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Russia, Iran not natural allies despite shared goals

By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Russia has been voicing its strong support for the Iranian regime in response to the Trump administration’s pressure and recent sanctions on Tehran.

The US Department of Treasury last week hit Iran’s Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company with economic sanctions because of its links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin saidin a statement: “This action is a warning that we will continue to target holding groups and companies in the petrochemical sector and elsewhere that provide financial lifelines to the IRGC.”

Also last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Chinese leader Xi Jinping and issued a statementmaking it clear that both powers will be backing the Islamic Republic. “The parties emphasize the need to protect their mutually beneficial commercial and economic cooperation with Iran and firmly oppose the imposition of unilateral sanctions by any states under the pretense of their own national legislation,” it read.

Conventional wisdom dictates that Iran and Russia are natural allies. And, on the surface, it might appear that there is indeed some truth to this statement. First of all, both countries share a common interest in counterbalancing and scuttling US foreign policy in the region.

Russia’s ties with Tehran extend its regional influence and give it leverage that can be used to push the West and the US in particular to lift sanctions against Moscow. Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, improving ties with Tehran has been a major part of Moscow’s foreign policy, as it has been using Iran as a bargaining chip to reassert its global leadership. Iran’s revolution tipped the regional balance of power in favor of Russia, as it provided Moscow with critical strategic advantages over its superpower rival, the US. Prior to the revolution, Iran was one of the staunchest US Cold War allies in the Middle East, acting as an instrument for Washington against the spread of communism in the region. As a result, the Iranian revolution and the rise of the clerics was a significant strategic blow to the US, as it lost its former friend to the Soviet Union.

Russia and Iran also need each other in Syria, particularly with respect to military cooperation when their interests are being threatened by Turkey, the US or Syrian oppositional groups. Russia can rely on airstrikes, the IRGC and the Quds Force, while Iran’s trained militia groups and proxies, such as Hezbollah, can provide the required boots on the ground to make territorial advances. This has been instrumental in keeping Bashar Assad in power.

Moscow has also benefited from sellingarms to the Islamic Republic, such as the S-300 missile defense system. Among the Russian corporations that benefitfrom the ties between the two countries are Rosoboronexport, which exports arms, Atomstroyexport, which exports atomic energy equipment and builds nuclear reactors, and Gazprom, which is part of the Russian petroleum industry. In addition, Russia profitsfrom trade with Iran.

Similarly, Tehran views Moscow as a powerful pawn against the US position on its regime, Washington’s objectives and presence in the region, and a counterbalance against American influence.

Nevertheless, these strategic, economic and military ties do not mean that Moscow and Iran are natural allies. In fact, tensions between the two countries could emerge at any time. First of all, both Russia and Iran are major energy exporters — they have the largest and second-largest gas reserves in the world respectively.

This issue can become a major source of tension and competition between the two. For example, when the nuclear deal was struck and the Ukraine crisis erupted, Moscow’s threats to cut off its gas supplies to the EU forced European countries to search for alternatives for their gas imports, hence decreasing their dependence on Moscow.

Despite their strategic, economic and military ties, tensions between the two countries could emerge at any time.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

According to Eurostat, 30 percent of the EU’s petroleum imports and 39 percent of its natural gas imports come from Russia. In four European countries — Estonia, Poland, Slovakia and Finland — more than 75 percent of petroleum imports come from Russia. In times of crisis, European countries have always looked at Tehran as a potential resource to wean themselves off reliance on Russia. In addition, Moscow is cognizant of the fact that Iran can be an economic threat, since it is more than willing to step in and export natural gas to the EU.

Finally, there have been several incidents where Russia has abandoned Iran and joined the West when it was offered incentives or when its interests were at stake. For instance, Russia previously joinedother members of the UN Security Council in voting in favor of four rounds of economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, there have been times when Russia and Iran have viewed each other as competitors in Syria as they bid to increase their influence in Damascus.

In conclusion, although a shared strategic agenda between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Russian President Putin have kept them close to each other, history shows that Moscow is not afraid of siding with the West in opposition to Tehran.

  • Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh

This article was first published by arabnews