Small World / Global Affairs
February 23, 1998 / 27 Shevat, 5758

Russia and Iran: a tactical alliance

By Robert O. Freedman

With the world's attention fixed on Iraq and the appearance of a Russian-Iraqi alignment in the current standoff in the Gulf, relatively little has been noted about developments in Russia's relations with Iran, likely to be of greater significance in the long term. Robert O. Freedman, a noted specialist in Russian Middle East policy, presents an overview of Russia's approach to an emerging regional powerhouse whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the United States. He explores its recent history, its possibilities, and the potential for trouble in the relationship down the road.

WITH THE BREAKUP OF THE SOVIET UNION, the newly independent states of Central Asia and the Transcaucasus have became a central focus for Russian foreign policymakers. Given these states' ties to the Middle East, Moscow now tends to view its policy toward Iran through the lens of Tehran's policies toward Central Asia and the Transcaucasus.

Of all the states in the Middle East, perhaps none is more important to Russia than Iran. Not only is Iran a major player in the region, it is also an important trading partner and occupies a strategic position on the Persian Gulf.

The Yeltsin regime sees in its relations with Iran three geopolitical opportunities. First, Iran is an important market for Russian arms and nuclear technology and is therefore a source of foreign exchange. Second, sound relations with Tehran give Moscow the opportunity to demonstrate its diplomatic independence from the United States. Third, Iran looks to be an ally in Moscow's efforts to contain and control Azerbaijan and the Taliban, and checking Turkish influence. These factors are valued in Moscow despite concerns about the spread of political Islam and the possibility that Iran will make good on its offer to provide alternative transportation links to Central Asia and the Transcaucasus.

For its part, Iran regards Russia not only as a source of arms, but also as an important diplomatic link in its efforts to counter US attempts to isolate it. In addition, the Iranian regime and Moscow have common policy goals in both Azerbaijan and Afghanistan.

Russia's Foreign Policymaking Processes and Priorities

In most democratic countries, domestic politics play a significant role in foreign policy. In Russia, a country that only became democratic at the end of 1991, domestic politics have also become central to Russian foreign policymaking. The impact of domestic politics on Russian policy toward the Middle East is clearly illustrated by the shift from a strong pro-Western stance in 1992 to a more nationalist one in 1997, a process punctuated by the January 1996 replacement of Andrei Kozyrev by Yevgeny Primakov as Foreign Minister.

Throughout this period, Yeltsin's foreign policy has reflected the demands of Russian domestic politics. Particularly after the December 1993 elections, instead of openly confronting the Duma, Russia's opposition-dominated parliament, Yeltsin chose to adapt to its highly nationalistic foreign policy agenda, a pattern of behavior he was to repeat after the December 1995 Duma elections. This strategy, in part, helped him to be re-elected in 1996.

Stage One: A Pro-American Approach

During most of 1992, Russian foreign policy was clearly oriented in a pro-American direction. Russia joined in enforcing sanctions against Iraq by dispatching two warships to the Persian Gulf, backed sanctions against Libya, and enthusiastically supported the Arab-Israeli peace process. In addition, Kozyrev took the lead in calling for normal diplomatic relations with the newly independent states, where 25 million Russians now live. Only in the case of arms sales to Iran did Russia take a position markedly different from that of the United States.

By December 1992, however, Yeltsin's control over foreign policy was being challenged in the Duma, where three main groups vied for power. On the left was a group of legislators who supported Yeltsin's economic reforms. In particular, this group favored strengthening ties with Israel, supporting sanctions against Iraq, and cooperating with the countries of the "near abroad," the former Soviet Republics.

In the center was a group of legislators who advocated the so-called "Eurasian" approach to foreign policy. They believed Russia should not focus exclusively on the United States and Europe, but called for good ties with all of the Middle East and China. While this group also wanted much closer ties with the "near abroad," it wanted Russia to rank first among equals. On domestic policy, although still in favor of economic reform, the Eurasianists advocated a far slower privatization process.

Finally, on the right was an alliance of ultranationalists and old-guard communists. Though differing on economic policy, they all wanted a powerful, highly centralized Russia that would actively protect Russians living in the "near abroad," act like a major world power, adopt a confrontational approach toward the United States and Israel -- in their view Russia's main enemies -- and renew close ties with Moscow's former Middle East allies such as Iraq. This alliance of communists and ultranationalists also advocated the re-establishment of Moscow's domination over the "near abroad."

Stage Two: A Move to the Center

With Duma opposition to his policies growing, Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, a Western-style reformer, and replaced him with the centrist Viktor Chernomyrdin in December 1992. One month later, Yeltsin openly broke with Washington by criticizing the US bombing of Iraq. During 1993, he also increased arms sales to Iran -- including submarines -- and took a stronger position on the protection of Russians in the "near abroad," suggesting that Russia should have "special powers as guarantor of peace and stability there." Moscow also intervened more openly in conflicts in the Transcaucasus (the Abkhaz-Georgian and Azerbaijan-Armenian wars) and in the Tajik civil war.

Despite these nationalistic moves, Yeltsin's conflict with the legislative branch continued, culminating in armed confrontation after he sought to dissolve the Duma in late September 1993. While Yeltsin defeated his opponents, the victory cost him politically and he appeared to rely increasingly on the Russian military. Consequently, when an even more nationalistic and communist-influenced Duma was elected in December 1993, Yeltsin chose cooperation instead of confrontation. This led to the third stage in his foreign policy.

Stage Three: Moving Toward the Right 1994-1995

One of the indicators of the rightward turn in Middle East policy was the steady rapprochement between Russia and Iraq. Government officials from both sides were now visiting each other regularly, and by the summer of 1994, Russian officials had begun to call for the lifting of UN sanctions against Iraq. In addition, Russia increased its arms sales to Iran during this period and for the first time, took a position independent of the US in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As far as the "near abroad" was concerned, Russia stepped up its efforts to assert control, limiting the amount of oil it would permit Kazakstan to send through Russian pipelines while undermining Azerbaijan's efforts to develop its oil-exporting facilities and maintain its economic independence.

Perhaps the strongest signal of Yeltsin's turn to the right was his invasion of Chechnya in December 1994. This ill-fated decision, possibly aimed at securing the Baku-Grozny oil pipeline, was an economic and military disaster which lasted almost two years and led to the death of more than 30,000 civilians. Russia's defeat demonstrated just how weak the country had become.

As far to the right as Yeltsin had moved in 1994, he was to move still further in 1995. Under his direction, Russia went ahead with the sale of nuclear reactors to Iran in the face of bitter American criticism. Yeltsin also stepped up Russia's efforts to lift the sanctions against Iraq.

In the "near abroad," Russia adopted its toughest position to date. Not only did Yeltsin call for the renegotiation of conventional weapons limitations on military hardware in southern Russia, he also signed an edict urging Russia to ensure that the former Soviet republics pursue a "friendly" policy toward Moscow and proposed stationing of Russian border guard troops in these states.

Despite this turn to the right, Yeltsin suffered a major defeat in the December 1995 Duma elections, a development that led him to fire almost all of his reformist and overtly pro-Western government officials such as Kozyrev, and replace them with conservatives or Russian nationalists like Yevgeny Primakov. These actions set the stage for Yeltsin's Presidential election campaign which sought to convince the Russian electorate that he was as nationalist and faithful to Russian interests as his main rival, communist leader Gennady Zuganov.

Stage Four: The 1996 Presidential Elections and Their Aftermath

During the election campaign, Yeltsin adopted, with the help of ex-general Aleksandr Lebed, a nationalistic position in which he both denounced NATO expansion and sought increased control over the "near abroad." After his election, however, he fell ill for many months. When Yeltsin returned to the Kremlin in March 1997, he appeared to change direction once again, appointing reformers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov to high positions in his government and firing hardline foreign policy adviser Dmitry Rurikov.

The initial effect of these changes appeared to be a moderation of Russian opposition toward NATO expansion, a watering-down of the planned union with Belarus, and a renewed effort to improve relations with the "near abroad," with Yeltsin promising to make a long delayed visit to Ukraine and extraditing to Azerbaijan Suret Huseinov, accused of organizing coup attempts against Azerbaijani leader Haidar Aliyev.

Nonetheless, as in 1992, when Russia pursued a policy of cooperation with NATO and the "near abroad," Moscow's policy toward Iran appeared to be exempt from Moscow's overall policy reorientation. Indeed, the day after a German court had accused the Iranian leadership of assassinating four Iranian Kurdish exiles, Boris Yeltsin warmly welcomed Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the Iranian speaker of Parliament, then considered the most likely successor to Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani: "We have good, positive cooperation with Iran, which shows a tendency to grow." It remains to be seen whether these changes in government will lead to a real change in Russia's foreign policy or whether it is a brief aberration in the nationalist trends of 1993-1996.

Next page: Discordant Voices in Russian Foreign Policymaking