Unlikely allies: Moscow and Tehran (HAFEZ)

By D.R. HAFEZ – 5th February 2015

Following his nomination by Barack Obama as Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen declared in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that Tehran’s economic and financial feebleness was such that in order to relieve pressure from its economy, it would have to negotiate its nuclear situation further. It would come to no surprise therefore that Iran’s ambassador to Russia, Mehdi Sanaei, announced late last month that both countries had drawn up plans to create a “joint bank” for trade in national currencies, thus moving away from the US-dollar dominated current international system. Iran’s clever exploitation of current tensions between Russia, Europe and the US has placed it in a very delicate but ultimately profitable situation, which Europe would do well to take heed of.

 A deep-rooted geo-strategic alliance

Iran’s alliance with Russia is not new – indeed it is worth remembering that the USSR was the first state to recognise the Islamic republic in February 1979. Yes, the alliance shifted during the Iran-Iraq war, but by the mid 1990s, Russia was heavily involved in Iran’s Nuclear Program, most notably at the plant of Bushehr. Moreover, who could forget the UN wrangling as Russia fought to maintain its S-300 missile contract with Tehran? With such vested interests in the region, and Moscow’s will to re-establish itself as a major force within the Middle East, it is hardly surprising that one of Iran’s key backers has been the Kremlin, notwithstanding recent diplomatic visits to Turkey by Mr. Putin in order to strengthen bilateral trade deals.

Yet an alliance that has its own dangers and weaknesses

However, beneath a seemingly straightforward show of unity on key issues such as Syria, there lies a more nuanced reality. For a start, though both Tehran and Moscow have been very active in propping up the Assad regime in Syria, both on the ground and in the diplomatic arenas of the UN, one could argue that Tehran emerges with a better image. Indeed, as the threat of ISIS has come to eclipse the brutal ongoing civil war, so too has Tehran’s “cavalry-over-the-hill-charge” against al-Baghdadi’s forces come to outshine the ugly assistance that it continues to give to the Damascus regime – and that is without mentioning Hezbollah. Furthermore, Iran’s political successes in its delay, but acceptance, of nuclear talks with the P5+1 countries until June 2015 contrast with Russia’s very negative current international political image, whether it be with regards to the Ukrainian crisis or indeed more simply with the strength of its own economy. In relative terms, one may be so bold as to say that the Iranian-Russian alliance of old has been destabilized somewhat by the increased isolation and relative international socializing of both parties. Doubtless that Russia’s diplomacy is not unaware of this shift.

Nobody wants to be out in the cold with the unpopular kid in school

Take the Russian Rouble that has been sent “tumbling”, in the words of The Guardian. Take Russia’s economic structural problem of relying too heavily on primary sector exports such as gas that forced it to hastily renegotiate at cut-price value its trade deal with China. Take Mr. Putin’s hurried exit from the G20 summit in November 2014. Take Moscow’s handling of the Ukrainian crisis, which as already been touted as a desperate struggle to save face by the authors of this blog. Russia is currently in a relatively weak political and economic situation – in such a situation, it is not unreasonable to forecast Tehran searching for other alliances, (without upsetting the Kremlin too much) – certainly the recent visits of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Nairobi on 2nd February 2015 to strength economic and political ties with key African states, or indeed the declaration by the Croatian foreign minister in January of wanting to establish close links with Iran, during a joint press conference in Tehran that capped an official visit would suggest that Iran does not want to place all of its eggs in one basket.

Iran’s dilemma could be useful for Europe

Iran’s delicate position, both its endearing isolation and difficulty in maintaining a steadfast relationship with Russia whilst looking elsewhere at the same time could give Europe the extra edge in its perpetual quest to reaffirm its peace-making potential and to counter current Russian playfighting. Indeed, though Tehran would undoubtedly be smart enough to not let an obvious wedge be driven between it and Moscow, for fear of upsetting its ally, certainly increased trade links, perhaps a greater presence of Iranian oil and gas on the European internal market or even off-the-record recognition for its very proactive stance with regards to ISIS could entice Iran to ultimately come in from the cold. In short, why not use the convenient scarecrow of ISIS and international terrorism to help bring in a country with real economic weaknesses but also potential, into the fold?

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