By Iran Review
By Mehdi Sanaei*
Relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation have been continuously expanding in the past 25 years. Especially in recent years, high-ranking officials in both countries have shown their firm determination to lay a strong foundation for bilateral dialogue. However, despite all the efforts that have been made so far, the volume of economic relations are not proportionate to capacities of the two neighboring countries.
Following the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries, new horizons have been opened for resolving problems facing the international community and a new milieu has been provided for the expansion of international relations by Iran and other world countries. However, during past few weeks, negative remarks have been reflected in various media about the impacts of this agreement on relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation. For a variety of reasons, which are mentioned below, I believe that such remarks cannot be founded on a solid basis and the outlook for bilateral relations between the two countries is quite bright:
1. International sanctions against Iran lowered trade relations between Iran and Russia, especially during 2012 and 2013. In 2014, the downward trend stopped and the volume of trade exchanges between the two countries grew by 5 percent to reach USD 1.7 billion. Of course, experts still believe that the capacity for the expansion of trade exchanges between the two countries is much higher than this figure. During their recent meeting in the Russian city of Ufa, the presidents of the two countries believed that despite all-out expansion of cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, trade exchanges between the two countries fall short of their existing capacities.
The JCPOA can lead to removal of financial and economic sanctions against Iran as a result of which, trade exchanges between Iran and Russia would be facilitated. Quite recently, head of the Iran-Russia Trade Council Victor Melnikov, announced that implementation of agreements concluded between the two countries during past year following the removal of anti-Iran sanctions could boost trade exchanges between the two sides to USD 10 billion in coming years.
2. The conclusion of the JCPOA between Iran and the P5+1 group has left a positive precedent with regard to the resolution of important international issues through negotiation and diplomatic methods. The Vienna agreement, which was concluded through participation and contribution of Russia, showed that if the language of sanctions and threat is put aside and a win-win approach is adopted with an eye on concerns and national interests of both sides, reaching an agreement is possible. On the other hand, if differences over Iran’s nuclear program intensified and increased the risk of war, the consequences of a possible military action against Iran could have affected Russia’s near abroad as well.
3. The Vienna agreement can change some controversial equations in the Middle East in favor of increased regional and global stability and security. Elimination of misunderstandings surrounding the nuclear dispute will lead to less intervention of the United States in the internal affairs of countries in the Middle East. In addition, with reduction of pressures and sensitivities, cooperation between Iran and Russia can have a more rapid effect on the establishment of stability and security and the anti-terror fight in the region. Therefore, if other countries in the region tread the same path, the existing grounds for the United States’ intervention in the Middle East region will decrease.
A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry on the outcomes of the JCPOA for the Middle East had put emphasis on such issues as “the positive impact of the agreement on the overall stability and security in the world and the Middle East,” “provision of important requirements for the promotion of the goal of establishing a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East,” and “forming a broad-based anti-terrorist coalition in the region.”
4. Russia has made great efforts to facilitate Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but this goal has not been achieved yet due to imposition of sanctions on Iran. Following the removal of sanctions, there will be no barrier to Iran’s full membership at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and after promotion of Iran’s status from observer member to full member, relations between Iran and Russia within framework of this world body will become stronger and more expanded than before.
5. Removal of anti-Iran sanctions can greatly help expansion of cooperation between Iran and Russia in the field of nuclear energy. In November 2014, Iran and Russia signed a new contract for the construction of two more nuclear power plants in the southern Iranian port city of Bushehr in addition to two other important documents. When existing obstacles to financial exchanges between the two countries are removed, the chances of these documents being implemented will greatly increase. In addition, nuclear cooperation between Iran and Russia aimed at launching a center for the production of stable isotopes at Fordow nuclear site and exchange of surplus low-enriched uranium with uranium ore will become possible.
6. The idea that the nuclear deal will increase the distance between Iran and Russia and push Tehran toward the West does not conform to reality. The policies of Iran and the United States with regard to regional and global issues do not match and are at odds in many instances. Iran has no decision to negotiate with the United States on bilateral, regional and global issues, and bilateral negotiations were merely focused on Iran’s nuclear program.
On the other hand, however, there are many common interests between Moscow and Tehran with regard to various regional issues, including in Central Asia, Caucasus, Caspian Sea region, Afghanistan and the Middle East. With regard to issues related to the existing transitional international system, Iran and Russia have shared views on the United States’ unilateral policies, restrictions facing the national sovereign states and intervention of Western states in internal affairs of other countries, eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the missile defense shield planned by the United States for Europe. The foreign policy of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration considers further deepening and expansion of relations with Russia, China and India as top priorities.
7. Some analysts have noted that increased rivalry between Iran and Russia would be one of the outcomes of Iran’s nuclear agreement with the West. In an interview with Rossiya Segodnya news agency, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addressed this concern and rightly said, “As a matter of fact, Iranian oil has always been on the market. According to experts, Iranian worldwide oil exports may grow insignificantly in the near future. Iranian gas has never come under any harsh sanctions. For many years, Iranian gas has been sent to Turkey, among other countries.”
In reality, Iran and Russia have common interests in the field of oil and gas, which is reflected in their effort to keep global oil prices stable. Iran and Russia are both members of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) and can cooperate for the regulation of the gas market. Increasing Iran’s oil export capacity will take time and the international market will adapt to new conditions. In the meantime, policies adopted by other member states of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC oil exporting countries will play an important role in setting global oil prices.
8. Although removal of some components of the arms embargo against Iran has been deferred to 5-8 years from now, the nuclear agreement can also pave the way for the expansion of technical and defense cooperation between Iran and Russia. Since past years, Tehran and Moscow have been cooperating in this field and that cooperation can be pursued in a broader manner under new conditions. The recent order by Russian President Vladimir Putin to end a ban on the delivery of S-300 missile defense system to Iran has a great step in this regard.
9. Removal of the sanctions can reduce the impact of the third parties on relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation because this factor has so far barred realization of many plans that have been agreed upon by the two countries. Following the nuclear agreement, the Russian presidency issued a statement stressing that the deal gave new impetus to bilateral relations between Russia and Iran and those relations will no more be affected by external factors. Under these conditions, encouraging presence of major Russian companies in Iran’s competitive market and increased export of Iranian products to the Russian market can provide remarkable grounds to increase the volume of bilateral trade between the two countries.
10. Bilateral relations should go way beyond simple trade and economic exchanges. The time is now ripe for more scientific and educational cooperation, expansion of tourism ties, as well as bolstering of regional and international cooperation through new initiatives between Tehran and Moscow. Under these conditions the two countries should focus on ways to promote cooperation between two age-old partners.
* Mehdi Sanaei
Iran’s Ambassador to Russian Federation & President of Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS)