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Putin Visit Highlights Growing Russia-Iran Strategic Ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin touched down in Tehran last Monday at a time of burgeoning security, diplomatic, and commercial cooperation between the two countries.  Accompanied by his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin was in Tehran for the annual summit of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum an 11-member body formed in 2001 that controls a commanding 70 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves.  Following decades of uneven, mostly tactical bilateral ties, Russia and Iran may now be inaugurating their broadest strategic cooperation in many years, with Putin’s visit perhaps serving as a turning point. 

After Putin’s meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khameini, Khamenei and Putin both declared confidence in their growing bilateral ties and castigated Washington for its policies in the Middle East.  Khamenei praised Putin as “a prominent figure in today’s world” and also thanked him for his support during the P5+1 nuclear negotiations.

Taking an apparent swipe at Washington, Putin added that “unlike others, we believe not to stab our partners in the back and never plot against our friends behind their backs—and even if there are differences, aim to resolve them through diplomacy and talks.” Iran’s semi-official news agency (ISNA) reported on Monday.

This new Iran-Russia rapprochement comes after years of ups and downs since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  While the USSR was the first country to recognize the Islamic Republic, relations quickly soured over Russia’s alleged military support of Iraq’s former leader Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988.  This was then followed by Russia’s failure to follow through multiple military-industry contracts and lengthy delayed in completing construction of Iran’s sole nuclear reactor in Bushehr.  Since the end of the Cold War, Moscow’s primary goal of maintaining good ties with Washington often relegated Iran to serving as Moscow’s “leverage” card to gain concessions from the US by either “freezing its cooperation with Tehran or boosting it.” Nikolay Kozhanov of the Carnegie Moscow Center explains.

The Syrian civil war in 2011, and the Western impasse with Russia over Ukraine in 2013 have now moved Russia and Iran closer together.  Both countries have cooperated closely to bolster the government of President Bashar al Assad and fight ISIL and a range of Islamic militant groups.  On multiple accounts—particularly in the last year and half—Russia and Iran have released complementary statements affirming their support for letting the Syrian people, through free elections, determine the future course of their country. 

During last Monday’s meeting, Iran’s Khamenei regarded Syria as a key factor in the future of Iran-Russia cooperation and praised Putin’s tactics in the war-torn country.

Again targeting Washington, Khameni’s official website, criticized the United States’ policies in Syria and said, “Americans’ insistence on the ouster of Bashar al-Assad, that is, the legal and elected president of the Syrian people, is among the weaknesses of Washington’s announced policies.”  Khamenei also noted that, “except for the nuclear issue (which of course has its own special reasons), we do not have, and will not have, any bilateral negotiation with the Americans neither on Syria, nor on any other issue.”

Russian-Iranian cooperation on Syria was instrumental in Iran’s invitation—for the first time—to join world powers in Vienna earlier in November to discuss the Syrian crisis.  Meanwhile, Russia’s commitment in Syria has further grown in the past two weeks—since according to Kremlin—ISIL was responsible in bombing down the Russian plane that crashed over the Sinai in late October.

In a significant move, during his visit Putin announced the lifting on Russia’s ban on “nuclear cooperation” by easing restriction for companies working on Iranian enrichment sites.  Putin and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani inked  “7 cooperation pacts” that according to the Islamic Republic’s official news agency (IRNA), “enables Russian firms to help modify centrifuges at the Fordow enrichment site and help Iran redesign it’s Arak heavy water reactor.”

In light of Putin’s visit, Russia and Iran will move forward with nuclear and defense cooperation, including the sale of S-300 Air Defense systems. The S-300 sale has been pending for eight years, but with the nuclear agreement breakthrough earlier this year, appears ready for deployment in 2016.

In addition to military sales, Russia also sees Iran as a major civilian aircraft market, with recent media reports preceding Putin's arrival in Iran highlighting a potential deal for sale and possibly co-production of 100 Super Sukhoi passenger aircraft valued at $50 billion.

Russia’s increasing isolation from the US and the EU after the Ukraine crisis has also moved Russia and Iran closer, and changed Russia’s calculus towards Iran serving merely as a point of leverage with Washington to one where strategic collaboration Russia now fits more neatly into Russia’s broader strategic goals.  With Iran’s Putin's visit may presage even more momentous developments.  On the horizon looms Iran's pending incorporation into the Russian, Chinese security and commercial sphere, through full membership in Eurasian collective security and commercial organizations like the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  

The shared Russian-Iranian joint narrative of partnership emanating now from Tehran seems expressly crafted to impress the West and the wider world.  Syria, Ukraine, and the P5+1 agreement have all contributed to the growth of this relationship, each bringing Iran and Russia closer together in their own way.   Whether the Russian-Iranian relationship takes an anti-Western path or instead serves as a source of stability in the Middle East remains an open question.  If Putin’s visit to Iran offers any insight, it is that regardless of US or European unease, Russia and Iran relations now seem set to expand for fundamental strategic reasons likely to continue into the foreseeable future. 




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