in 20th Century revolution in terms of its ideology, ended the reign of a pro-Western and secular regime in a large and strategically important Middle Eastern country.”[vi]

Their theological understanding of international relations was one of the most salient reasons for the revolutionary government’s initial opposition to the U.S. and Western Europe's presence in Iran. Perhaps the best symbol of the Iranian theocratic regime’s resentment against the West in general, and against the U.S. in particular, was the American Embassy hostage crisis in the early 80s (Nov. 4 1979 to Jan. 1981).

The relationship between Iran and U.S. suffered a massive blow in the early 1980’s and has not yet recovered, due to regime transition.  Consequently, America’s economic and diplomatic embargo has isolated Iran for over three decades and has had considerable negative effects on the country’s economic structure, including the oil industry. For instance, in the pre-revolutionary era, Iran produced 6,000,000 barrels of oil a day while now it can only produce approximately 3,000,000 barrels and could only increase this capacity by a relatively small 40,000 barrels.

Despite the disappearance of the Iran-US strategic alliance in the Middle East, Iran sought to create a mutually beneficial relationship with Western Europe.  During their presidency, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami attempted to establish a dialogue with Europe, especially with Germany, France and the Great Britain. They did so in order to counterbalance the US efforts to isolate Iran. Europe was also interested in improving its relationship with Iran due to its longstanding economic and political interest. Europe also wanted to solve Iran’s problems with the West through Constructive Dialogue.

The Iranian strategy toward Europe did not eliminate its isolation for many reasons. US pressure on its European partners, and the negative PR caused by the Salman Rushdi affair, contributed to Iran’s continued isolation. To make matters worse, Iran conducted terror attacks against Iranian opposition leaders in Europe that caused the death of many Iranians. At the same time, Iran’s hostile attitude toward Israel and the other neighboring Middle Eastern countries made her relations more complicated than ever.

In 2002-2003, Iran’s relationship with the West suffered yet another blow when it revealed that Iran had been building secret nuclear energy facilities that has possible military uses.

Iran’s 2005 presidential election provides significant evidence of momentous changes in Iranian political behavior. The reformist forces were hoping to change the state’s behavior, but lost to the more radical and isolationist forces that were radically religious and zealous in nature. The other relevant factor that must be taken into consideration is their millennialism (Shia Eschatology). The current Iranian president and his supporters strongly believe that the reappearance of the 12th Shia Imam is expected, and this religious belief influences the government’s foreign and domestic policy choices.

The combination of anti-Western ideas coupled with Western pressure on Iran regarding its nuclear program, internal power struggles, religious beliefs, and other issues have forced Iran to change its pro-EU foreign policy orientation.  Iran has entered into uncharted territory and developed strategic relations with countries such as Russia, China, India, and other Southeast Asian countries. The new Iranian foreign-policy is called the “Policy of Looking East”. Iran has followed the Russian direction and become Eurasianist as well.

Despite their troubled past, Russian and Iranian opposition to the West and their foreign policy choices have made Iran and Russia natural allies that complement each other’s needs. Russian Eurasianism and the Iranian “Policy of Looking East” have similar goals such as preserving their independence in an increasingly unipolar global political system and restricting Western access to their zones of influence in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf.  More importantly, both policies attempt to change the unipolar system toward a multi-polar system, which allows room for other countries to influence the global network and attempts to balance United States’ power.

The Background of Eastern Politics

Political Factors

For a long time, the Iranian political system did not have an efficient and effective decision making process. There were many different centers of power that were not in harmony with one another up until 2005. Since the 2005 presidential election, the decision-making system has changed and “for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the legislative, judicial, and executive powers, which incorporate the military, and security forces, have come to hold relatively homogenous views in the political, economic, ideological, military, security, cultural, and social spheres of policy. Therefore, uniformity of views among the new policy-makers is now the hallmark of the political landscape in Iran.”[vii]

After the 2005 elections, the new Iranian presidential administration was filled with extremists. These extremists reversed Iran’s transition over the last 16 years of rule by Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. The new Iranian government, under President Ahmadinejad’s leadership, has tried to return to the religious extremism of the Khomeini era of foreign policy and use more strength and destabilizing activities to achieve foreign policy objectives. Some of the activities include:

1. Emphasizes Iran’s rights regarding the nuclear issue while accepting the hardship that follows this option.

2. Opposes the United States’ unilateral global, and regional foreign policy.

3. Emphasizes Iranian Islamic ideals, such as the destruction of Israel.

4. Strongly supports  the Lebanese and Palestinian Islamic movements.

5. Pursues the Looking East foreign policy, emphasizing closer ties with Russia and China.

6. Formulates foreign policy according to ideological dogma rather than global realities.

7. Is expanding and improving relations with neighboring Arab Persian Gulf states.[viii]

Seifzadeh believed that “Ahmadinejad has pioneered a primordial surrealist campaign against the Pax-Americana international system and order. His primordial surrealist campaign is a pragmatic foreign policy targeted to undermine Western globalism and hegemony by capitalizing on the already charged emotions (pan-Muslim cooperation and contempt for the hostile West) of Muslims around the world.”[ix]

In other words, Ahmadinejad’s government derailed efforts to restore Iran’s relations with the West. The new administration took a harder line on many fronts. President Ahmadinejad made his name on the international scene with comments that have outraged the international community, and many Iranians as well.

President Ahmadinejad and his supporters, who have formalized the “Looking East Policy”, believe that Iran is a unique form of Islamic government. The Islamic Republic of Iran prefers to have closer ties with countries that do not try to influence or change the Iranian political system. In other words, Iran wants to expand its relations with countries that ies to mind their own business. The Islamic Republic considers Western countries as an existentialist threat to its existence, while the West tforces Iran to start new types of socio-political or economic systems, similar to their own.

The Iranian former Foreign Minister Mr. Motaki, in an interview with Ettelat newspaper, discussed the primary reasons behind Iran’s foreign policy adjustments. He stated that “After the revolution’s victory, we tried to talk to Western [European] countries; these talks progressed in a number of different directions based on cooperation. However, these discussions did not bring any positive outcomes. West[ern] [Europe] had imaginary claims against the Islamic Republic from day one. In all those years, [the Western countries’ fundamental attitude toward Iran did not change] while the only differences were in smiles and diplomatic politeness. [The imaginary] claims, with one-sided propaganda and political attacks against Iran, [were part of the Western attitude toward Iran].”[x]

Besides the influence of the negative Western perspective on Iran’s foreign policy strategy, Mr. Motaki mentioned the importance of a balance of power that would make room for a greater Iranian place on the regional and international stage. Mr. Motaki has divided current international players into three different groups: the first group contains countries that are claiming the whole world as their turf; the second group of countries are followers, and the third group of countries are independent [players].  Motaki stated that “the third group of countries are independent [minded countries]; they wanted to be able to redefine the [global] balance of power [in order to break the current unipolar system]. These countries, based on their scientific, ideological, cultural, economic, and international capabilities, could influence the international system. In reality, the ‘Ninth Government [after the Islamic Revolution]’ having the Islamic Revolution’s capacities and [a vision of being an independent country] is trying to influence the international system as well.”[xi]

Ahmadinejad and the New Foreign Policy Approach

Clearly, relations between Iran and the West entered into a more difficult period when Dr. Ahmadinejad became Iran’s new president. He immediately redirected Iran’s foreign policy as he stated, “Tehran’s diplomacy must have an Eastern orientation, and [Iran should] reduce its reliance on Western allies. [The West was proved to be unreliable], [this new policy] will provide more opportunities for Iranian diplomacy.” [xii]

The decision-makers in Ahmadinejad’s government:

1- attach remarkably little, if any, importance to the decisions made by western institutions, such as the G8, the EU, or even the UN Security Council, if considered inconsistent with international law.

2- determined to carry out their decisions and policies, which are considered by them to be in the national interest of Iran, even if it means resisting the decisions made by the G8, the EU, and the UN Security Council.

3- accord priority to working with the Muslim world, the Third World countries, and the major Eastern powers, such as Russia, China, and India, rather than cooperating with the West.

4- while complying with international treaties, are determined to depart from them, if the legitimate rights and interests of Iran under those are treaties are violated.

5- determined to exercise Iran’s inalienable right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)  to conduct uranium enrichment to produce nuclear fuel, even if means rejecting Security Council resolutions and withdrawing from the NPT.

6- rely primarily on the poor and disenfranchised in Iran to promote policies, campaigning on a domestic policy of redistribution of wealth and opportunities to empower the poor, and focusing on the less-developed areas of the country.

7- increase the power and authority of provincial governors to an unprecedented scale in order to decentralize decision-making and promote community development.

8- support public opinion in the region, and the Muslim world appalled by the US policy of double-standards, against the US aiding and abetting Israel to commit crimes in the region. US policies, will provide a strong foundation in the region and the Muslim world [for advancement of Iranian foreign policy] and force the US, and the [other] West[ern countries] to reconsider their positions vis-à-vis Iran. [xiii]

The Iranian nuclear program provides an excellent model to analyze the “Looking East” doctrine. For instance, Dr. Ahmadinejad, in a visit to the City of Birjand in Southern Khorasan Province, explained his reason for changing the political discourse at the beginning of his presidency regarding continuation of the nuclear enrichment program. He explained, “after the new government takes office, we decided to change this one-sided process. We decided to resume nuclear activities, after having a meeting with the head of the Islamic Revolution [Ayatollah Khamenehi].” [xiv]

In his speech, there are few key factors that explain the theory behind this new foreign policy. First, the rejection of current international order, unless it is in favor of the Islamic Republic. For instance, Iranians believe nuclear enrichment as their inalienable right while they work within the NPT framework.   Additionally the NPT provides protection for Iranian activities; therefore, NPT is advantageous. Second, intentional willingness of the Islamic Republic to oppose the international community,  risking the government and people’s well being,  for unlikely advances.

The “Looking East Policy” is blocking any agreement that is connected to the national interests of the country, which means the international community’s position regarding Iranian nuclear activities is either not considered, or is not taken seriously.  It is worth mentioning that there are many different examples that show how strongly the Iranian government pursues the “Policy of Looking East.” In particular, Iran has used this method in order to legitimize its nuclear activities, which is the moving force behind Iran’s decision to curtail its relations with the Western European nations.

The “Looking East Policy” opened the door to believe that there are some countries willing to work with Iran in order to contain the West and especially the United States' global power. However, the countries that are capable of fulfilling Iranian desires are far from creating necessary conflict with the United States unless a significant international conflict happens which pits those countries against the West. What this approach did not take in consideration is the fact that Iran is far from being a global player, and its comparison with the other global players is absurd and is unreasonable. The major problem that Iran suffers from is the fact that Iran does not have all the factors of state power.  One can compute the state's power through "(1) resources or capabilities, or power-in-being; (2) how that power is converted through national processes; (3) and power in outcomes, or which state prevails in particular circumstances."[xv] Based on this definition, Iran as an independent government entity within the international scene is not capable of using opportunities to establish itself as a international power. In reality, the current regime progressively destroys Iran's ability to have a positive influence on the international scene.

The New Alliance in Eurasia?

Iran-Russia Access

The “Policy of Looking East” has clarified Iran’s regional and international alliances. The new government has stated that its priority [is] working with the Muslim world, the Third World countries, and the major Eastern powers, such as Russia, China, and India, rather than cooperating with the West.”[xvi]

Perhaps the most valuable part of Iran’s Eastern policy is Russia. From the Iranian point of view, “Russia is a hard obstacle against the infiltration of regional players, such as Israel, Turkey, and global players like NATO and the United States in the Caucasus and Central Asia; [the Russian factor in the region] strengthens Iran’s national security.”[xvii]

Beside the importance of Russia as a buffer zone, which could stop Western encirclement of Iran along the north of its frontiers, Iran also sees significant benefits of having close ties with Russia. Iranians believe that the Persian Gulf is losing its geo-economic influence and the Caspian Sea is becoming a rising star on the horizon. Consequently, Iran believes cooperation with Russia will create significant dividends and influence in the Eurasian heartland in the medium or long time.

Dr. Yazdani, who is a Professor of Political Science at Isfahan University, had described this issue as follows: The Caspian Sea-Persian Gulf Axis are where international developments are shifting the emphasis from the Persian Gulf toward the Caspian Sea. The geopolitical changes are shaping up the basis of a new Cold War where the signs of the emerging [new world order] can already be observed. The connection between the two geopolitical and energy centers of the world, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, holds a sizeable strategic importance. The competition to manage the links between these two centers will lay the core of the future emerging global order as it evolves. [xviii]

Yazdani also added the importance of Iran as a new heartland based on the geo-economic factor. He mentioned, “The heartland has assumed a particularly important position in the Twenty First Century geo-strategies and geopolitics of the surrounding countries and the great powers. Three things have given rise to this position: the presence of immense energy reserves; its geographical location in the heart of the old world; and the reality that it is a sensitive part of the global system.”[xix]

At the same time, the Russian approach toward Iran has exceptionally strong geopolitical, economic and safety concerns. The first reason that forced Russia to form an unofficial alliance with Iran was the uneventful Russian regression from Eastern Europe, and the Baltic and the Balkans regions. The 1990 regression has had a profound psychological impact on Russian foreign policy and their military experts. They see the utter strategic encirclement of Russia by the West. They consider the resurrection of MacKinderism in the Western strategy toward Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. The current relentless expansion of NATO and the EU toward the east is a feature that Russian geo-politicians cannot deny. This expansion reminded them of two different aspects of Mackindere’s theory of the Heartland, geopolitics and ethnicity. The first part has an extremely chilling effect on the Russian political elite when Mackinder mentioned in 1904:

“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland

Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island

Who rules the World-Island commands the World”[xx]

In other words, what Russia is witnessing in Eastern Europe is part of a greater shift to undermine Russia‘s influence in the Eurasian heartland by integrating Eastern European countries within the Euro-Atlantic structure. On top of this problem, Russia also faces another problem that also came from Mackinder. Mackinder highlighted the significant differences between the dominant ethnic groups in the Heartland, Eastern and Western Europe.  In East Europe, there are two essential elements, the Teutonic and the Slavonic, but no equilibrium has been established between them as between the Romance and Teutonic elements of West Europe. [xxi]

The coalition of Romance and Teutonic elements on the European continent is a disturbing point for Russia when all of these elements unified under the EU and NATO. Beside theoretical issues, there are truly, serious, real world problems that Russia faces with expansion of NATO. William D. Jackson who is a professor of political science at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio mentioned Russian military and political elite concerns as follows:  “The military’s concern over NATO’s expansion was by no means contrived. They reflected real perceptions of a serious deterioration in Russia’s military and strategic position. In their assessment of the impact of the anticipated first round of expansion on NATO’s capabilities, military commentaries noted:

• The entry of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia would put at NATO's disposal nearly 300 forward-positioned airfields, greatly increasing the potential depth and strength of NATO air strikes on Russian territory.

• Operating from new forward bases, NATO tactical aircraft could penetrate to the Smolensk-Bryansk-Kursk and Petrozavodsk-Yaroslav-Belgorod lines.

• As a consequence of the extended penetration of NATO tactical aircraft and missiles, NATO's tactical weapons assumed strategic significance.

• The entry of Poland alone would make available to NATO extensive port facilities on the Baltic, increase NATO's combat ships by 18 percent and Baltic patrol aircraft by 50 percent, and thus dramatically increase NATO's ability to dominate the Baltic.

• Land forces under NATO command would be augmented by eleven divisions and thirty-eight brigades. NATO would gain access to a vast infrastructure of transportation and storage facilities, which would allow rapid forward deployment of NATO forces to the east.

• Russian warning time for NATO attacks would be reduced to even more critical and potentially dangerous levels.”[xxii]

The NATO expansion in Eastern Europe has already generated a gigantic amount of power and advantage against Russian conventional military and nuclear power. The NATO expansion toward Eastern Europe is a serious problem in the minds of the Russian strategists. They feel utterly helpless to turn the military balance of power in their favor.

Further, Russian society has considerable problems that also influence the Russian geopolitical, security and military interests in Eastern Europe and even Eurasian heartland. According to Eberstadt “Russia is now at the brink of a steep demographic decline—a peacetime population hemorrhage framed by a collapse of births and a catastrophic surge in the death rate.”[xxiii]

Based on the relative weak military, economic situation, and tremendous demographic problems, Russia is not able to put up a decent fight against NATO’s expansion. It is true that Russia has been able to contain Georgia and conduct psychological warfare against Ukraine for the time being. Still there are lots of unanswered questions regarding Russia’s capability to turn a military victory or PSYOP to gain a reliable political influence. In other words, Russia is not capable of containing NATO expansion or pressuring Eastern European countries to not join the alliance. Therefore, the Russian side considers Eastern and Central Europe are a lost cause from Russia’s geopolitical point of view. The lack of funding, and decline of Russian military, economic, and strategic capabilities are a serious hindrance for Russia in order to play a bigger role in the European Theater.

Therefore, Iran as a state and geographical entity has become a crucial part of the Russian geopolitical strategy against the Western powers. Iran is a crucial ally; Russia can protect its southern flank of its zone of influence (Caucasus and Central Asia) through Iran. Iran is doing a terrific job to protect Russia’s interest without any cost of its own human resources or money.

From the Russian perspective, Russia’s relationship with Iran is based on mutual security concerns. Iran "provides the possibility of Russian access to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Further, Iran guards the southern flank of Russia’s borders against infiltration by the United States. In other words, Iran denies the possibility of Russia’s strategic encirclement by the United States along the southern flanks of the Russian border.”[xxiv]

The Russian view of Iran also corresponds to Brzezinski’s geopolitical pivot theory. Brzezinski explained, “Geopolitical pivots are determined by their geography, which in some cases gives them a special role either in defining access to important areas or in denying resources to significant players.”[xxv] In this case, Iran as a geopolitical pivot denies the United States and the EU direct access to the Caucasus and Central Asia where Russia has tremendous geopolitical and economic interests.

The Basis of Russo-Iranian Strategic Relations & Iranian Understanding of Russian Foreign Policy

The Basis of Russo-Iranian Strategic Relations

Mr. Ali Ahmad Jalali defines Russo-Iranian relations as comprising four different categories: “mutual security concerns, economic interest, political benefits, and potential conflicts of interest.”[xxvi]

Mr. Sekhavat Rezazadeh, who is a researcher in the Iranian Islamic Parliament, provides more detailed information and explains that Russo-Iranian relations are expanding in three different directions: domestic, regional, and international. “On the domestic level, Iranian need of technology, especially nuclear technology, and Russian economic interests are major reasons behind expanding their relations. In general, Russo-Iranian military cooperation and arms sales are another motivation for Russia to expand its economic ties. On the regional level, Russian and Iranian cooperation utilizes two different strategies-to establish stability in the region, and to deny foreign forces infiltration into both the Caucasus and central Asia regions. These regions have significant influence on Russian and Iranian domestic and regional security establishments. On the international level, both countries are working towards improving their regional status, opposing the unipolar system, resisting regional and international rivals’ influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, opposing NATO expansion toward the east, and finally preventing multinational oil companies’ dominance over the Caspian Sea’s energy sources.” [xxvii]

Iranian Understanding of Russian Foreign Policy

As mentioned before, Iranian foreign-policy analysts have seen the good, bad, and ugly in Russian policies toward Iran. For instance, Iranian analysts see poor decision-making processes in Russian foreign policy, which do not help either Russia or its partners’ interests. In contrast to the Iranian government’s efforts to establish close and beneficial relations with Russia, the majority of Iranian political analysts are not in favor of a partnership with Russia. These analysts are specialists in Eurasia and believe that Russia is an unreliable ally that could significantly impair Iran’s interests.

Mr. Farhad Koleini, the former Iran Islamic Republic’s representative in Armenia, belongs to the school of thought that represents Russian policies toward Iran as ugly. He criticized Russian foreign policy and evaluated it as ineffective and problematic. He argued:

“Russian diplomacy still moves along with the Soviet Union psychology and the confident feeling of strategic reserve, and it still repeats the figurative and artificial self-assuredness. The diplomacy of the largest country in the world is in a mental dead end and relies on fruitless and ineffective reforms. The [Russian] foreign diplomatic leaders cannot create a model and essence of global security. Russian diplomacy awakens too late, engages too late, and begins unorganized and ineffective actions too late. The Russian government still has not been able to effect essential and necessary reforms in this area. Feeling secure in its foreign policy has yielded to an economic feeling, which has been key in giving rise to tension emanating from Russia’s missions to its foreign ministry.”[xxviii]

Russian problems in foreign policymaking have undermined its ability to provide a coherent approach for both its allies and its rivals. For instance Dr. Taromi, Iranian researcher in Parliament, belongs to a school of thought that represents Russian policies toward Iranx as inimical, has bitterly commented that “Russia’s approach toward Iran is tactical and in contrast, the Iranian approach is strategic. As a result of the strategic relations with Russia, Iran intends to improve the armed forces capabilities by procuring Russian military equipment, to improve its ability of political bargaining, and to contain the United States’ threats against Iran. At the same time, Russia understands the importance of its relations with Iran. However, Russia uses Iran to strengthen its strategic interests, specifically with the West. One of the bases of Russian foreign policy is cooperating with the West and denying direct confrontation with United States. There is a very well known Russian behavior called comfortable timing and comfortable strategy.”[xxix]

Further, Mr. Koleini has criticized Russian foreign policy that it is, “lacking strategic speed, strategic quality and quantity, strategic transparency, and strategic games while Russian foreign policy makers tend to make everything very complicated.”[xxx]

Dr. Jahangir Karami believes that Russian desires and Iranian expectations do not match with each other. This creates serious disagreement between both countries. He defined Iranian expectations as “Russia is a powerful player which is under the leadership of the KGB, high ranking military officers and nationalists intended to take revenge from the United States. Iranians believe Russia will succeed there very soon. Any Russian move against the United States threat is considered as one step toward the final and ultimate confrontation between Russia and the United States. This point of view believes that a Russian and the United States confrontation is inevitable; therefore, Russia considers Iran as a major partner and that Iran has priority in Russian foreign policy development.”[xxxi]

It is necessary to mention that “Russia has a different opinion about Iran. Russia does not believe Iran is capable of reacting independently on the international scene. Russia considers Iran a third-world country which is following the Soviet Union path in order to create problems for the US on the international scene. However, Iranian acts should not have any cost for Russia. Russia has more urgent priorities, such as the “Near Abroad,” Europe, the United States, the Far East [China, Japan]; therefore Iran ranks fifth in Russian [geopolitical] priorit[ies] which is in the Middle East. Russia expects whenever she suggests, that Iranian anti-system activities cease. Russia, does not want to be in a position of taking a side, one against the other. In other words, both Russia and Iran have unrealistic expectations from each other. Iran considers Russia as a power that can balance the United States on the global stage, while Russia only considers Iran within its bilateral relations at the regional level.”[xxxii]

In addition to the Russian foreign policy weaknesses pointed out by these Iranian analysts, Iran and Russia have enduring historical problems that have never been openly and frankly discussed by either side. Consequently, there is a strong distrust between them regarding the other’s intentions.

Mutual Distrust

Russia and Iran have not had a long period of peaceful contact with one another. The lack of meaningful intellectual exchange and the enduring resentment between these two countries has not allowed the creation of a serious dialogue between them.

Mr. Javad Ranjbar has noted the lack of cultural understanding between Iran and Russia, saying “The cultural split between the two nations (Russia & Iran) is wider than Europe and the Arabs. Russian literary figures such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, and Gorki are unknown within the Iranian culture.”[xxxiii]

On the political scene, mutual distrust between Iran and Russia is open. For instance, Russians believe that “Iran’s helpless situation forces her to forge better relations with Russia.  If Iran and the West were able to solve their differences, Iran would quickly change sides.”[xxxiv]

Iran also distrusts Russia’s intentions. For instance, Putin’s proposal regarding the nuclear enrichment project moving to Russia was not welcomed warmly by Iran.  As one Iranian nuclear scientist put it:

According to Russia’s proposal, Iran must provide financial resources to build a nuclear enrichment plant, which will be completed in the next five to ten years. Further, Iran must provide uranium from its internal resources for this project. After the inception of the operation, Russia will deal with Iran as an ordinary customer. However, secondary to Iran’s contribution with respect to the financial aspect of the project, Iran will receive some discounts. At the same time, the Russian proposal has not clarified how the Iranian professionals must participate in this project. An Iranian nuclear scientist mentioned that this project is not economically feasible for Iran, as Iran has to pay three times more than the international market price for the Russian nuclear fuel. He also mentioned that the cost of Russia’s actions in the Bushehr nuclear plant was equal to three new nuclear plants.[xxxv]

The former Iranian nuclear negotiator, and the current parliament speaker Mr. Larijani in one of his interviews with national television mentioned that, “It is logical that every country be in charge of its own fate regarding energy and not put its future in the hands of another country, even if that country is a friendly country.”[xxxvi]

Mr. Alireza Sheikh Attar, head of the Hamshahri Publishing Company, analyzed the Russian nuclear enrichment proposal and its aims during an interview with Hamshari Diplomatic Journal. He said, “Russians are not willing to stop our nuclear activities while they have significant economic profit from selling nuclear reactors to us. However, they want to create some limitations [the lack of a uranium enrichment plant in Iran] for us. The Russians want to keep us dependent on their nuclear industry and deepen Iran’s dependency further.”[xxxvii]

One of Iran’s leading political analysts is Prof. Koulayi, who teaches political science at Tehran University.  She is also one of the leading reformist political activists in the country. She believed the idea that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is no longer feasible in the international scene, and “The conflict between Russia and the United States is a fantasy and we have to put aside the idea that we can benefit from Russo-American animosity because this [idea] is counterproductive.” [xxxviii]

Despite mutual distrust among the Russian and Iranian political elites, cooperation between the two countries is still increasing due to their common interests. Specifically, Russo-Iranian cooperation is flourishing in the areas of military hardware and nuclear technology, though it is strained over the status of the Caspian Sea.

Conventional Military Hardware

The first step in the Russo-Iranian strategic partnership was establishing and maintaining business.  Iran needed modern nuclear and military technology, while Russia needed Iranian petro-dollars before its economic recovery in 2002. While both countries benefited from collaboration, Iran was forced to seek assistance from Russia for two main reasons. First, Iran’s army was significantly weakened, because of its long war with Iraq (22 Sep. 1980-20 Aug. 1988). Second, the West had denied Iran access to modern military technology.

As mentioned earlier, one of the main factors in the relationship between Russia and Iran has been consistent Western pressure on both countries. Iran’s location makes it difficult for a Western deep infiltration into the Russia’s southern flank.  As far as Russia considers, Iran is a “buffer zone”[xxxix] that prevents the West’s open access to the Caucasus and Central Asia.

As a result of Iran’s position as a buffer zone, a militarily and economically weak Iran does not correspond with Russian regional policy and defense priorities. (i.e. Russia wants Iran to be strong and independent enough to keep adversaries out). While a powerful Iran is useful for short-term policy, Russia paradoxically in the long run considers a strong Iran to be a possible future ideological, economic, and strategic risk.

Although Russia considers Iran both an ally and a potential enemy, selling weapons to Iran is a profitable business with minimal immediate consequences for Russia.  In 1998, Iran stated that she wished to purchase from Russia:

“...eight S-300PMU1 ground to air rockets, 1,000 Igla rockets [antiaircraft missile], twenty-five Mi-17-1B helicopters and eight Sukhoi-25 aircraft; this list probably still stands. In late December 2000, it was announced that Russia and Iran had agreed on a long-term program of political and military cooperation, following the visit of Russian defense minister Sergey Ivanov to Iran. In October 2001, the Iranian Defense Minister, Ali Shamkhani, visited Moscow, and concluded an arm deal for $300 million over five years. This made Iran, Russia’s third largest arms customer after China and India. The Russian leadership has made clear that it intends to pursue military technical cooperation with Iran irrespective of the United States’ views on the subject.”[xl]

The Council of Foreign Relations stated:

“Late last year [2006], Russia agreed to sell Iran a $700 million surface-to-air missile defense system (SA-15 Gauntlet) along with thirty TOR M-1 air-defense missile systems, ostensibly to defend its soon-to-be-complete, Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Moscow also plans to upgrade Tehran’s Su-24, MiG-29 aircraft, and T-72 battle tanks. Iran has shown interest in S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia and Belarus, which can intercept enemy aircraft ninety to 180 miles away. Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Military and Security Studies Program, says Iran is building up its naval presence. In April 2006, the Iranians claimed to have tested a high-speed torpedo—similar to the Russian-made VA-111 Shkval—capable of destroying large warships or submarines.” [xli]

Nuclear Technology

Besides conventional arms deals, Russia is also involved in one of the most controversial projects in the history of modern Iran. Russia is trying to finish a nuclear power plant, which was originally started by the German Siemens Company in the 1970s. This nuclear plant is located in a southern commercial harbor called Bushehr.  However, due to the 1979 Revolution and other issues, Siemens decided not to complete the project.

Many people are familiar with the unfortunate history of this power plant.  In recent years, it has become the subject of dispute between Iran, Russia, and the United States.  Based on the previous agreements between Iran and Russia, the Bushehr Nuclear Plant should have been operational in 2005. However, things did not go as planned. Combined with the fact that Iran, at least for now, does not have any plans to produce nuclear weapons, the famous National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)[xlii] evaluation of Iranian nuclear activities marked the beginning of a new era in Russo-Iranian relations. Consequently, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, “Atomstroyexport sent the first shipment of LEU fuel to Iran on December 16, 2007, and the reactor received the last shipment near the end of January [2008]. The fuel, which is under IAEA seal, will contain no more than 3.62% Uranium-235, according to an Atomstroyexport spokesperson.”[xliii]  Further, “the 2005 deal requires Iran to return the spent nuclear fuel to Russia. This measure was designed to ensure that Iran will not separate plutonium from the spent fuel. Moscow also argues that the reactor will not pose a proliferation risk because it will operate under IAEA safeguards.”[xliv]

The Russian decision to supply nuclear fuel to the Bushehr nuclear plant did not make the Iranian policy makers or the media extremely happy. Iranian analysts believed that Russia was pressuring Iran and the United States. Mr. Dariush Ghanbari, who is a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian parliament, hypothesized that “perhaps Russia, in close collaboration with the United States, intended to ask Iran, as a precondition, to stop its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for providing fuel for the Bushehr nuclear plant by Russia.”[xlv] Further,he added, another chilling fact was that, “contrary to some politicians’ belief that Russia is honest in its approach toward Iran. We cannot trust Russia’s politics regarding the Iranian nuclear program.” [xlvi]

The Iranian assumption regarding Russia’s desire to stop Iran’s nuclear enrichment became reality when Mr. Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, stated in his interview with Itar Tass that “We are trying to convince Iranians that they can profit from stopping their nuclear enrichment program because this action can immediately open the door for negotiation with the 5+1 group and even with the United States.”[xlvii] He also added that “Iran’s approval of the cessation of its nuclear program will cover all sides’ interests.”[xlviii]

Despite the NIA and IAED’s pretty upbeat assessment of the Iranian nuclear program, the United States, the European Union and Israel continued to claim that Iran should abandon its nuclear program. Russia’s efforts did not produce any tangible progress, but Russia is still trying to keep the situation under control and not let things get out of hand. In reality, Russia’s strategic competitors do not pose much of a problem, whereas Iran is a problem that Russia cannot easily overcome. Every solution proposed by Russia was rejected by Iran.   As discussed before, President Putin’s proposal regarding uranium enrichment in Russia was rejected by Iran for a variety of reasons and President Ahmadinejad even mentioned this in his infamous encounter with Columbia University students in New York City.

Russia has strong strategic and geopolitical interests in solving the Iranian nuclear crisis. Russia’s leaders believe that their proposal would preclude the West from belligerent activities against Iran and simultaneously protect Russia’s near abroad. The proposal also maintains the current status quo which protects Russia’s short and long-term economic and strategic interests in Iran and the region.  Another possibility exists that Russia looks forward to having a monopoly over Iran’s uranium enriching business. Besides the economic benefits for Russian companies, there may also be a long term strategic plan attached to this program. If Russia becomes the sole supplier of nuclear fuel for Iran, Iran could become hostage to Russia’s political and strategic goals. This is what most Iranians have feared for an extraordinarily long time.

At this point, the Russian strategy to contain Iranian nuclear activities is significantly different from that of the West. Russia is not nervous about the situation, whereas the West considers Iran to be a ticking bomb and a serious threat. At the same time, the nuclear negotiations between Iran and European countries are exceedingly slow and have not made any real progress.

Caspian Sea: Russia & Iran in Different Directions

The other crucial problem between Russia and Iran is the Caspian Sea region. The Caspian Sea has become a source of considerable dispute between Russia and Iran.

“Russia in its dealing with the Caspian Sea Littoral States has never taken in consideration the Iranian points of view. Moscow views, the point between Iran and neighboring states as the same line between Astara [the most western point of Iranian territory] and Husingholi [the most Eastern part of the Iranian territory]. This line was drawn by the Soviet Union, [without Iranian concession] and it was an internal [compromise solution] among the Soviet Republics. The Russian behavior in the last 17 years also proved that Russia does not want to review this line. Russia never signed a treaty or declaration that recognized Iran’s share more than that drawn by the Astara-Huseingholi line. The Russian bilateral treaties with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan put Iran in a [difficult] position.”[xlix]

Russia openly opposed the Iranian proposal to allocate the Caspian Sea based on the Condominium[l]. Iran believed that “the Caspian Sea energy resources are the common property of all nations around the Sea. Any kind of energy exploitation, must be based on a unanimous agreement, or at least negotiated by all five littoral countries.”[li]  However, lately Iran has taken a slightly different approach and has suggested that “all parties should jointly use the Caspian Sea resources or divide them equally among the five countries.”[lii]

Further, “Besides economic and political importance [of the Caspian Sea], the Caspian Sea is directly related to the national security interests and determining sovereignty of boundaries and borders of all five coastal states, including Iran. In order to secure all the coastal countries’ sovereignty and economic interests, Iran believes that the legal status of the Caspian Sea, must be determined with a combination of economic and security factors. Bilateral and trilateral contracts will not secure the interests of all the regional countries.”[liii]

However, the Iranian proposal was not received extremely well among littoral states. Iranian isolation became apparent in Caspian Sea negotiations when all littoral states, including Russia, did not recognize Iran and even tried to keep it out of the negotiations.  Russia considers Iran as a competitor rather than an ally in the Caspian Sea region. Consequently, Russia has tried to limit Iranian influence and strategic interests in the Caspian region through separate negotiations with other littoral states in order to maintain its hegemonic status. According to Ria-Novesti Farsi Language website, “Russia proposed to divide the sea floor and allow joint use of the sea surface by all littoral states.”[liv]  The news about Russia’s Caspian Sea policy is a clear indication that Russia envisioned the Caspian Sea region without Iran and the West.

As you see, the Iranian Caspian Sea policy experienced considerable setbacks due to Russia’s uncooperative attitude. Iran’s inability to convince Russia to work together was a significant blow to its prestige in the region.  At the same time, Russia decided to deal with other the littoral states individually. Iran had no choice but to pursue its interests alone without forming a serious block or partnership with Russia.

Based on the “1998 treaty between Russia and Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan received the ‘Farman Ghazah Complex’ and Russia received the ‘Khvalinskoyeh and Central Complexes’; at the same time, both states have decided to share the areas, based on 50-50 principle. Further, in 2002 Russia signed a treaty with Azerbaijan regarding minerals that were located in both states borderlines. Based on this treaty, both states have the right to use minerals based on internationally recognized norms and laws. In 2003, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan signed another treaty that recognized the demarcation of the Caspian Sea border by bilateral treaties.”[lv]

The lack of enough crude oil in the Azerbaijani section of the Caspian Sea forced the United States and other Western shareholders to support Kazakhstan to export its oil through the BTC pipeline. However, Iran conceived a project, which directly undermined Russian interests in the region and reduced US influence. Iran retaliated against Russia and the West as well with a new strategy.  The Iranian proposal may reduce the vulnerability of littoral states to the Russian roads and pipelines. However, there are serious doubts regarding Iran’s ability to perform these proposals while the United States, the EU, and Russia are staunchly opposed to Iranian influence in the region.  The proposal makes the BTC pipeline less economical and suggested that Iran will not tolerate a trans-Caspian pipeline for geopolitical, economic, or environmental reasons.

The Iranian side proposed a plan, which sounds realistic and economically viable.  The Iranian plan involved the use of ships for crude oil transportation and subsequently using the Iranian north-south oil pipeline.

According to Abbas Maleki, “The cost of purchasing tankers and setting up terminals is more than 3 billion dollars. It seems that the alternative project of the Neka-Rey pipeline can be this project, if the tariffs are reduced. Recently Iran's National Oil Company has ordered ten 60,000 ton tankers for crude oil shipment. These newly built tankers can transfer crude oil from every corner of the Caspian Sea. These tankers can shuttle along the Aqtau-Baku route, and in addition, routes leading to Iran; then Iran can have a share in crude oil exports of the Caspian Sea. This prevents construction of two trans-Caspian pipelines that could seriously damage the environment.” [lvi]

Further, beside transferring oil through ships, Iran also trying to undermine Russia’s restriction on Kazakh and Turkmen oil exports by proposing another pipeline in which it pumps Kazakh and Turkmen oil through the Iranian pipeline system (Neka-Jask Pipeline Project). Therefore, Iran “is in favor of a pipeline that starts from the Kashagan oil field in Kazakhstan, and leads towards the south. After passing through Turkmenistan, it injects crude oil into Iran's pipelines. This pipeline carries the oil towards the south and delivers it to customers in the Arabian Sea or Persian Gulf.  Crude oil transfer using this pipeline is cost-effective for Asian customers and can bypass critical world energy security points.”[lvii]

Russia also is trying to protect its business and national interests in many different ways.  In the Caspian Sea conference in Tehran, the Russian president delivered a speech regarding various mutually beneficial issues for the littoral states. In his speech, President Putin mentioned a few ideas regarding the Caspian Sea’s future and its legal status.

Putin has tried constantly to disengage all of Russia’s global and regional competitors in the Caspian region. His first suggestion was to connect the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. According to Bahman Hedayati, “If Russia’s proposal becomes a reality, the natural route of the North-South Corridor would be compromised in favor of the East-West corridor. The energy transportation route to Europe would become shorter. This proposed corridor would be under Russian [absolute] control, which would be a great strategic victory for them. The Caspian Sea region (sailing) would undergo a historical change. At the same time, it would bring regional countries under tight Russian control. In addition, this plan would seriously damage Iranian interests.”[lviii]

Putin proposed another thought in his speech regarding the future of the Caspian Sea’s legal status. He stated, “in order to use the Caspian Sea’s natural resources, we should not wait for legal conventions, we can do this through diplomatic negotiations.”[lix] Mr. Hedayati considers Putin’s proposal to be a sign of Russian diplomacy and explained, “In order to use the Caspian Sea’s natural resources using only diplomacy as a negotiation tool, disregarding a transparent legal convention will only serve Russia’s interest. The lack of a legal convention will dramatically increase Russia’s ability to negotiate with other [littoral] states. With their considerable power projection capability, Russia will not see any impediment to implement its policies [and put pressure on its neighbors.]”[lx] Tehran’s Caspian Sea meeting ended without any concrete solutions regarding its legal status. The following meeting in Baku also did not produce any tangible solution with Iran opposing the other countries' design on the Caspian Sea because its share would be reduced to nothing.

Conclusion: The Death of the Looking East Policy

Iran’s current foreign policy makers have paid little attention to the West and its determining influence on the global stage. They understand the preceding 19th and 20th century’s balance of power. From Ahmadinejad's perspective, this strategy will save Iran from troubles and prevent the possibility of being drawn into further conflict with the West.  However, the balance of the power method is not a realistic one for countries like Iran. Globalization and the resulting interdependence of the formidable international economic and military powers are a problem for the balance of power approach. Countries such as Russia, India, China, the EU and the United States are tied together by economics, geopolitics, and simply finances.

It is clear that Russia and to some extent China are not in favor of the current global status quo. They are willing to change this system in order to maintain their fair share of economic growth and political influence. However, they will not try to change the current balance of power via open confrontation with the United States and its allies. For instance, the Iranian political analyst Mr. Sanaie clearly mentioned that “Russia has a limited capability to support Iran. The pragmatic Russian government has indicated that it can cooperate with Tehran only to a certain degree without impeding the promotion of its other interests or international integration process.”[lxi]

Therefore, the Iranian policy of “Looking East” propagated by President Ahmadinejad and his friends has serious flaws. This policy will not defend Iran from the US-EU, Iran-bashing policy.  At the same time, Russia will not always defend Iran for purely pragmatic reasons and its own interests via the West.

Therefore, the “Looking East” policy does not provide enough space for dialogue with the West and does not provide solutions if any problems arise between the West and Iran. At the same time, this approach puts Iran in an extremely weak position vis-a-vis Russia, China, and India.

Dr. Davood Hermidas Bavand who is a retired diplomat, has criticized Ahmadinejad’s government. In response to a question about Iran’s capacity to use Russia against the West, he mentioned, they “not only failed to make use of this card, while Iran is still making lots of concessions. During the Chechen crisis, despite that most Chechens are Muslims, Iran defends Russia’s position. In Kosovo, Iran also takes the Russian and Serbian side. In Georgia, despite [that Iran is acutely sensitive in regard to separatist movements], Mr. Ahmadinejad defended the Russian position. In reality, Iran has made a lot of concessions to Russia. In regards to using the Russian card against the West, I believe Russia was a moderating variable rather than being a transformer [therefore] Iran was not able to use Russia properly.”[lxii]

Regarding Russo-Iranian communication and Eastern policy, Russia does not consider Iran to be a crucial partner for several reasons. Some of these reasons include Iran’s previous pro-Western policy, the historical hostility between the two countries, and Iran’s capacity to become a leading regional competitor against Russian interests in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. Therefore, Russia cannot accept “Iran as a genuine strategic partner. It is quite noticeable that officials in Moscow never mention Iran as they expound their ideas about a multi-polar world and the rise of new centers of power.”[lxiii]

Russia only considers Iran as a temporary partner and a buffer zone between the Russian near abroad and the West. This situation was reminiscent of Afghan status in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Afghanistan was considered a buffer zone between the Russian Empire and British India.

The US-Iranian dispute regarding Iran’s nuclear program on the one hand, and the Security Council's vote on the other hand, clearly illustrated how countries that were once Iranian allies have succumbed to the pressure of the United States. Iran falsely hoped that Russia, China, and India would help to reduce US-European pressure. It is pertinent to mention that even Iranian analysts, regardless of their political convictions, believe that President Ahmadinejad’s Eastern policy is defeated.

For instance, Mr. Mehran Ghasemi, in an article published in the Aftabnews web log, stated:

“Contrary to the propaganda, Russia and China’s cooperation with the United States in its resolution to refer Iran to the Security Council, is like the Sword of Damocles over Iran’s head. Instead of forcing the Director General to refer the case back with a more diplomatic character, they once again call for the Security Council to look into Iran’s violations. India remains silent, and abstains from voting, which in itself is a form of association with the drafters of the resolution. All perspicuously (clearly) determine the breakdown of the [Iranian Government] decision that was based on an ideological assumption. In the short term, this stance destroys the diplomatic gains made over the last 16 years of Iran’s cooperation with the West [Europe]. Iranian diplomatic actions sought to transform Western Europe from opposing Iran to cooperating with Iran. The questions now before Iran’s foreign policy makers are: Iran’s hopes rested with Russia and China in halting America’s attempts to impose sanctions against Iran, but rather they referred Iran to the Security Council. What are Iran’s options with Russia and China since they prefer to collaborate with the West, especially with the United States, rather than to assist Iran to retain its sovereign rights? Are we to rely on presumed, and not true, partners that are resistant to pay the minimum cost of supporting Iran before the Board of Governors in order to solve the most dangerous crisis in modern times? Ultimately, is there yet more to pay for the success of ideological discretion over pragmatic sense?”[lxiv]

Mr. Ghasemi is trying to explain that Iran has entered into an impasse that it cannot get out of easily. The East is not capable of defending Iran, while the West is determined to punish Iran. Mr. Ghasemi believes that Iranian foreign policymakers have made a significant strategic mistake due to their strong ideological convictions. In other words, Iran is losing its traditional, realistic foreign policy stance in favor of an ideological struggle.

It is time to answer a pressing question. Are these relations resultant of strategic imperatives or marriage of convenience? Based on the above mentioned historical, political, economic, social and geopolitical considerations, one can come to the conclusion that Russo-Iranian relations are in the initial stages without any strategic complexity in nature. Both sides pretend to go along with each other in order to curb US influence in the region. Iran and Russia consider the US to be a dangerous power that could undermine their country’s regional interests and even their grip on political power (Iranian case). On one hand, despite President Medvedev’s soft talk about the West, the flexibility that he displayed in his recent speech, and the fact that he did not allow Russia to export sophisticated weapons to Iran, suggest Russia is still struggling to protect its former Soviet possessions as its own zone of influence.

On the other hand, the Islamic Republic of Iran has two separate fears from Western incursion in Caucasus, Central Asia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The first fear is the US regional presence as a direct security threat to the Islamic regime. They believe the US involvement in Iranian domestic politics is encouraging opposition groups to undermine the Islamic regime's existence. Consequently, the most important fear that the Iranian political elites have is losing their influence in the Iranian political scene. This fear has had particularly strong socio-political and religious roots. In recent years, this fear has increased due to the massive Iranian protests against the 10th Iranian Presidential Elections which brought Ahmadinejad in power for the second time.

The second fear is losing the newly found Iranian influence due to the vacuum of power in the Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus. Tehran’s leaders are trying to explain this newly found standing at any cost.

The US threat has brought Russia and Iran together. However, the psychological, political, economic, social and historical realities have limited the Russo-Iranian relations from adapting to a full-fledged strategic alliance. Historically, halfhearted strategic relations and alliances have never been successful. Some examples are: the German-Italian alliance during World War II, the unification of Syria and Egypt in 60s, and Iraqi-Syrian after Baath party took over the government in both countries.

These examples are enough to remind us that creating an effective, strategic alliance requires hard work. It seems that neither Russia nor Iran are in a hurry to make such a valuable alliance while they still have many areas of seemingly unsolvable disagreement. The best example is the status of the Caspian Sea where both countries stand in opposition.

Both countries fear each other, especially in the possibility of the major shift of the regional balance of power. For instance, Russia considers Iran as a useful tool to keep the US-EU threat away from Caucasus and Central Asia. At the same time, Russia fears that if Iran becomes a viable regional superpower, then Russia must be prepared to fight Iran in order to keep the Caucasus and Central Asia outside of the Iranian zone of influence. Russia would be caught in the difficult situation that whatever Russia chooses would have dangerous consequences.

At the same time, Iran also has its own problem with the increasing Russian influence in the region. The Russian state could quickly threaten Iranian independence and its territorial integrity, and it could increase Iranian attachment to, and dependence on, Russia through their nuclear and military technologies. Iranians do not share close ties with their northern neighbor. Mr. Abbas Maleki in his “Iran’s Regional Foreign/Energy Policy,” published in the Journal of Politics and Public Administration Association of the University of Hong Kong (Politika), mentions that Iran should “maintain strong and professional, if not cordial, relations with Russia."[lxv]

Further, Maleki mentions, “Iran could not have a strategic alliance with any country. Iran is a strange country that has limitations connecting with other countries because it is not racially, religiously, or linguistically similar to other countries. For years Iran has maintained close ties with Russia, Syria, and Venezuela; however, [Iran] does not consider them strategic allies, especially true with Russia. So Iran is not Russia’s strategic ally but has strategic relations with them. In this strategic relations framework, Iran has nuclear and military cooperation with Russia.”[lxvi]

One can conclude that the Russo-Iranian current status of relations is very much marriage of convenience more than anything else. In other words, Russia is from Venus and Iran is from Mars.          

End Notes

[i] Ellaheh Koulayi, Ketab Sabz Rousiyeh Tran. Njdeh Asisian, “The Russian Green Book,” (Tehran: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Publication), 289.

[ii] Ellaheh Koulayi,, Siyasat va Hocumat dar Rousiyah Tran. Njdeh Asisian, “Politics and Government in Russia,” (Tehran: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Publication), 289.

[iii] Institute of Russia, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies (IRAS), Iran va Russiyeh Motahed ya Raghib, trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Iran and Russia Allies or Competitors”; available from ; Internet; accessed 3 Aug  2007. 

[iv] Anoush Ehteshami, “Iran’s International Relations: Pragmatism in a Revolutionary Bottle,” The Iranian Revolution at 30, Viewpoint Special Edition (The Middle East Institute, 2009), 127.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Center for Strategic Research “Iran’s New Foreign Policy”; available from; Internet; accessed Oct. 10 2007.

[viii] Alireza Rezaii, Tabyin Dowrehaye Siyasat Khareji Jomhouri Islami Iran Az Manzar Theorihaye Ravabet Beynalmellali, tran. By Njdeh Asisian, “The Analysis of Iran Islamic Republic Foreign Policy Eras Based on the International Relations Theories,” Center for Strategic Research, Rahbord Vol. 16, no. 48, (Fall 2008): 98.

[ix] Hossein S. Saifzadeh,, “Culture and the Range of Options in Iran’s International Politics,” The Iranian Revolution at 30, Viewpoint Special Edition (The Middle East Institute, 2009), 132

[x] Manuchehr Motaki, Diplomacy Dovlat Nohom Tran. Njdeh Asisian, “Ninth Government’s Policy,” Ettelaat Newspaper, 29 June 2008, No. 24228; available from\06\06-29\13-54-38.htm&storytitle=????????%20????%20???%20??%20?????%20??%20?????; Internet; accessed Jul 12 2008.

[xi] Manuchehr Motaki, Diplomacy Dovlat Nohom Tran. Njdeh Asisian, “Ninth Government’s Policy,” Ettelaat Newspaper, 29 June 2008, No. 24228; available from\06\06-29\13-54-38.htm&storytitle=????????%20????%20???%20??%20?????%20??%20?????; Internet; accessed Jul 12 2008.

[xii] Mehran Ghassemi, Ghalabeh Ideology bar Pragmatism: Shekast Negah beh Shargh; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “The Triumph of Ideology on Pragmatism; The Defeat of Looking East” available from; internet; accessed 11 Oct. 2007.

[xiii] Center for Strategic Research “Iran’s New Foreign Policy”; available from;  Internet; accessed Oct. 10 2007.

[xiv] Dar Avalin Marhaleh az Dowr Dowom Safarhaye Ostani Rokh Dad/Hamleh Ahmadinejad beh Siyasathaye Khatemi; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “This Happened in the First Part of the [President’s] Second Round of Provincial Tours/ Ahmadinejad Attacked Khatami’s Policies,” Etemad, 8 Nov. 2007, p.1

[xv] Gregory F. Treverton, Seth G. Jones, Measuring National Power (Rand Corporation Publications, 2005), 3.

[xvi] Center for Strategic Research “Iran’s New Foreign Policy”; available from;Internet; accessed Oct. 10 2007

[xvii] Bahman Shoeyb, Iran, Rousiyeh, va Chin:Mehvari Zed Hegemon trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Iran, Russia and China’s An Hegemonic Axis,” Shargh Newspaper, available form; accessed Apr. 7 2008.

[xviii] Dr. Enayat Allah Yazdani and Mojtaba Touserkani, Tahavolat Ghafghaz Gami Digar Dar Masir Jang Sard Jadid; trans. By Mehran Ghassempour, “The Caucasus Upheavals are Another Step Toward a New Cold War,” The Journal of Central Asia and Caucasus  no. 63 (2009): 113.

[xix] Ibid

[xx] Sir Halfor J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality: A study in the Politics of Reconstruction (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 1996) 106.

[xxi] Ibid 90.

[xxii] William D. Jackson, “Encircled Again: Russia’s Military Assesses Threats in a Post-Soviet World,”   Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 117, No. 3 (Autumn, 2002) 379-380.

[xxiii] Nicholas Eberstadt, “The Russian Federation at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century: Trapped in a Demographic Straitjacket,” NBR Analysis,  Vol 15, No. 2 (September 2004) 6.

[xxiv] Bahman Shoeyb, Iran, Rousiyeh, va Chin:Mehvari Zed Hegemon trans. By Njdeh Asisian,  “Iran, Russia and China’s Ant Hegemonic Axis,” Shargh Newspaper, available form; accessed Apr. 7 2008.

[xxv] Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 41

[xxvi] Ali Ahmad Jalali, Hamkarihaye Hameh Janebeh Iran va Russiyeh,  trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Russo-Iranian Cooperation”; Caucasus and Central Asian Studies available form ; Internet; accessed 23 May 2006.

[xxvii] Sekhavat Rezazadeh, Nashriyeh Markaz Pajouheshhaye Majlis Shouraye Islami, Molahezat Moshtrak Jomhoiuri Islami Iran va Rousiyeh Pass az Sheklgiri Mehvar Strategic Torkiyeh va Israel, trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “ The Mutual Interests of Islamic republic of Iran and Russia After Formation of Strategic Alliance of Turkey and Israel”; The Journal of Research Center of IR Iran Parliament, Vol. 12, No. 48, Sep. 2006, p. 255.

[xxviii] Muhammad Farhad Koleini, Ravanshenasi Siyaset Khareji Rousiyeh, trans. By Mehran Ghasemi, The Psychology of Russian Foreign Policy”; available form; Internet; accessed 5 Mar. 2007.

[xxix] Dr. Kameran Taromi, Nashriyeh Markaz pajouheshhaye Majlis Shouraye Islami, Hamkarihaye Iran va Rousiyeh va Siyasathaye America Dar Ghebal Iran, trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Iran-Russia relation and the US policy Toward Iran”; The Journal of Research Center of IR Iran Parliament, Vol. 9, No. 35, Sep. 2002, p. 52; available form; internet; accessed 20 Oct. 2007.

[xxx] Muhammad Farhad Koleini, Negaresh Strategic dar Rousiyeh Emrouz, trans. By Njdeh Asisian, The contemporary Russian Strategic Perception”; available form ; Internet; accessed 5 Feb. 2007.

[xxxi] Jahangir Karami, Iran va Russiyeh: Motahed Sharghi ya Tahdid Jonoubi; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Iran and Russia: The Eastern Allies or Southern Threat?” The International Journal of Foreign Policy, Vol. 3 No. 3 Fall 2010, p. 191.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Javad Ranjbar, Russiyeh va Iran:  Ravabet bar Bastar Mirass Technologic, trans. By Njdeh Asisian,  “Iran and Russia: A Relation based on Technological Heritage,” Tehran International Studies & Resaerch Institute: DID Digital Library; available from ; Internet; accessed Mar 20, 2007.

[xxxiv] Dr. Kameran Taromi, Nashriyeh Markaz pajouheshhaye Majlis Shouraye Islami, Hamkarihaye Iran va Rousiyeh va Siyasathaye America Dar Ghebal Iran, trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Iran-Russia relation and the US policy Toward Iran”; The Journal of Research Center of IR Iran Parliament, Vol. 9, No. 35, Sep. 2002, p. 52; available form; internet; accessed 20 Oct. 2007.

[xxxv] Sharif News; Paygah-Khabari va Tahlili Daneshjouyan Iran, Joziyati dar Movred Tarh Roussiyeh, trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Some Details of Russia’s Plan”; Sharif News-The Iranian Students analytical and News Base; available form; internet; accessed 1 Dec. 2007.

[xxxvi] “Iran rejects Russian Nuclear Offer”; available from; Internet; accessed 30 Apr. 2007.

[xxxvii] Alireza SheykhAttar, Negahi beh tahavolat Russiyeh Pass az Froupashi Sowravi va ravabet ba Iran; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “A Glance on Russia’s Transition After Collapse of the Soviet Union and its Relations With Iran”; available from; Internet; accessed 05 Jan 2007.

[xxxviii] Elaheh Koulayi, Koulayni: Rousha Hata beh Motahedan Strategic Khod Rahm Nemikonand; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Koulayni: Russian Even do not have Mercy to Their Close Strategic Allies”; Aftab Yazd Newspaper, 10th jan. 2008, No. 2262, P2.

[xxxix] This policy is similar to Great Britain’s 19th century policy regarding India and its efforts to deny Russia’s direct access to British-India via Iran, Afghanistan and Ottoman Empire. Therefore, Great Britain has used all these countries as buffer zones against Russian infiltration into the Indian subcontinent.

[xl] Dr. Mark A. Smith, “The Russo-Iranian Relationship”; (Conflict Studies Research Center, Occasional Brief No. 93, 2001) 2.

[xli] Lionel Beehner, “Russia-Iran Arms Trade,” Council of Foreign Relation; available from; Internet; accessed 4 Nov. 2007.

[xlii] See: National Intelligence Estimate (NIA), Iran: Nuclear Estimate and Capabilities, 2007.

[xliii] Congressional Research Center, Paul K. Kerr, “Iran’s Nuclear Program: Status,” CRS Report for Congress, 23 June 2008, 11. 

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Rousha Sedaghat Nadarend; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Russians are Not Honest”; Eteemad Newspaper, 27th Dec. 2007, No. 1576, P 7.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Vazir Kharejeh Rousiyeh: Iran beh Ghani Sazi Uranium Niayz Eghtesadi Nadarad; ; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “The Russia’s Foreign Minster: Economically Iran Does Not Need to Enriched Uranium”; Aftab Yazd Newspaper, 27th Dec. 2007, No. 2253, p 3.

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Jahangir Karami, 177.

[l] In International Law, a condominium is a political territory (state or border area) in or which two or more sovereign powers formally agree to share equally dominium (in the sense of sovereignty) and exercise their rights jointly without dividing it up into national zones. See: M.A. Chandhary and Gautam Chandhary, Global Encyclopedia of Political Geography, New Delhi, India: Dr. N.K. Singh for Global Vision Publishing House, 2009, P.52. 

[li] Yu Jianhua, Competition for Caspian Energy Development and Its Relationship with China, The New Great Game: Chinese Views On Central Asia ed. Charles Hawkins and Robert R. Love (Forth Leavenworth: Foreign Military Studies Office, 2007), 143.

[lii] Ibid.

[liii] Center for Strategic Research, “Iran in Modern Eurasia and the World”; available from; Internet; accessed 10 Nov. 2007.

[liv] Ria Novesti, Taghsim Darya Khazar: Mavaze Roussiyeh and Iran; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “The Partition of Caspian Sea: Russia and Iran Islamic Republic Position”; available from; accessed 28 Jan. 2009.

[lv] Ibid

[lvi] Abbas Maleki, “What Should we Do About the Caspian Sea in Tehran’s Summit”; available from;Internet; accessed 7 Nov. 2007.

[lvii] Abbas Maleki, “What Should we Do About the Caspian Sea in Tehran’s Summit”; available from;Internet; accessed 7 Nov. 2007.

[lviii] Bahman Hedayati, Khiz Diplomacy Roussi Baraye Khazar va Movghiat Diplomacy Irani; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Russian diplomatic Jump for Caspian and the Position of Iranian Diplomacy”; available from; Internet; accessed 22 Sep. 2007.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Bahman Hedayati, Khiz Diplomacy Roussi Baraye Khazar va Movghiat Diplomacy Irani; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “Russian diplomatic Jump for Caspian and the Position of Iranian Diplomacy”; available from; Internet; accessed 22 Sep. 2007.

[lxi] Mehdi Sanaei,  “Problems and Prospects of Iranian-Russian Relations”, Russia in Global Affairs Vol 5. No.3, July-September, 2007, P. 174.

[lxii] Dr. davood Hermidas Bavand, Assib Shenasi Ravabet Iran va Russiyeh, trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “The Pathology of Iran-Russian Relations” Institute of Russia, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies (IRAS) available form; internet; accessed Dec. 12, 2010.

[lxiii] Dr. Davood Hermidas Bavand, Assib Shenasi Ravabet Iran va Russiyeh, trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “The Pathology of Iran-Russian Relations” Institute of Russia, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies (IRAS) available form; internet; accessed Dec. 12, 2010.

[lxiv] Mehran Ghassemi, Ghalabeh Ideology bar Pragmatism: Shekast Negah beh Shargh; trans. By Mehran Ghasempour, “The Triumph of Ideology on Pragmatism; The Defeat of Looking East” available from; internet; accessed 11 Oct. 2007.

[lxv] Abbas Maleki, “Iran’s Regional Foreign/Energy Policy”; available from ; Internet; accessed 17 Jan 2009.

[lxvi] Abbas Maleki,Rouykard Dorost: Hefz ravabet ba Rousiyeh Dar Sath Konouni; trans. By Njdeh Asisian, “The Correct Strategy: Keeping Relations with Russia in the Current Level”; Majaleh Ravand Eghtesadi (The Journal of Economic Methods) 7th Dec. 2007, Vol. 5 No. 37. P 12.


About the Author(s)

Njdeh (Nick) Asisian is an Armenian Iranian who came to the US during the Iranian revolution.  He has worked as a researcher and analyst for the Department of Defense over the past decade.  He is currently a researcher and scenario development advisor for the Army's Mission Command Training Program.  He has a very strong educational background in Eurasian and Middle East history, politics, and defense/security issues, as well as International Law.



Mon, 11/25/2013 - 11:15am

In reply to by Mark Pyruz

After reading the Leverett's book, I can wholly concur with the reviewer who said: "Most telling, the Leveretts’ list of those who get Iran wrong, from neoconservatives to liberal internationalists, leaves out almost no one except themselves."

Mark Pyruz

Sun, 11/24/2013 - 2:32am


The author fails to mention President Rasfanjani's past attempts to improve relations with the United States, specifically toward U.S. business interests.

The author also fails to mention President Khatami's past overture to the United States, in providing substantive support during the lead-up and initial stage of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Instead all we get here is the same, tired old myth that Iran relies on an anti-American posture to prop up its illegitimate political order. This myth is especially prevalent among Iranian expatriates but has been fully exposed as fraudulent by former U.S. national security officials Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett in their book "Going to Tehran."

Anyone interested in an accurate rendering of Iran's geopolitical and defense posture is encouraged to read it.