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02/02/15

Incentives and Impediments to Iran-Russia Military Cooperation

By Alireza Noori, PhD Candidate, Saint Petersburg State University & Expert on Russia Affairs (source: Iran Review)


Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Dehqan in Tehran

Introduction

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently paid a visit to Iran, which was the first of its kind in the past 15 years, during which he and his Iranian counterpart signed an agreement to stress their countries’ determination to boost high-level security and military cooperation both at bilateral and regional levels. Of course, they agreed that the details of the agreement should be hashed out during a possible visit to Iran by the Russian President Vladimir Putin. This development can, therefore be a prelude to expansion of military cooperation between the two countries. Naturally, like all other military agreements, most parts of Iran-Russia agreement will be confidential and, therefore, various aspects of that agreement as well as its practical outcomes cannot be freely discussed now. However, there is almost no doubt that the implementation of this agreement will “relatively” change regional equations. In the meantime, special emphasis has been put on the delivery of Russia’s S-300 missile system to Iran. However, beyond that issue, the visit by Russian defense minister and signing of the agreement should be viewed within a vaster framework in which large-scale viewpoints of Iran and Russia about the necessity of bolstering security and military cooperation to meet common interests and counteract common threats to both countries will be of more significance. Undoubtedly, there are many factors that may cast doubt on the implementation of this agreement. However, there are also incentives and necessities that can prompt Tehran and Moscow to boost their cooperation in the field of military technology.

Incentives

Differences with the West: On top of the list of incentives for the expansion of military relations between Iran and Russia one should point to both countries’ continued differences with the Western countries, which do not seem to be overcome in the short term. This issue, in addition to the possibility of the US Republicans sweeping to a presidential vote win in forthcoming elections, has prompted officials in Tehran and Moscow to try to bolster their positions and find new partners and tools in order to boost their bargaining power in the face of the West. In the meantime, although Iran and Russia do not have strategic relations, and the prospect for the establishment of such relations in medium term is dim, due to hostile approach of the West to both countries, they have been, and still are, trying to make the most of their various capacities to reduce the burden of the West’s pressures.

During the past year, the West has been insisting on its geopolitical advancement toward the east within its anti-missile defense scheme. In the meantime, NATO has been trying to expand its realm at a time that Western countries have been pursuing controlled chaos strategy in the Middle East and indirect action strategy in Ukraine. In the meantime, officials in Tehran and Moscow have not remained idle and have been taking steps to further strengthen their military stamina in parallel to bolstering military cooperation as an effective tactic to counteract the West’s pressure. Following the developments in Libya, Syria and then Ukraine, Russia came to realize the depth of its differences with the West and the threat that was posed to it by becoming dependent on the West in all aspects of its relations. Therefore, Moscow decided to make a U-turn by mending fences with countries in its east and south, including Iran. On the other hand, due to increasing pressures by the US Republicans to escalate sanctions against Iran, a move which Iranian diplomats have described as the end of diplomacy with the West, Tehran has been considering all available scenarios, even military confrontation with the West. Naturally, receiving advanced defense systems from Russia will make it difficult for Iran's adversaries to think about a military option on the country.

Fighting common regional threats: Maintaining regional stability and security is a common benefit for Iran and Russia. Therefore, both countries have been especially concerned about any jeopardy to regional stability and security from Afghanistan to Central Asia, Caspian basin, South Caucasus, and the Middle East, especially Iraq and Syria. Tehran and Moscow have been also feeling concerned about the US plan to expand its anti-missile defense umbrella, eastward expansion of the NATO, and the spreading threat of terrorism. Although increased military cooperation between Iran and Russia will not be possibly adequate to address all these threats, it can be effective in reducing threats. In this regard, good understanding on the part of Iran about the ongoing developments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and the activities of the Islamic State terrorist group, on the one hand, combined with Russia’s intelligence and military capabilities, on the other hand, can serve to effectively rein in such escalating threats. Both countries have already had irregular military cooperation, but the recent military agreement can provide a good ground for more regular military collaboration between Tehran and Moscow.

Bolstering political and geopolitical influence: It cannot be denied that Russia is worried about possible achievement of a comprehensive nuclear agreement by Iran and the West, as a consequence of which Moscow will lose a lot of the political influence and geopolitical advantages arising from Iran's hostility with the West. This issue, has been certainly one of the reasons behind recent steps taken by Russia to bolster military cooperation with Iran in order to fend off possible future losses. This is true as one of the major advantages of military agreements is increased political and geopolitical influence that follows conclusion of such agreements. Therefore, some Russia experts believe that geopolitical aspects of Mr. Shoigu’s Tehran visit are much more important than its technical aspects. They have emphasized that due to aggressive geopolitical approach that the West has taken to Russia, strengthening Russia’s relations with countries that share ideas with Moscow will be instrumental in preventing further advances by the West. On the other hand, one of the points covered by the new agreement has been facilitation of berthing for military vessels of the two countries in each other’s ports. Therefore, Russia hopes that by receiving permits from Iran, it would be able to revive its presence in the Persian Gulf, which had been effectively ended since 1946. This issue will certainly play an important part in increasing international prestige of Russia.

Economic benefits: Increased sale of weapons for the strengthening of Russian military industries and earning more money at a time that global oil prices are at historical lows, should be considered as one of the most important goals of the recent military agreement signed between Tehran and Moscow. Russia has already signed similar contracts with Egypt, India and a number of Latin American countries. Russian media have been putting emphasis on Iran's need to renovate its military industries, stipulating that Russia should take the best advantage of this opportunity and export even modern jet fighters to Iran, thus, consolidating its control over the Iranian weapons market. The visit by Mr. Shoigu to India after his trip to Iran and the efforts he made to pave the way for selling more armaments to New Delhi put the rubberstamp on the fact that economic reasons underlie Russia’s military agreements with other countries. However, since Iran has already mastered certain areas of military technology and is capable of building missiles similar to S-300 system, the country is now looking for more modern weaponry. As a result, Tehran has proposed to join hands with Russia to produce modern weapons and pave the way for the transfer of Russia’s advanced military technology to Iran. In doing so, Iran is clearly indicating that it has no plan to turn into a mere customer of Russian weapons.

Impediments

Avoiding further worsening of relations with the West: Both Iran and Russia are at a sensitive juncture of their relations with the West. Tehran is moving toward improvement of relations with the West, while Moscow is heading for more tension. The future outlook for both countries, however, is ambiguous. Under these conditions, both countries are avoiding any measure that may escalate tensions with the West. This is why the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has noted that Russia is now willing and will not allow another Cold War to begin. Moscow is well aware of institutionalized differences between Iran and the West while Tehran, on the other hand, is well informed about the ongoing tensions between Russia and the West. Both countries also know that any form of practical development of their relations will provide the West with more excuses to mount pressures on Tehran and Moscow. This is why both countries have been cautious about further development of their relations, especially when it comes to military matters. Of course, although both Tehran and Moscow avoid further tension with the West and do not want to give excuses to the Western countries, this does not mean that they will coordinate all their measures with the West. On the opposite, both countries are taking their own pragmatic approach to this issue and believe that a multi-vectoral policy is more suitable at this juncture. They are also aware that the more they retreat in the face of the West, the Western countries will be emboldened to make new advances.

Lack of mutual trust: Moscow is well aware that the “need” for having an ally in the face of the West has inclined Iran toward Russia. Therefore, if Iran's differences with the West are resolved, including through possible signing of a comprehensive nuclear agreement, interactions with Russia would be of less importance to the Islamic Republic. On the opposite, Iran is also aware that Moscow has become willing to work with Iran due to mere “coercion” resulting from the challenges that it has in its relations with the West. Therefore, it is quite possible that when that “coercion” no more exists, Russia would not have any more reasons to expand its relations with Iran, especially in the sensitive field of military technology. Iran has also relevant experiences in this regard. Russia has always pursued its ties with Iran as a function of its relations with the West. Therefore, as evidenced by the abrogation of the contract for delivery of S-300 missile systems to Iran, the West will be a major factor determining whether Moscow will abide by its commitments to Iran.

Iran is also well informed about the common interests that Russia and the West have in the field of international security and knows that Moscow prefers to work with the West in this regard. Tehran also remembers the proposal offered by Mr. Putin to the United States for common use of Gabala Radar Station in the Republic of Azerbaijan when the United States was trying to expand its anti-missile shield against Iran. Therefore, Tehran has no doubt that Russia will never prefer cooperation with Iran to long-term security and military cooperation with the West. In addition, Tehran knows that it should avoid overdependence on Russia in military fields, which will be also followed by increased political clout of Russia over Iran. This is why Tehran does not seem to have an extended view to expansion of military relations with Russia and is just trying to meet its own defense needs by taking advantage of military and intelligence capacities of Russia in order to deal with regional threats in a better way.

Israel: Although Israel is not the main partner of Moscow in the Middle East, officials in Kremlin have time and again emphasized importance of their country’s ties with Tel Aviv. Without a doubt, Tel Aviv’s lobby was one of the main reasons why Russia repealed its contract with Iran for the delivery of S-300 missile system and can also explain why Moscow changed its mind about equipping Tehran with advanced weaponry. Therefore, Israel’s opposition to further development of military relations between Tehran and Moscow should be also taken into account as a factor with relative influence.

Conclusion

As the existing trends show, the number of agreement that have been signed between Iran and Russia, but their implementation has been hampered due to a host of bilateral, regional and international reasons is not small. The contract for the construction of Bushehr nuclear power plant, the contract for the delivery of S-300 missile system, and a recent memorandum of understanding to swap oil for goods are but a few examples to the point. Military cooperation between Iran and Russia has a long and bumpy road to go. Under present circumstances, both countries are more willing for cooperation. Of course, if Mr. Putin put the last confirming seal on the recent agreement in his forthcoming visit to Tehran, then the issue of its implementation and its possible outcomes could be discussed more seriously.

The important point with regard to the implementing of this military agreement and possible delivery of S-300 missiles or their lookalikes to Iran is that Moscow should first repeal an executive order issued on September 22, 2010, by the then Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, which effectively banned export of “certain” military equipment to Iran in relation to international sanctions imposed on Tehran by the United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 1929. Abrogation of that order will, on the one hand, be admittance of a mistake by Russia, while on the other hand, it would point to the possibility of the cancellation of other restrictions that Moscow has considered in its ties with Tehran in relation to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, including Iran's possible membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

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