Russia and Iran: How Far from a Strategic Partnership?

06 May 2021

Russia and Iran: How Far from a Strategic Partnership?

By Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, member of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

May 6, 2021

Should we define the current Russia–Iran relations as a strategic partnership or rather as a tactical alliance between countries with diverging foreign policy aspirations and ambitions?  To answer this question, we should clarify what strategic partnership actually means in the modern international relations.

First, in order to build a strategic partnership, states should have a wide range of long-term common interests—interests that do not depend on modalities of the current political situation or on the actions of any third parties. To have a common enemy or to experience similar foreign policy problems is not enough for a strategic partnership. Foreign policy problems come and go, and a one-time enemy could easily become an ally in the future.

Second, the two parties should pursue major strategic goals, which they can achieve only through sustained joint efforts. This is what distinguishes a strategic partnership from a tactical alliance. In the global politics of today, there are plenty of tactical alliances, but truly strategic partnerships remain rare.

Third, for a strategic partnership to work, the two sides need a well-developed legal and regulatory framework to serve their interaction, as well as effective mechanisms for cooperating in various fields. Political declarations produced at summits or ministerial meetings are a necessary, but insufficient condition for a strategic partnership to emerge.

Fourth, a strategic partnership implies a high level of trust among the political leaders of the countries involved in the partnership and a high level of mutual affection, understanding and trust between the two societies. Without broad public support coming from both sides, even the warmest of friendships between national leaders, even constant interaction among the bureaucratic machines of two countries is not enough to ensure stable relations.

Do we have these preconditions met in the Russian-Iranian relations? Unfortunately, not. At best, we can argue that the two sides have done some initial groundwork for a strategic partnership to appear at some point in future.

Take common interests to start with. In Russia, they emphasize common interests of the two countries in counteracting the hegemonic policies of the United States in the world at large and in the Middle East in particular. They also note that Russia and Iran face common challenges of political radicalism and extremism in their common neighborhoods—from Afghanistan to Syria. That is, Russians attach priority to issues of security and geopolitics.

Russia and Iran directly or indirectly compete on the global hydrocarbons markets. Moscow and Tehran cannot possibly have identical stances on many regional issues, even in Syria. Iran is a Shia country, while most Russian Muslims are Sunni Muslims. Neither of these any many other differences in interests look irreconcilable, but they indicate that the balance of common, overlapping and diverging interests between Russia and Iran is far more complex than it appears to those who are fond of simplified geopolitical constructs. Ignoring this complexity, turning a picture of many colors black and white, will lead to inevitable disappointments and problems.

What about common strategic goals? Many achievements of Russia-Iran interaction, notwithstanding their bilateral cooperation, has largely been of a situational nature. Over last thirty years, this cooperation has mostly been limited to more or less successful parallel reactions of the two countries to emerging problems. These problems have been numerous and diverse: the civil war in Tajikistan, the intervention of the United States and their allies in Iraq, the Arab Spring, the crises in Syria and Yemen, etc. Due credit should be given to Russian and Iranian diplomats who, as a rule, succeeded in finding appropriate and mutually acceptable approaches to extremely complicated regional problems.

Still, a timely interaction in crises does not create a strategic partnership. Another requirement is common strategic goals; that is, the existence of a long-term positive action program, one that pre-empts crises rather than merely reacts to them. Drafting joint Russia-Iran proposals on the creation of a collective regional security system in the Persian Gulf could be a promising move in this direction. The “Greater Central Asia” region could become another area for putting forward long-term joint initiatives. In a broader context, it would be extremely important to compare the views of Moscow and Tehran on how to restore the manageability of the global international system as a whole.

The legislative basis for Russia-Iran relations is extremely underdeveloped (especially compared to such areas of Russian foreign policy as Russia’s relations with the European Union). The same is true regarding the mechanisms for implementing interaction in various areas. For instance, in the economic sphere, there are many bilateral commissions, councils and fora, but in many ways, they are purely nominal entities. This in part explains the unacceptable state of trade and economic relations between Russia and Iran in terms of both volume and structure.

In their economic relations, Russia and Iran follow the path of the least resistance, confining themselves to individual large “showcase” projects carried out with an active governmental support like the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant and military technical cooperation. Back in 2007, the parties envisioned grand plans for increasing the annual trade turnover to $200 billion over ten years, with cooperation in energy, transportation, medicine, biotechnology, metallurgy, space exploration, etc. Most of these plans remain just on paper. In sum, it is premature to speak about a strategic partnership without a solid economic basis, without large interest groups in both countries lobbying large-scale joint projects in a wide range of areas. The two sides should conduct a bilateral analysis of the main reasons why Russia-Iran relations are just “spinning their wheels” and then identify priority measures to correct the situation.

The problem of trust between the people of Russia and Iran remains unresolved, if only because they have very poor knowledge of each other. What they do know is often “hearsay” received primarily from Western sources, which are not always objective, to say the least. Besides, the history of Russia-Iran bilateral relations has various pages, and it probably would be wrong to claim that old grievances, stereotypes, and biases that have formed over centuries have no influence on the public mood. Even in recent years, relations between the two countries have had their down points: in summer 2010, for instance, when Russia postponed supplies of S-300 missile systems to Iran. After this decision, many among Iranian conservatives concluded Moscow saw Tehran only as a bargaining chip in its greater game with the West. In the Iranian reformers’ camp, they often consider Russia to be an archaic stagnating power incapable of offering Iran anything of substance.

In sum, relations between Moscow and Tehran do contain many positive elements, but they have not yet reached the level of a strategic partnership. This partnership will hardly materialize without persistent efforts on both sides, without political will, without sitting down and working on the mistakes made, and without bringing in new stakeholders—both in Russia and in Iran. Sure enough, one cannot ‘build’ such a partnership as you erect a house; one should rather approach it as a delicate living plant in need of watering, fertilizing and grooming by an experienced, committed and patient gardener.