Andrey Kortunov

Russia and Iran; Tactical Union or Strategic Partnership?

Date of publication : June 22, 2018 18:42 pm

The term “strategic partnership” is very popular in Moscow. Over the years, it has been used to describe Russia’s relations with various countries, including the United States, China, Belarus and Chile, and even supranational associations (the European Union, for example). These days, the words “strategic partnership” can often be heard when referring to relations between Moscow and Tehran. Talk of a strategic partnership between Russia and Iran – including at the summit level – has persisted since the mid-1990s. 
An important, although not entirely politically correct, question should be asked here: all the histrionic rhetoric aside, do we have reason enough to call current Russia–Iran relations a strategic partnership? Or, what we are perhaps talking about is a tactical union between two very different countries. Maybe even an important and valuable alliance for the two countries at the current stage of their development?
Let’s begin by trying to clarify what the term “strategic partnership” actually means with regard to international relations. What is needed in order to form such a partnership? And under what conditions? Among the varying definitions of strategic partnership and the different aspects of the term that experts choose to focus on, four basic characteristics tend to stand out.  
The first is the existence of a wide range of long-term common interests – interests that are independent of the current political situation or the actions of third parties. Having a common enemy or suffering through a severe regional crisis is by no means a guarantee that a strategic partnership will be formed. Crises come and go, and a one-time enemy could easily become an ally in the future.   
The second characteristic is the willingness of the sides to set themselves major strategic goals, which can only be achieved through sustained joint efforts. This is how a strategic partnership differs from a tactical union. An example of the latter is the agreement reached by Russia and the United States in the autumn of 2013with regard to the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. 
The third is the existence of a well-developed legal and regulatory framework for cooperation, as well as effective mechanisms for cooperating in various fields. In other words, political declarations and summit meetings are not enough for relations between two countries to be called a full-fledged strategic partnership. 
The fourth characteristic is a high level of trust among the political leaders of the countries involved in the partnership and, what is more, a high level of mutual affection, understanding and trust among the people of the two countries. Without broad public support, even the warmest of friendships between national leaders, even constant interaction among the bureaucratic machines of two countries is not enough to ensure stable relations. 
Some Russian analysts go even further, arguing that strategic relations are only possible if the partners share social, cultural, religious and other “fundamental values”, because, at the end of the day, the only thing that can be relied upon to ensure stable relations is the existence of common values. Others stress the importance of social interaction, including humanitarian, educational, scientific, cultural and other contacts between societies.
Even if we were to consider these conditions somewhat excessive, there is little to suggest that current interaction between Russia and Iran qualifies as a full strategic partnership. At best, we can say that the groundwork has been laid for such a partnership to develop in the future. 
Let’s start with common interests. As a rule, Russian political discourse emphasizes the common interests of the two countries in counteracting the hegemonic designs of the United States and the West as a whole, and in the Middle East in particular. They also note that Russia and Iran face common challenges of political radicalism and extremism in their various manifestations. That is, priority is given to issues of security and geopolitics. What is more, the main proponents of a geopolitical rapprochement between Russia and Iran are the most radical anti-western and anti-American forces, which are represented primarily by “ideologues,” rather than experts. Significantly less attention is paid to the objective analysis of the existing (and entirely natural) differences of interests between the two countries on specific issues. But these differences deserve no less careful attention than the areas of common interests.
For example, Russia and Iran objectively compete on the global hydrocarbons market. However, this is not an insurmountable obstacle for cooperation in that sphere. Moscow and Tehran cannot possibly have identical stances on many regional issues, for instance, regarding Israel. There are also differences concerning international legal status of the Caspian Sea. We should also not forget that Iran is a Shia country, while most Russian Muslims are Sunni Muslims.
The differences between Moscow and Tehran should under no circumstances be dramatized, but they speak to the fact that, in reality, the balance of interests between Russia and Iran is far more complex than it appears to those who are fond of simplified geopolitical constructs. Ignoring this complexity, turning a picture of many colours black and white, will lead to inevitable disappointments and problems.
And what about common strategic goals? Without attempting to diminish in any way the achievements of Russia–Iran interaction, it should be noted that bilateral cooperation largely was and still is of a situational nature. This cooperation could be defined as the more or less successful reaction of the two countries to the emerging problems, challenge, and crises, such as the Taliban coming into power in Afghanistan, the civil war in Tajikistan, the intervention of the United States and their allies in Iraq, the Arab Spring, the crises in Syria and Yemen, the aggravation of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, etc.
All of that is extremely important, and due credit should be given to Russian and Iranian diplomats who, as a rule, succeeded in finding appropriate and mutually acceptable approaches to extremely complicated regional problems. However, in and of itself, timely interaction in crisis situations is not enough to create a strategic partnership; another requirement is common strategic goals, that is, the existence of a long-term positive action programme, one that pre-empts crises rather than merely reacts to them. Drafting joint Russia–Iran proposals (“a road map”) on the creation of a collective regional security system in the Persian Gulf could be a promising move in this direction. The “Greater Central Asia” region could become another area for putting forward joint initiatives. In a broader context, it would be extremely important to compare the views of Moscow and Tehran on how to restore the manageability of the global international system as a whole.
The legislative basis for Russia–Iran relations is extremely underdeveloped (especially compared to such areas of Russian foreign policy as Russia’s relations with the European Union). The same is true regarding the mechanisms for implementing interaction in various areas. For instance, in the economic sphere, there are the Russian-Iranian Business Council, the Permanent Russian-Iranian Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation, and the Forum on Economic and Industrial Cooperation, but in many ways, these are purely nominal entities. This in part explains the wholly unsatisfactory state of trade and economic relations between Russia and Iran in terms of both volume and structure. In their economic relations, Russia and Iran follow the path of the least resistance, confining themselves to individual large “showcase” projects carried out with active governmental support (the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant) and military technical cooperation.
We should recall that, back in 2007, the parties envisioned grand plans for increasing the annual trade turnover to $200 billion over ten years, with cooperation in energy, transportation, medicine, biotechnology, metallurgy, space exploration, etc. Most of these plans remain just that – plans. Of course, it is premature to speak about a strategic partnership without a solid economic basis, without large interest groups in both countries lobbying large-scale joint projects in a wide range of areas. And, as a bare minimum, the two side should, as soon as possible, conduct a bilateral analysis of the main reasons why Russia–Iran relations are just “spinning their wheels” and then identify priority measures to correct the situation.
Finally, the problem of trust between the people of Russia and Iran is far from being fully resolved, if only because they have very poor knowledge of each other and what they do know is often “hearsay” received primarily from western sources, which are not always objective, to say the least. Besides, the history of Russia–Iran bilateral relations has various pages, and it probably would be wrong to claim that old grievances and stereotypes and biases that had formed over centuries have no influence on the public mood.
Even in recent years, relations between the two countries have had their down points (in summer 2010, for instance, when Russia banned supplies of S-300 missile systems to Iran). Public opinion of Russia suffered as a result: the conservative powers suspect that Moscow sees Tehran as a bargaining chip in its greater game with the West, and the reformers’ camp often associates Russia with archaic anti-western forces incapable of offering Iran anything of substance. That is why, when talking about Russia–Iran relations, it is more appropriate to use the sceptical formula “cautious partnership,” rather than the optimistic “strategic partnership.”
Thus, current relations between Moscow and Tehran do contain many positive elements, but they have not yet reached the level of a strategic partnership. And without persistent efforts on both sides, without political will, without sitting down and working on the mistakes made, and without bringing in new “stakeholders” – both in Russia and Iran – such a partnership will hardly materialize. And, of course, the prospects of such a partnership greatly depend on internal development processes in both countries.
As regards relations with the West, Russia and Iran should proceed from the following premises when constructing the “Western vector” of their foreign policies:
First, separating themselves from the West or even pitching their own “non-western” system against the western system of the global economy and politics is not feasible in the foreseeable future. At their respective stages of development, both Russia and Iran need cutting-edge technologies and investments above anything else. The West has been and still is the main source of both. It is likely that this situation will change in the distant future, but for the time being, China, India and other “rising powers” depend to a great extent on being included in the economic, technological, and financial chains, which begin in the West.
Second, the West should not be “demonized” as a force that inevitably opposes traditional values, national interests and the sovereignty of Russia and Iran. Today, the West is far from being united even in its basic positions on the principal problems of international relations. It would seem that the differences between the United States and Europe, as well as the differences within individual countries, will remain and even deepen. These differences extend to issues that are important for Russia and Iran (economic sanctions, the Syrian conflict, the Arab–Israel settlement and the fight against international terrorism). Such pluralism affords additional opportunities for politics in Moscow and Tehran.
Third, analysing possible options for Russian and Iranian foreign policy in terms of “pro- or anti-Western” appears unproductive and inaccurate. Russian foreign policy must be “pro-Russian,” just like Iran’s policy must be “pro-Iranian.” Foreign policy should primarily be based on a clear understanding of short- and long-term national interests. This understanding determines the acceptable parameters of current concessions and possible compromises, and it applies to relations with the West, too.
The development of Russia–Iran relations should not be viewed as an alternative to each country’s relations with the West. Bilateral interaction between Moscow and Tehran gives each party additional trump cards in their relations with western partners. And these trump cards could and should be used, taking into account the fact that the role the West plays in resolving problems in the Middle East, and in Asia as a whole, will decrease with time, rather than increase. Reformers both in Russia and Iran tend to overestimate that role, viewing the West as a universal means for solving all the problems that Moscow and Tehran face. This view appears highly dubious and it has no historical basis.
Specific aspects of interaction between Russia and Iran, the possible limits for cooperation and the potential costs of such cooperation could become subjects for interaction between analytical centres in the two countries. Unfortunately, there is little to boast of in this area right now.
NB: This article first appeared at "Russia-Iran Partnership: an Overview and Prospects for the Future", co-published by IRAS and RIAC.

Andrey Kortunov is the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).
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