Iran-Russia economic and strategic cooperation will be mutually beneficial as the two states confront western sanctions. At the conclusion of the visit, Putin mentioned that bilateral trade has grown by 40% in the last six months. He also focused on the potential of the two countries cooperating to build infrastructure projects in the South Caucasus. He was particularly enthusiastic about upgrading connectivity between the two countries and in the region. Iran and Russia, both rich in hydrocarbons, will also upgrade their cooperation in the energy sector.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran and met Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei on 19 July.
Iran-Russia economic and strategic cooperation will be mutually beneficial as the two states
In the past, Moscow has had reservations about Tehran. But these are new times, with the West determined to punish Putin and Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. And, new times bring forth new, even adventurous, ideas.
Khomenei wouldn't have gone so far in supporting Putin unless he was getting something vital in the security sector in return. The Iranians always drive a hard bargain because of their bazari (market) instincts.
The question is whether West Asia is being divided into Sunni-Shia camps with the former aligned with the US and the West and the latter with Russia and China.
Iran's Nuclear Programme
While economic cooperation is important, the real meat lies in Iran and Russia’s strategic cooperation. Putin told the media that he had discussed security issues with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei. A crucial area is Iran’s nuclear programme, which the country has always insisted – not very convincingly – is entirely for civilian purposes.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5 countries and Germany was signed in 2015. At its heart, it was a US-Iran nuclear deal. The JCPOA was a bargain in which Iran agreed to reduce its low-enriched uranium stockpile and curtail its enrichment only to levels needed for civilian purposes. It also agreed to cut the number of its centrifuges drastically. In return, the US agreed to gradually lift sanctions it had imposed on Iran and which had negatively impacted its economy. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA and began to reimpose sanctions. President Biden has been in favour of reinstating the deal, but the talks between Iran and the US have been stalled since March this year.
Meanwhile, reports have been circulating that Iran has resumed enriching uranium. Also, it has removed some surveillance equipment from one of its nuclear facilities. It did so after the US and some other countries introduced a resolution criticising Iran for not “sufficiently” cooperating with the IAEA. It is in this context that Putin’s remarks to the media in Tehran assume significance. He said:
“There are security issues relevant to Iran’s nuclear programme. It was very important for us to understand the sentiments of the Iranian party regarding this work. It involves Russia, which is contributing to the joint efforts aimed at relaunching interaction between Iran and IAEA”.
While declining to go into details, Putin asserted that “Russia is playing a considerable role in this”. It is noteworthy that Russia, along with China, had voted against the US resolution that was adopted by an overwhelming majority.
What Is Iran Getting in Return?
Clearly, Putin is not unaware that Iran has resumed enrichment. How far will he be willing to go to provide cover to Iran at this time? Faced with tightening sanctions and the breakdown of European order with its impact on global order, Putin’s actions towards Iran in the strategic sphere bear watching. It is too early to conclude that he will be willing to do what the Chinese and the US did with the Pakistani strategic programme. The former actively assisted it while the latter looked the other way during the 1980s, enabling Pakistan to develop nuclear weapons. However, if driven to the wall, Putin may well be willing to quietly offer assistance in the strategic realm to the Iranian Mullahs. In the past, Moscow has had reservations about Tehran.
But these are new times, with the West determined to punish Putin and Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. And, new times bring forth new, even adventurous, ideas.
On their part, the Iranians travelled the full distance in extending support to Russia by justifying the Ukraine invasion. According to his office, Khomenei said about the events in Ukraine:
“War is a harsh and challenging category, and the Islamic Republic is not all happy that ordinary people suffer from it, but in the case of Ukraine, if you did not take the initiative, the other side would have caused the war with its own initiative.”
He also told Putin that NATO was a dangerous entity which “knew no boundaries, and if it were not stopped in Ukraine, it would have started the same war sometime later under the pretext of Crimea”. Would Khomenei have gone so far in supporting Putin unless he was getting something vital in the security sector in return? The Iranians always drive a hard bargain because of their market instincts; so, this question is relevant.
The Turkey Factor
Putin also met Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who also was in Tehran to participate in an Iran-Turkey-Russian summit on the Syrian situation. There are differences between them, but all three countries are committed to the territorial integrity of Syria and to defeating ISIS and other groups opposed to Damascus. They also have reservations about the US role in Syria. Where they disagree is with Turkey’s desire to control Syrian territory contiguous to its borders. That is because of the Kurdish presence there; Turkey has long considered them to be separatists, out to impair its territorial integrity.
Erdogan has attempted to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. In Tehran, Putin praised his efforts. He claimed that Russia and Ukraine had reached an agreement in their meetings in Istanbul. Putin said “it only remained to initial it” but the “Kyiv authorities backed off on these agreements”. Significantly, he also positively noted the offer of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to mediate, and said that they “have the capabilities” to do so. Putin went on to say that even their willingness to mediate is “worth a lot” and Russia is grateful for it.
Cam Politics in West Asia?
The reference to Saudi Arabia and the UAE comes at a time when US President Joe Biden has just completed his visit to West Asia. That trip took him to Israel where, inter alia, he participated in a virtual summit of the new grouping of Israel, India, the US and the UAE (I2U2). The I2U2 has an economic orientation, but the region will look upon it as a political coming together of these countries. While their motivations to come together may be different, there is no doubt that it would have raised eyebrows in Tehran and Moscow. Both would have also noted Biden’s Saudi visit, where he took part in a Gulf Cooperation Council plus Summit. The GCC was formed three decades ago in the wake of the start of the Iran-Iraq war.
The Gulf Arab states were worried about Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution and had come together to meet any challenge it may pose to them. The US was with them. Thirty years later, the reservations against Iran have remained.
The question is whether West Asia is being divided into clear Sunni-Shia camps with the former aligned with the US and the West and the latter with Russia and China. These divisions cannot be watertight because Russia and China do not want to sever links with the Arab Gulf States. But then camps have an inevitable logic. Can that be defied?
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)