The West in Tehran-Moscow Relations
Date of publication : March 3, 2018 03:02 am
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (C), his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) attend a meeting in Moscow on December 20, 2016
Russia and Iran have been neighbors for over three centuries. Since the beginning of this “neighborly” relationship, Iran has been the smaller and weaker partner in terms of size, military capability, and international stature. This relationship has always been affected by Moscow’s rivalry with Western powers. Throughout the 19th century when the Great Game continued between Britain and Russia, Iran was the scene of intense rivalry between the two powers. During the Cold War, Iran was in the Western camp and its relations with the Soviet Union were dictated by the East-West rivalry.
As a staunch ally of the United States, Tehran provided listening posts on the Soviet border, and joined the Baghdad Pact and later CENTOs with other pro-Western neighbors in containing the Soviet Union. After the historic meeting between Khrushchev and Kennedy in the early 1960s, Iran was the first country where Détente was put to the test.
Iran entered into a number of technical and economic agreements with the Soviet Union. The highlight of this cooperation was the deal that led to the construction of the first steel mill in Isfahan by the Soviets and the construction of a pipeline that provided the Soviet Union with Iranian gas. Interestingly, none of the Western Industrial powers would build such a strategic industry in Iran. In the end, it was the Soviet Union that undertook the project.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 promptly exited Iran from the Western camp. With Iraq’s invasion of Iran, the American hostage crisis that occurred shortly after the Revolution and the sanctions placed on Iran by the United States and its allies, Iran found itself isolated. Once again, the presence of a third power directly affected Tehran’s relation with and its policy towards Moscow.
Because of Iran’s increasing isolation on the international scene, Tehran gradually tilted towards and looked to Moscow as an ally against the United States. As late as the 1990s and 2000s, some influential figures in the Iranian government, with a Cold War mentality, advocated forging a strategic alliance with Russia and India against the West. A very important aspect of this policy has been the recognition that Russia’s influence and interests in the region cannot be ignored. This, it seems, has meant avoiding actions and comments that may annoy Moscow.
Tehran’s position on the Bosnian tragedy and Chechnya is an indication. There is a prevalent view in Iran that for most of this long relationship, Moscow has looked to Tehran as a means of gaining concessions from the West. Following the Islamic Revolution, when Iran’s former allies in the West refused to honor their commitment in building a nuclear energy plant in Iran, Moscow was quick to jump at the opportunity to build it for Tehran. In the final stages of the project, Moscow dragged its feet in completing it, sighting technical and financial reasons. Once again, it seems, Iran was used as a bargaining chip by Moscow to draw concessions from the West.
© Institute for Regional Studies (IRS)
Farhad Atai, an associate professor at the University of Tehran, is the senior fellow at IRAS
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