Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made a two day visit to Moscow between January 19-January 21, 2022. Following talks with Vladimir Putin, Raisi gave Moscow a draft of a 20-year-long strategic partnership. From the published reports, Vladimir Putin gave Raisi plenty of face time, Raisi addressed the Duma and Muslim religious leadership, and the sides agreed to expedite the building of Russian nuclear reactors in Bushehr, but there was no immediate readiness to sign a long-term commitment. The knowledge that Raisi was seeking a major change in the tenor of the bilateral relationship was know already prior to his arrival, and Russian commentators voiced varying opinions. Those who favored acceding to Raisi's proposal, saw upgraded relations with Iran as a proper response by two countries who were facing the same "lawless" Western sanctions. It would cement the Russia-China-Iran triangle, and would represent an investment in the future. Those espousing this position took Iran's protestations that it was not seeking a nuclear weapon at face value.
Those who demurred from such an upgrade, claimed that given Iran's troubled relations with its neighbors, the Sunni-Shiite divide, and Russia's eventual desire to patch up relations with the US, the ties should be confined to where the two countries' interests converged, most notably in Syria and Afghanistan. Those favoring the go-slow approach also noted that Iran had little to offer Russia in return.
A survey of Russian comments on the Raisi visit follows below:
Ebrahim Raisi addresses the Duma (Source: Duma.gov.ru)
For A Strategic Partnership
Petr Akopov, a senior commentator for Ria Novosti opened his column with a question: " "[Russia is subjected to most brutal external pressure, sanctions, constant demonization, both of its domestic policy (a tyranny that stifles democracy and progressive values) and external strategy (aggressor and terrorist). [is put on Russia]. Which of Russia's neighbors is going through the same attitude from the West?"
"The answer of course is Iran. But in addition to their shared fate as victims of Western arrogance, the timing is now propitious. A sunset of the Atlantic world order, an establishment of a new multipolar world are the main tasks for both Russia and Iran. But we are not united by the principle of 'we are friends against whom,' and a common hatred of us on the part of the Anglo-Saxons alone would not be enough. Iran and Russia have many common issues and interests, both in the international arena and in bilateral cooperation."
Until now these joint interests did not blossom into a full-fledged alliance because of mutual suspicions. When the Islamic revolution took power "the Ayatollahs perceived the USSR as a country of ardent atheists and enemies of Muslims. In addition, later the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and became allied with Iraq."
Russia was equally reluctant:" The new Russia's relations with Iran have also been difficult, first because of Moscow's openly pro-Western focus, later due to unwillingness of our elites (and not just business) to work with our neighbors, who were under sanctions. What's more, in 2000s Iran was in the zone of high geopolitical risk, as the US was seriously considering an attack on the republic." Now under Putin the situation had changed.
Akopov also claims that Russian support for the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran also constituted a service to the Americans: "Russia made a decisive contribution to the signing of the so-called "Iran [Nuclear] Deal," i.e. an agreement that allowed the West to save face when it dropped accusations that Iran was developing nuclear arms. The accusations were false, because Iran had repeatedly stated that develops only peaceful nuclear technologies."
Akopov believes that Russia should now emulate China and cement a Russia-China-Iran triangle "Therefore, the course of rapprochement with China and Russia, which had already been [followed by Iran], is now being strengthened: a strategic partnership agreement has already been signed with Beijing, and now it is Moscow's turn. Russian-Iranian-Chinese cooperation is extremely important; it demonstrates the new global security architecture." This architecture would be backed by a concert of Asian powers working together to eject outsiders.
Therefore, Akopov recommended accepting Raisi's offer: "In other words, the country is ready to develop a partnership with Russia in every possible way. No matter how currently restricted the country in its financial capabilities, it is potentially one of the most important, strongest and richest states in the world, not to mention the fact that it is our neighbor.
"Russia will benefit from a strong and independent friendly Iran, and our active involvement in the process of Iran's return to its rightful place at the world stage will pay off many times over, both economically and geopolitically."
Two Russian experts cited by Izvestiya confined themselves to the argument that upgraded ties were necessitated by Western pressure and refrained from the enthusiasm exhibited by Akopov.
Asia expert Vyacheslav Matuzov believes that against the backdrop of aggravated US-Russia relation, Moscow will undoubtedly intensify ties with Iran. The Western pressure "prompts Russia, Iran and China, as well as other countries, to cooperate more closely in order to protect themselves from iniquity. Now we are observing an objective process. But this does not mean that Moscow's stance on all issues will coincide with that of Iran. Even Russia's relations with China, there is no complete accord on some issues. For example, China still doesn't recognize Crimea as a part of Russia."
Vyacheslav Matuzov (Source: Eadaily.com)
Political analyst Roland Bajimov favored the conclusion of an agreement on strategic partnership between the two countries. "This will help facilitate a development of cooperation in a variety of areas, including the economy. Meanwhile, Moscow and Tehran should switch to settlements in national currencies." Bijamov pointed to the trilateral naval exercises between Russia-China and Iran as symbolic of the growing rapprochement.
Other Voices: Russia Should Not Rush Headlong Into Partnership With Iran
Gennady Rushev writing in Expert.ru magazine believes that Raisi was interested on using the tension with the West to bind Russia closer to Iran, but Putin was not going to be hurried. Noting that Raisi's visit was preceded by the visit of the new German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Rushev called this the season of political debutantes. The difficulties in the talks on restoring the Iran deal meant that Iran needed Russia. Raisi made his pitch: "'I would like to say that in the current, exceptional conditions when unilateral actions by the West (including that of the US) are being confronted, we can create synergy in our cooperation'" said Raisi.
Rushev claimed that Putin did not respond as the Iranians expected and steered the open conversation to safer channels: "However, the Iranian [Raisi] waited in vain for similar responses from Putin with regards to the US. The Russian president mainly talked about the economy, noting that 'despite the pandemic, we recorded an increased trade turnover the year before last (albeit a small one), over 6%,' and about cooperation on Afghanistan and Syria. "our efforts largely helped the Syrian government overcome the threats linked with international terrorism," said Putin.
International affairs expert Gevorg Mirzayan in an article titled "How Iran Will Seduce Russia" did not believe that Russia was going to be seduced but would stick to its foreign policy guidelines. Iran did not want the strategic partnership per se but had other issues on its mind such as Syria, Afghanistan and the South Caucasus
"While the Syrian issue is obviously a long-standing one, the Afghan and Caucasian issues demand immediate attention on part of the two presidents and coordination of positions. All three constructive external powers are interested in stabilization of the Afghan situation. That is, Russia, China and Iran, are now engaged in talks with the Taliban about the terms of its recognition.
"Iran, being a country with most complicated relations with the Taliban, doesn't want to be left out of the recognition process. In other words, it strives to align its policy with Russia and China, not only in the recognition process, but also wanting to transform Afghanistan into a trouble-free neighbor. In this regard, naturally, Tehran will find a full support from Moscow, as the Kremlin doesn't seem to mind coordination. Russia has enough problems that demand close attention, even without Afghanistan.
The South Caucasus [issue] will be more difficult. By the term 'fragile security system' in the South Caucasus, the Iranians mean a radical growth of Turkish influence in the region. This influence threatens not only Iran's foreign policy interests, but also its territorial integrity (Azeri-Turkic nationalism, financed by the Turks incites commotion in the Azeri-populated northern provinces of Iran).
"For many months now, the Iranians have been putting out feelers for a joint deterrence of Turkey with the Russia. But the answer is not the one, they are hoping for. Some [Russian] experts, of course, claim that Russia is underestimating the Turkish threat, while others point to a sound assessment of Iran's capabilities as a partner in deterrence policy.
"Iran is trying to sit on two chairs simultaneously, i.e. on the one hand, [the country strives] to contain Turkey, but, on the other hand, to avoid taking any steps in this direction, in order not to prompt anti-government demonstrations in the very regions populated by Azerbaijanis. In other words, Iran is ready to help Russia, but covertly and behind the scenes."
The Iranians were also in Moscow seeking arms deals. "This also will prove complicated for two reasons: The thing is that Russia has a clear rule: it cooperates with all those, who are willing to cooperate with it, and it doesn't cooperate with certain loyal to it powers against other loyal powers.
This is why, for instance, Moscow actively cooperates with Tehran in the Syrian direction, but doesn't get involved in Iran's intra-regional squabbles with Israel and Saudi Arabia (which are Russian partners too). Russia doesn't enter in deals, which change a military-political balance of power between such parties. This is why, there has been a unique understanding with Israel, prescribing that Tel Aviv doesn't strike the latest Russian arms supplied to the Syrian army, but may attack it if the Syrians transfer it to Hezbollah or to the Iranians."
The second issue is financial – how will the Iranians finance the deal? "The defense contracts have another controversial point: the issue of payment. The Iranians have no 'liquid' money, thus they want to pay by providing Russian companies access to Iran's gas fields in the Caspian Sea, in particular to the recently discovered Chalus. However, experts doubt that Moscow will be satisfied with such an option.
"'We don't need Iranian gas. It is not clear what to do with it, and how to acquire it. It's impossible to run a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to Russia. We [Russia] are against a similar project, where the pipeline runs from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan,' stated Igor Yushkov, an expert at the Finance University and the National Energy Security Fund.'"
The day prior to Raisi's arrival Stanislav Tarasov the Regnum outlet's Middle East specialist wrote an analysis that was ostensibly upbeat but the context that he described for the visit strained credulity. Tarasov believed that relations between Russia and Iran had reached an unprecedented level that would flourish even more once Iran had returned to the nuclear agreement.
Tarasov described the Middle East as a region where peace was breaking out all over.
"The thing is that the Middle East region is undergoing a "truce cycle." Once seemingly irreconcilable enemies [settle their disputes]. There are talks in Vienna on the US's and Iran's return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). There is a chance for a successful conclusion of this difficult diplomatic 'duel.' Previously, several of Gulf Arab countries, headed by the UAE, started a policy of normalizing relations with Israel, which eventually led to the signing of the peaceful "Abraham Accords " and the opening of direct flights between cities in the UAE and Israel. The countries are planning joint investment projects, up to and including the commissioning of a transport corridor between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, designed for oil supplies to European markets from the Arabian region. There are signs of a thaw developing between Turkey and Egypt, which severed political and diplomatic relations after a military coup in the country of the pharaohs back in 2013. The two states have already reached an agreement on the situation in Libya and might begin a joint development of Libyan oil and gas fields. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey started to draw closer to each other.
"Finally, Riyadh - Tehran negotiations culminated in an announcement by the parties to restore diplomatic relations. Earlier, Iran and Saudi Arabia were adversaries and rivals on virtually all regional issues. Now, after 6 years, the first Iranian delegation has arrived in Saudi Arabia to attend a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Jeddah.
"It cannot be ruled out that the parties will try to end the bloody and costly war in Yemen. It could be also assumed that the peace between Riyadh and Tehran will facilitate the establishment of relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, (especially since the UAE recently opened its embassy in Syria again).
"It may be possible to establish a stable unified government in Lebanon, by dealing with the conflict between Sunni and Shiite parties headed by Hezbollah. There is also a chance for the implementation of the Iranian "Peace of Hormuz" initiative aimed at establishing of a system of collective security in the region of the Persian Gulf. In the long term, it would justify itself by seeking the transformation of the Persian Gulf and contiguous lands not only into a nuclear-free zone, but also into a fully demilitarized region, which could become the basis for a decrease of general tension in the Middle East's military and political situation.
"The implication is that Iran can potentially neutralize external pressure if it signs a nuclear deal, which would provider it a good opportunity to strengthen the country's influence in the Middle East."
Tarasov thus supports stronger ties with Iran, but this is contingent on the realization of the extremely optimistic trend of developments described above. Otherwise, "It's important for Moscow to be able to keep a balance with all of its partners in the region, i.e. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Meanwhile, it's important for Russia to restore relations with Washington as well." This last statement makes it clear that Moscow should not prioritize relations with Tehran until the sources of regional tension have been eradicated.
Stanislav Tarasov (Source: Dialog.org.ru)