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

Russia and Iran: a tactical alliance

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Discordant Voices in Russian Foreign Policymaking

While Yeltsin has set the overall tone for Russian foreign policy toward Iran as well as toward other Middle East countries, there have been a number of other autonomous or semi-autonomous actors that have been assertive in Russian policy toward the Middle East and the "near abroad." This complicates Russian foreign policymaking, particularly when a direct clash occurs between the independent actor and the Russian Foreign Ministry. While this was one of the reasons Kozyrev was replaced by Primakov in January 1996, it is not yet clear that Primakov has managed to assert complete dominance over the foreign policymaking process in Moscow.

Perhaps the leading example of independent foreign policymaking in Russia is Lukoil. Owned in part by the American oil company ARCO, Lukoil in 1994 came into direct conflict with the Foreign Ministry's policy which claimed that none of the five Caspian Sea littoral states (Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakstan, and Turkmenistan) could act independently in developing the oil resources in the Caspian Sea. However, when Lukoil signed an agreement with the Azerbaijan International Operating Company to develop oil resources in the Caspian Sea, it explicitly recognized Azerbaijan's right to extract oil in its sector of the Caspian. In mid-March 1996, Lukoil joined a US-led international consortium to build an oil pipeline from Kazakstan's Tengiz oil fields to the Russian port of Novorossisk.

Kazakstan, like Azerbaijan, claims the right to extract oil from its sector of the Caspian Sea independently, but until March 1996, Almaty's efforts to market its oil was stymied by Russian limits on oil shipments through Russian pipelines. Indeed, in February 1996, Primakov had reportedly visited Kazakstan in an unsuccessful effort to get it to accept Russia's position on Caspian Sea oil. While Russia will still have influence over oil shipments running through Russian territory, the presence of major foreign contractors makes interference with Kazak oil shipments less likely. Thus, Kazakstan enjoys some freedom of action vis-a-vis Russia.

In commenting rather caustically on the lack of order in Russian foreign policymaking, the Russian newspaper Kommersant Daily noted:

It is impossible to pursue an integrated foreign and foreign economic policy today [in part] because Russia's political and economic elite, including its ruling elite, not only is not consolidated, but has split into competing, hostile factions, groups and groupings that are openly battling each other. It would be simply foolish for our foreign partners not to take advantage of this circumstance at any talks with Moscow.

Another major independent actor affecting Russian policy toward the Middle East has been the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy under Viktor Mikhailov. According to the available evidence, Mikhailov, now a member of the Russian Security Council, has wanted to sell Iran not only nuclear reactors but also a gas centrifuge system clearly capable of enabling Iran to produce nuclear weapons. Policymakers opposed to Russian cooperation with Iran have also weighed in on the debate over Russian-Iranian relations. In December 1996, while Primakov was making a very successful visit to Iran and hailing Russian-Iranian cooperation, Minister of Defense Igor Rodionov was arguing that Iran, along with other countries, posed a potential threat to Russia.

In sum, these discordant voices and actions of quasi-independent Russian policymakers have seriously complicated Russian policy in the "near abroad" and in the Middle East, and may have raised questions in Tehran as well as to who is running Russian foreign policy.

Regionalization oF Russian Foreign Policy Priorities

One of the most striking changes in post-Soviet Russian foreign policy is the change in regional priorities. If the "near abroad" regions of Central Asia and the Transcaucasus are the most important regions to Russia, the next region in importance is the Persian Gulf. In this oil-rich and strategically important region Moscow has sought, not always successfully, to balance its policy among Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose relations among themselves have usually been marked by deep hostility.

The third most important is the zone composed of Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian National Authority. During most of the Soviet period this region was of primary importance to Moscow, and Soviet leaders sought to construct an anti-imperialist Arab unity based on hostility to Israel, which the Soviet Union regarded as the "linchpin" of Western imperialism. In one of the major transformations of policy, Moscow now sees Israel as its closest collaborator in the region. After Turkey, Israel is Russia's leading trading partner in the Middle East, and the presence of 700,000 Israeli citizens born in the former Soviet Union also creates a significant cultural bond. In addition, a close Russian-Israeli tie enables Russia to play a symbolically, if not substantively, important role in the Middle East peace process.

Finally, Turkey plays a special role in Russian foreign policy toward the Middle East. Not only is Turkey Russia's major trading partner in the entire Middle East, and increasingly a key actor in Middle Eastern politics, it is also seen as a challenger to Russia's position in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia.

Although Russia's regional priorities have shifted dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union away from the Middle East to the "near abroad," the Russian-Iranian relationship has assumed greater importance since December 1991. Iran's critical geographical position enables it to play a role in both Central Asia and the Transcaucasus as well as in the Persian Gulf. It is to an analysis of this relationship that we now turn.

The Development of Russian-Iranian Relations

The rapprochement between Russia and Iran began in the latter part of the Gorbachev era. After supporting first Iran and then Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, Gorbachev tilted toward Iran after July 1987. The relationship between the two countries was solidified in June 1989 with Iranian President Rafsanjani's visit to Moscow, where a number of major agreements, including one on military cooperation, were signed. The military agreement permitted Iran to purchase highly sophisticated military aircraft from Moscow, including MIG-29s and SU-24s. At a time when the Iranian air force had been badly eroded by the US refusal to supply spare parts or replace aircraft and the eight-year war with Iraq, the Soviet military equipment was desperately needed.

Iran's military dependence on Moscow grew after the 1990-91 Gulf War. As a result of Saddam Hussein's failed gamble, the United States became the primary military power in the Persian Gulf, entering into defensive agreements with a number of the GCC states, including prepositioning arrangements for US military equipment. Saudi Arabia, Iran's most important Islamic challenger, acquired massive amounts of US weaponry. Although Iraq, still an enemy of Iran, was badly damaged by the war, its petroleum reserves held out the possibility of economic and military recovery once the UN sanctions were lifted. To Iran's northeast, the war in Afghanistan continued despite the Soviet military withdrawal, with the Iranian-backed Shi'a forces often getting the worst of the fighting.

Finally, to the north, the collapse of the Soviet Union held both opportunity and danger. The opportunity came in the form of six newly independent Muslim states -- Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgzystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakstan -- where Iran might exercise influence. But Azerbaijan's Popular Front, which ruled the country from June 1992 to June 1993, called for the unification of Iranian Azerbaijan with newly independent ex-Soviet Azerbaijan. Such a development would mean the partitioning of Iran.

Iran faces a similar, although far less serious, problem with Turkmenistan. If Turkmenistan were to become a wealthy and powerful state through the development of its natural gas resources, it could present an irredentist attraction to the Turkmens living in northeastern Iran.

Given Iran's need for sophisticated arms, President Rafsanjani was careful not to alienate either the Soviet Union or Russia. Thus, when Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in November 1991, Iran, unlike Turkey, did not recognize its independence until after the USSR formally collapsed. Similarly, despite occasional rhetoric from Iranian officials, Rafsanjani saw to it that Iran kept a relatively low profile in Azerbaijan and Central Asia, emphasizing cultural and economic ties rather than Islam as the centerpiece of their relations.

Rafsanjani's pragmatism stemmed from the enervation of Islamic traditions in Central Asia after more than seventy years of Soviet rule, the secular orientation of the Muslim leaders in the newly independent states, and the low chances for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution. However, some skeptics have argued that Iran is simply waiting for mosques to be built and Islam to reemerge before it tries to foster Islamic revolutions.

Nonetheless, the Russian leadership saw Iran as acting very responsibly in both Central Asia and Transcaucasus, and this responsibility encouraged Russia to continue supplying Iran with modern weaponry despite strong protests from the United States. Iran's low-key reaction toward Chechen rebels and Russia's pro-Serbian policy in Bosnia helped cement relations.

As noted above, even during Yeltsin's honeymoon year with the United States, Moscow and Washington clashed over Russian arms shipments to Iran. There are several possible reasons why Yeltsin was willing to risk US displeasure over the sale of arms to Iran. First, Russia needed the hard currency. Unlike Iraq and Libya, which were under UN sanctions, or Syria, which lacked hard currency and already owed Russia some $10 billion, Iran could pay Russia in hard currency. Second, despite Yeltsin's cultivation of the United States, a number of influential people in his regime, such as Yevgeny Primakov, then chief of counterintelligence, advocated a more independent policy for Russia in the Middle East.

Given the United States' policy of "dual containment," Washington had relations with neither Iran nor Iraq, leaving Russia an opportunity to step in. Third, unlike the case of pariah states Iraq and Libya, even America's NATO allies maintained extensive economic ties with Iran. America's allies insisted on retaining these ties despite United States pressures, the Salman Rushdie affair, and the murder of Iranian exiles in France and Germany.

Thus, US quarrels with its NATO allies and Japan over Iranian policy gave Russia a certain amount of diplomatic cover for its own dealings with Iran. This process became even more pronounced after Bill Clinton's election. As Yeltsin increasingly came under fire from the Duma in 1993 and 1994, he could point to American criticism of his Iranian policy as evidence of his independence.

One of the central issues of contention at the May 1995 Moscow summit between Clinton and Yeltsin was Moscow's decision to sell nuclear reactors to Tehran which the United States claimed would speed Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. In contrast with his 1993 decision to stop the sale of missile technology to India, Yeltsin refused to yield to US pressure. Indeed, Yeltsin's submission of the issue to the Gore-Chernomyrdin committee seemed more of a face-saving gesture to Clinton than a real concession. Yeltsin did, however, agree to cancel a proposed gas centrifuge sale to Iran. Such a purchase might have indeed accelerated Iran's nuclear weapons program -- something very few Russians, including Yeltsin, wanted.

Nonetheless, the Russians regularly asserted that US opposition to the sale of nuclear reactors was due to commercial jealousy, not to any genuine fear that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons. By the summer of 1995, the Russian Ambassador described Russian-Iranian relations as a strategic relationship. With the war raging in Chechnya and the United States pushing for NATO expansion, Russian nationalists looked to a closer relationship with Iran as a counterbalance. An article in the newspaper Segodnia noted:

Cooperation with Iran is more than just a question of money and orders for the Russian atomic industry. Today a hostile Tehran could cause a great deal of unpleasantness for Russia in the North Caucasus and in Tajikistan if it were to really set its mind to supporting the Muslim insurgents with weapons, money and volunteers. On the other hand, a friendly Iran could become an important strategic ally in the future. NATO's expansion eastward is making Russia look around hurriedly for at least some kind of strategic allies. In this situation, the anti-Western and anti-American regime in Iran would be a natural and very important partner.

The Russian-Iranian relationship hit another high point in March 1996 when Iranian Foreign Minister All Akbar Velayati visited Moscow, where he stated that Iranian-Russian relations were "at their highest level in contemporary history." While there, Velayati joined Primakov in opposing the eastward expansion of NATO and emphasized that Iran wished to prolong the recently concluded truce in Tajikistan and cooperate in developing the Caspian oil shelf zone.

One month later, in a radio broadcast to Iran, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Albert Chernyshev reaffirmed Russia's willingness to stand with Iran against the United States, noting: "Our country opposes the isolation of Iran in the system of international relations that America demands. We believe we can cooperate with Iran. We are doing that now and will continue to do so."

The surprisingly swift military victories of the Taliban in Afghanistan in September 1996 spurred even closer Russian-Iranian cooperation. The Sunni Taliban were enemies of the Iranian-backed Shi'a forces in Afghanistan, and the obscurantist nature of Taliban Islam embarrassed even the Iranian leadership, which saw itself as the world leader of Islam. Iran sought to build a coalition to stop the Taliban offensive and organized a regional conference in Tehran, which Russia attended, to discuss the situation.

For its part, the Russian leadership had an equal interest in blocking the Taliban. Moscow feared the penetration of Taliban influence into all of Afghanistan, Central Asia, or even Russia itself, where 20% of the population is Muslim. Consequently, the situation in Afghanistan was high on the agenda when Primakov visited Tehran in December 1996. Velayati set the tone for the meeting by asserting that Russian-Iranian relations were the best they had been in 200 years.

For his part, Primakov was more restrained, saying only: "We are glad to acknowledge the fact that our relations are developing in a positive manner." The two countries issued a joint statement on Afghanistan emphasizing the need to take into acocunt the interests of all ethnic and religious groups and for preventing domination by any single group.

The issue of Afghanistan influenced discussions on Tajikistan, which also had an important role in the talks. The threat posed by the Taliban against Tajik forces in Afghanistan convinced both Moscow and Tehran to push for a negotiated settlement in Tajikistan, with Moscow pressuring the government in Dushanbe, and Iran pressing the Tajik Islamic opposition into an accomodation.

Less than two months after the Primakov visit to Tehran, an important agreement was reached, creating a National Reconciliation Commission with an equal number of representatives from the Tajik government and from the Islamic opposition. Meanwhile, Russian-Iranian economic and military relations continued to develop with the announcement in November that Russia was planning to sell Iran $4 billion in military and other equipment between 1997 and 2007, provided Iran met its financial obligations.

Problems in the Russian-Iranian relationship

Despite the extent of Russian-Iranian cooperation between 1992 and 1997, the relationship was not without problems. As the Iranian economy deteriorated, due to US pressure to curb foreign investment in Iran and the mullahs' economic mismanagement, Tehran faced increasing difficulties in repaying its debt to Moscow. This led to a drop in Russian military and civilian exports to Iran in 1995, pushing trade between the two countries down to $276 million. Nonetheless, at the end of 1995, Moscow agreed to reschedule the Iranian debt as political relations with Tehran continued to improve.

Given the limitations on the Iranian economy, it remains to be seen whether Iran can ever develop into a dependable economic partner for Russia. Minister for Foreign Economic Relations Oleg Davydov may have been overly optimistic when, after a 1995 visit to Tehran, he stated:

Russia considers Iran a strategic partner, a friend, a neighbor, and the outlook in the field of bilateral economic and technical cooperation including the implementation of joint projects, is excellent.

The other pressing problems for Russian-Iranian relations concern the conflict in Tajikistan and Iran's willingness to provide an alternate access routes for Central Asian and Azerbaijani oil and natural gas. In addition, Rafsanjani could not have been too happy with either the Kuwaiti-Russian defense agreement of November 1993 and subsequent joint naval maneuvers or with Yeltsin's efforts in 1994 to revive Saddam Hussein diplomatically. A Radio Moscow broadcast to Iran in December 1993 warned Tehran that the prospects for development of Russian-Iranian relations could be greatly harmed "if Iran proposes political conditions, for example, concerning Tajikistan or Russia's military-technical cooperation with the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf."

The civil war in Tajikistan has come to exemplify the potential radical Islamic threat feared by some Russians. Ironically, the Tajik civil war did not begin with an attempt by radical Muslims to seize power, but rather it began when a loose alliance of Western-style democrats and moderate Islamists ousted the orthodox communist leader. When the communists returned to power, with Uzbek and Russian military help, many of the Islamists fled across the border into Afghanistan, where they adapted a more radical Islam. Imbued with their new ideology, they then mounted attacks across the border into Tajikstan and in the process killed a number of Russian soldiers stationed on the Tajik border.

This posed a serious problem for the Russian leaders. On the one hand, they had no desire to get deeply involved in another war like the one in Afghanistan. But under these circumstances, a diplomatic settlement of the war in Tajikistan became imperative for Yeltsin. As many of the leaders of the Islamic opposition had taken refuge in Iran, Russia had to bring Iran into the diplomatic process. With Tehran's help, Russia managed to get talks started between the opposing Tajik sides in the spring of 1994. Finally, in February 1997, Russia and Iran managed to broker an agreement. This accord reinforced the Russian-Iranian relationship, although a great deal of distrust remains between the Tajik government and opposition forces. Moscow may again need Iran's aid to deal with the situation.

Iranian offers to provide the Central Asian states and Azerbaijan transportation links for oil and gas exports also complicate Russian-Iranian relations. One rail link, the Mashhad-Tejen railroad between Iran and Turkmenistan, has already opened, and truck traffic through Iran into Central Asia is increasing. In addition, Turkmenistan and Iran are also building a gas pipeline from Tejen (Turkmenistan) to Mashhad (Iran). The Iranian newspaper Ettelat reflected on the potential of these developments: "The completion will be the first new gas export pipeline from the Caspian to bypass Russia and holds tremendous implications for future sales of Iranian and Turkmen gas to Turkey and into Europe." Since Russia has been exploiting its control over oil pipelines and railroad systems in order to regain political control over the Central Asian states and Azerbaijan, Moscow has not welcomed Tehran's offers.

The real challenges to Russian-Iranian relations posed by alternate links for oil and natural gas from Central Asia and the Transcaucasus is more of a problem for the future. At present, the Iranian economy is suffering from a high inflation rate (58.8 percent in June 1995 by the Iranian government's own figures) as well as from a heavy foreign debt burden. It remains unlikely that Iran can provide the funds for pipeline construction, unless there is an unexpectedly sharp and prolonged rise in oil prices. In the face of US opposition, Iran is unable to raise the funds for the pipeline construction in international capital markets.

In addition, the United States has in fact ended up helping Russia regain control over Central Asia by publicly discouraging Kazak leader Nursultan Nazarbayev from exporting its oil via Iran. The United States has also pressured the Azerbaijani regime of Haidar Aliyev to withdraw a proposed five-percent offer of participation to Iran in the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC). While the United States has encouraged alternate transportation routes for Central Asian and Azeri oil through Armenia, Georgia, or Turkey, the unresolved conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and continuing unrest in Georgia initially made the Russian route somewhat more attractive for the oil consortium, despite the war in Chechnya. However, in October 1995, the AIOC authorized two alternate pipelines for Baku's "early oil," one from Baku through Georgia to the Black Sea and the other from Baku to Grozny in Chechnya and then to Novorossiisk.

US pressure on Azerbaijan to drop Iran from the consortium initially led Iran to join Russia in claiming that no oil could be developed and shipped without the agreement of all the Caspian littoral states. This in turn further reinforces Russian influence in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Clearly, a rich and powerful Azerbaijan, whether under Popular Front leader Abulfaz Elchibey or ex-communist Haidar Aliyev, is not in the Iranian interest. Nonetheless, in a deft diplomatic move, Aliyev subsequently got Iran to agree to develop another sector of the Azerbaijani oil holdings, an action that undermined Russian efforts to limit development of the Caspian Sea.

Despite promoting their country as an alternate route for Central Asian trade and participating in the development of Azerbaijani oil, Iran's leaders have been careful to assuage the feelings of the leadership in Moscow. Thus, the Iranians continue to echo the Russian line on the Caspian Sea and have formed a joint drilling company with Moscow to prospect for oil in the Caspian. Second, the Iranians have sought to include Russia, where possible, in triangular economic arrangements with Turkmenistan, including the formation of a tripartite IranianRussian-Turkmen company to explore for natural resources in the Caspian. Nonetheless, given Tehran's long-term policy of weakening the Russian hold on Central Asia and the Transcaucasus, Moscow cannot be overjoyed with the long-term prospects of its friendship with Iran.


In looking at the course of Russian-Iranian relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, several conclusions can be drawn. First, despite some areas of friction, the relationship has so far been basically beneficial to both sides. For Russia, Iran is an excellent arms market, a country where Russia can demonstrate its role in world affairs, and a tactical ally in curbing Azerbaijan and containing the Taliban. At a time when Russia is militarily weak and in serious financial crisis, Iran can help Russia defuse crises, such as Tajikistan, and prevent the United States from dominating the Persian Gulf. For Iran, Russia is a secure source of arms, a diplomatic ally against US attempts to isolate it, and a tactical ally in curbing both the aspirations of Azerbaijan and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

One can, however, foresee limits to the relationship. First, the weakness of the Iranian economy may well constrict its ability to purchase both military and civilian goods from Russia. Second, should Iran ever acquire the means of providing extensive oil and natural gas pipelines to Central Asia and the Transcaucasus, Russia's hold over the two regions would be weakened. Similarly, as Iran develops its trade with Russian provinces such as Dagestan, centrifugal forces within the Russian federation may be reinforced. In sum, the current Russian-Iranian relationship is of considerable tactical importance to both countries. How far it can be preserved into the future is an open question.

Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff-Pearlstone Professor of Political Science and President of Baltimore Hebrew University.


© 1998, Robert O. Freedman