By Hassan Beheshtipour, Expert on Russia and Central Asia Affairs (source: Iran Review)
As Russian President Vladimir Putin officially commences his third tenure of presidency on 6 May 2012 (17 Ordibehesht 1391 in Persian calendar), the examination of his plans and policies in the areas of domestic politics and foreign relations over the coming six years may prove noteworthy and interesting for politicians and policy-makers. So, this article seeks to analyze relations between the Islamic Republic and Russia during Putin’s third term as president.
Based upon an assessment of his declared positions and political behaviour in practice, one can argue that Putin’s approach during his third term of presidency will probably be fundamentally different from his policies in the two previous periods. This is primarily because Russia found out, after four years of futile interaction with the United States, that it could not count upon the US as a trustworthy and reliable partner. The issue raised further suspicion and cynicism in the atmosphere of relations between Moscow and Washington, particularly after the Obama administration failed to make good on its promise to provide Russia with security guarantees about its missile defence plans, that is, its pledge to refrain from deploying a so-called missile defence shield near Russian borders in Europe. Russia is well aware that the US offensive missile system is mainly aimed at Russia and in fact imposes further restrictions on Moscow’s military policies.
Now Putin will try, during his third term as Russian president, to distance himself from the US policies while building closer relations with the countries that are critical of American unilateralism. Along this course, Putin neither desires nor can afford to turn Russia into the leader of anti-American front in the international arena. Rather, only through criticizing the expansionist policies of the United States, he will seek to align himself with the nationalist and leftist groups inside Russia - which are similarly critical of Washington’s approach - so that he can manage to isolate the West-oriented current in the Russian politics on the one hand and set up a new front in concert with such actors as Iran, China, India, Brazil and South Africa in order to create balance in international relations. The most significant issues that can prepare the ground for cooperation between the Islamic Republic and Russia can be summed up as follows:
1) The Syrian crisis has provided new common ground for cooperation between Iran, Russia and China, in the sense that if Putin manages to prevent the coming to power of a West-inclined government in Syria, he will be able to cat with greater latitude and manoeuvrability in relations with the United States.
2) It may be anticipated that thanks to his dominance over Russia’s military, oil and gas industries through his close associates and allies, Putin will take more serious action in two policy areas in order to offer greater assurance to Tehran. First, he will help finalize Iran’s nuclear energy case and push for the cancellation or at least reduction of US-led sanctions against the Islamic Republic as Russia harbours no opposition to nuclear enrichment for medical research purposes in Iran. Second, he will move to revoke the former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s order to suspend the deal about selling S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran. The issue drew attention particularly after a trade arbitration court in France voted in favour of Iran after studying its appeal against Russia. With this argument in mind, it goes without saying that if the two fundamental measures are taken, then the circumstances for cooperation will become better and more favourable than the past.
3) Putin might be willing, once again, to play the Iran card in Moscow-Washington relations, but the experience of past four years has awakened him to the reality that Russia can no longer treat its relations with Iran as a variable dependent upon the United States. He needs to free Iranian-Russian relationship from under the heavy shadow and influence of the West once and for all. In point of fact, Putin pursues Russia’s long-term interests by taking into consideration the fact that its relations with Iran needs to be tailored on the basis of both sides’ mutual interests and regardless of the US concerns and considerations.
4) The US-sponsored missile system, called “missile defence shield,” is another issue of central importance which both Iran and Russia oppose for different reasons. The two sides can probably consult with each other on the existing ways to confront the system and then arrive at mutually accepted common solutions and ideas.
5) It is highly expected that upon Putin’s return to office, the issue of the Caspian Sea - which is the world’s greatest lake - and its legal regime will be put on the agenda and the Islamic Republic and Russia will manage to pursue the articles of Tehran summit in 1997 and achieve practical results in the upcoming meeting of Caspian Sea states, which is set to be held in Moscow. Formulating a new legal regime for the Caspian Sea has been the second most important issue of Iranian foreign policy after the nuclear energy programme over the past ten years, and once such a regime is put in place after the resolution of related differences, Iran may be able to develop its relations with Russia and other countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus with greater ease and latitude.
6) Energy - oil and gas - is another area in which Iran and Russia have good opportunities for cooperation in the future. Though Moscow appears to be Tehran rival in terms of energy production and supply, the two countries can indeed cooperate with each other in an effective way on creating and controlling gas and oil markets. It is rather common practice in the contemporary world that rival countries cooperate with each other on strategic issues to exert greater influence on consumer markets while competing with each other in a constructive way. The withdrawal of Russian petroleum company, Lukoil, from working on an oil field in Iran under the excuse of financial problems as well as its refusal to fulfill its commitments in 2009 under the US pressure have left a negative legacy in Iranian-Russian relations during the presidency of Medvedev. It is thus expected that new negotiations will be initiated between the two countries during the Putin era to expand joint activities regarding oil production issue.
As for the future of Moscow-Tehran ties, one may argue that Russia will probably adopt a distinct approach independent from the West, which will in turn contribute to the relative improvement of Iranian-Russian relations. Though one cannot expect Putin to perform miracles about the bilateral ties, Russia’s interests require that it free itself from any Western influence in adjusting its relations with the Islamic Republic. Putin’s Russia will seriously need greater cooperation with Iran in the next six years to boost its influence at the regional and international levels as it cannot score points from the West by playing the Iran card. During the presidency of Putin, Moscow will probably offer Tehran further help to develop its peaceful nuclear energy programme because as the Islamic Republic needs the Russian vote in the United Nations Security Council as well as its military-industrial technology, Russia needs Iranian influence in the Middle East and the Islamic world. Moreover, Moscow’s strategic plans, not least in the areas of gas and oil, will be more effectively enacted in cooperation with Iran.
And finally, Iran's potential membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will both benefit Russia and create a balance of power in this regional organization while enabling the Islamic Republic to play a greater role in Central Asia. It also seems that SCO’s role in confronting American unilateralism will be bolstered in international equations during the coming six-year presidency of Putin in Russia.
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