What does Putin want from Iran?

In Tehran, the Russian President, seeking stronger ties, finds a receptive audience 

July 20, 2022 09:50 pm | Updated 09:51 pm IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, centre, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, Iran, on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, centre, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, Iran, on Tuesday, July 19, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

In his first trip outside the former Soviet sphere since the Ukraine war began, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran on Tuesday where he held talks with both Iranian and Turkish leaders.

A host of issues, from the Syrian civil war to a UN-sponsored proposal to resume grain exports via the Russia-blockaded Black Sea, were discussed in the meetings, but the main focus of the visit was on further deepening the partnership between Iran and Russia.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have isolated Moscow in the West. But the crisis seems to have opened new avenues of cooperation between Iran and Russia. After the invasion, Russia came under heavy Western sanctions, which forced President Putin to look east. Iran, which has been living under U.S. sanctions for decades, has taken a line that’s closest to Russia’s own position about the Ukraine conflict.

In late February, a few days after the Ukraine war began, a senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official told The Hindu in Tehran that “Iran is opposed to any form of conflicts, but in the case of Ukraine, Russia has genuine security concerns”. The West, said the official who requested not to be named, “was pushing Ukraine towards a conflict which forced Russia to take this action”.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed this view in his meeting with President Putin on Tuesday. “War is a violent and difficult endeavour, and the Islamic Republic is not at all happy that people are caught up in war,” Mr. Khamenei told Mr. Putin, according to his office. “But in the case of Ukraine, if you had not taken the helm, the other side would have done so and initiated a war.” For Russia, which has claimed that it began the “special military operation” to prevent Ukraine intensifying the conflict in the Donbas, this is an endorsement of its position by a foreign leader .

Strategic partnership

Iran and Russia already have a strategic partnership in place. In Syria, Tehran and Moscow helped President Bashar al-Assad turn around the civil war to his favour. In recent years, especially after the U.S. unilaterally pulled itself out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Tehran sought to accelerate its cooperation with both Russia and China, in what German-Iranian political scientist Ali Fathollah-Nejad called a “look-to-the-East geopolitical orientation”.

In March 2021, Iran signed a 25-year “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” with China. In 2001, Russia and Iran had signed a 10-year cooperation treaty, and last year, Iran had said it was in an advanced stage of discussions to clinch a 20-year strategic partnership agreement with Russia. These agreements lack transparency but show Iran’s desire to have stronger ties with its Eurasian partners, in sharp contrast with the earlier bid to bet on the nuclear deal and removal of the sanctions.

“Mr. Putin is leading a country that’s been severely sanctioned. So is Iran. So when there’s a common enemy or a common problem, countries tend to help each other. That’s what Iran and Russia are doing now,” Foad Izadi, Associate Professor, Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran, told The Hindu.

The Iran-Russia ties, despite their common interests and common foes, have also remained a complex affair. The partnership has been characterised by both cooperation and competition (especially in the field of oil exports). But now, a new dimension is added, said Mr. Fathollah-Nejad, who is also a fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy, American University of Beirut.

“As to Iran and Russia, bilateral relations have long been characterised by an asymmetry of power between the two as well as Moscow’s use and abuse of the raging Iran-West conflict. Now, with Russia being subjected to a similar set of severe international sanctions led by the U.S., a new constellation in the bilateral framework was born,” he said.

Energy deal

Both sides are now moving fast to mobilise the fresh momentum in their relationship. Hours before Mr. Putin landed in Tehran, Russia’s Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company signed a memorandum of understanding worth $40 billion. The deal involves joint offshore gas projects, gas and oil products swap, completion of LNG projects and building gas pipelines.

Earlier, the Russia and China-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organisation had announced that Iran would be given full membership soon. There’s also growing synergy in the way both countries look at the world, according to Prof. Izadi. “If you look at the text of the exchange between Iran’s leader Khamenei and the Russian President, you see a lot of similarities in terms of what needs to be done in bilateral ties. There are also similar views on what’s going on in the world, and in their opposition to western hegemony.”

So what does Mr. Putin, who visited Iran just days after U.S. President Joe Biden concluded his West Asia trip, want in Iran? “He wants to improve ties as a way of going around the difficulties his country is facing and he has found a receptive audience in Tehran,” Prof. Izadi said.

In the views of Mr. Fathollah-Nejad, the visit is about both economic and security cooperation. “In particular, Moscow is willing to learn from Tehran’s decades-long experience on how to circumvent Western sanctions and potentially seek the procurement of Iranian drones, which Tehran and its proxies have used time and again — with surprising success — against the hydrocarbon infrastructure of Iran’s southern Gulf neighbours.”

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