ZOiS Spotlight 16/2020

A tactical partnership: Russia and Iran

by Ann-Sophie Gast 22/04/2020
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran. © imago images / Alexei Nikolsky / ITAR-TASS

Over the past decade, Russia’s foreign policy has focused particularly on its neighbours and on improving regional cooperation. New regional organisations have emerged, first and foremost the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), founded in 2015. Also, Russian engagement in existing organisations has increased. For instance, there have been significantly more joint military exercises in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia’s shift of focus towards its immediate neighbours has only been moderately successful, however. Just four countries – Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan – have joined the EAEU, and there are currently no candidates for accession. The EAEU’s economic performance, too, has been disappointing. Trade between EAEU member states declined during its first few years in existence due to the economic crisis in Russia, and there has been little sign of recovery. But the EAEU’s weak economy is not the only factor: Russia’s international isolation after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine was another reason why Moscow’s regional charm offensive made little headway with the post-Soviet states.

Focus on new partners

In order to expand its international influence, Russia has become increasingly engaged in crisis hotspots outside the post-Soviet region, notably Syria and Libya, in the past five years. It has also broadened the strategic direction and scope of its regional cooperation. Under the concept of “Greater Eurasia”, Russia has reached out towards China, first and foremost, in recent years. However, another country has gained in significance for the Kremlin as well, namely Iran.

Russia – alongside China, Germany, France and the United Kingdom – is one of the five remaining parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme, which is at risk of falling apart since the USA’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018. Since then, Moscow has positioned itself internationally as a champion of Tehran’s interests and is assisting Iran to cushion the impacts of US sanctions. Russia and Iran are also cooperating in the conflict in Syria, where they both support Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Together with Turkey, they constitute the Astana format, a platform for negotiations on Syria’s future, which also serves to raise the international profile of participant states. What’s more, in late 2019, Russia, China and Iran held joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman.

Both China and Iran have a troubled relationship with the West, a circumstance that Russia is exploiting in order to push the narrative of an alternative anti-western alliance. By cooperating with Iran, Russia not only secures a powerful ally in the Middle East; it also enables Moscow to position itself as a mediator in the conflict between the West and Iran. Furthermore, with the new formats, Russia is demonstrating that it is no longer reliant on cooperation with the EU and NATO and has found new allies in other regions of the world.

Iran and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

Iran is playing an increasingly important role in Russian regional policy. In 2018, the EAEU – at Moscow’s initiative – signed a free trade agreement with Iran, which entered into force in 2019. Russia has also been pushing for some time for Iran to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) where it would be yet another non-post-Soviet member after Pakistan and India joined the organisation in 2017. The other SCO members are Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. In its security cooperation, the SCO focuses on joint efforts to combat terrorism, extremism and separatism. However, curbing these “three evils” is often used by member states as a pretext for coordinating repressive measures against all forms of opposition. The SCO is also known to espouse anti-American positions from time to time.

Iran has held observer status in the SCO since 2005 and first applied for full membership in 2008. From an Iranian perspective, membership makes a lot of sense, not only due to the SCO’s agenda. Alongside the Central Asian states, with which it has close religious and cultural ties, Iran has two important and powerful international partners in China and Russia. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke out in favour of Iran’s accession only recently, in January 2020. Also, China has close economic ties with Iran and is known to be one of its supporters in the negotiations on continuing the nuclear deal. However, Beijing is circumspect on the matter of Iran’s possible full membership. China has close trade links with Iran’s traditional rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and has no interest in being drawn into regional tensions in the Middle East.

For Russia, Iran’s accession to the SCO would be a coup. It would not only expand the SCO’s regional scope and significance, given that the members of the SCO already represent around 40 per cent of the world’s population. More than that: Iran is one of Russia’s key partners in curbing US dominance in the Middle East. Iran’s membership would add to the SCO’s geopolitical weight as an anti-Western alliance. Not least, Tehran supports Moscow’s perpetual goal of establishing a multipolar world order as a means of curbing the hegemonic ambitions of certain states and establishing alternative governance structures that are not dominated by the West.

However, Iran’s full membership would brand the organisation once and for all as an anti-Western alliance, which is not in the interests of all its member states. Some of the Central Asian members have close ties with the US and are critical of the politicisation of Islam pursued by Iran. India, too, is sceptical towards Iran’s accession due to the conflict between Iran and the US. For these reasons, Iran’s attempts to gain acceptance as a full member have been unsuccessful thus far. Russia will continue to press for its accession, but as the Kremlin is simultaneously attempting to intensify its cooperation with other countries in the region – notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, which are hostile towards Iran – it is unlikely to champion the Iranian cause at all costs.

Ann-Sophie Gast is a political scientist. Her PhD thesis focused on Eurasian integration.