By Iran Review
Interview with Hassan Beheshtipour
Iran’s relations with China and Russia have been a focus of attention for domestic and international experts in recent days. Hassan Beheshtipour, an international expert on Russia and the Central Asia believes that factors and variables affecting the countries’ relations should not be ignored. He has enumerated and explained those factors and variables in the following interview with the Persian daily, Shargh.
Q: While Iran reckons a lot on international cooperation of China and Russia, there is great difference between Iran’s relations with China and Russia. We have vast trade relations with China, but there are unsolved problems between Iran and its sole neighbor which is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, that is, Russia. Don’t you think that if relations with Russia had been managed like relations with China, that is, if we had tied Russia’s interests to those of Iran, the result would have been much better?
A: When discussing relations between countries, a number of considerations should be taken into account. Firstly, we must avoid of any absolute proposition. In fact, considering international friendships, enmities, cooperation or lack of cooperation as an absolute proposition is a big mistake.
Secondly, countries make international decisions on the basis of their conditions and needs, but both conditions and needs change in the course of time. As a result, we must not expect the existing international arrangements to last forever.
Thirdly, national interests of countries are the sole principle of international relations which never changes. Neither friendships, nor enmities are forever. This is quite evident in countries’ relations. Russia has profound friendship with Ukraine and Belarus, but they have differences over energy matters. The United States and Israel are close allies, but revelations about Israel’s espionage on the US Defense Department causes strain in relations. As for our country, we have close ties to Turkey and have defined long-term economic interests on both sides. However, we have differences over the future of Syria and the US missile defense system. Therefore, neither differences, nor friendships are absolute.
Q: Even if we did not look at regional alliances in an absolute manner wouldn’t it help us more if we could create more strategic situations in the region?
A: The level of international relations has its own definition and discussion of countries’ relations should conform to that definition. Relations between countries are not similar to relations among people. Therefore, they are not affected by emotions and personal aspirations. Relations between countries are divided into normal, friendly, brotherly, strategic, and so on.
There is also a clear definition for relations between neighboring countries because such countries must have friendly relations and tolerate each other even despite differences because they cannot ignore each other. Strategic relations, however, is the kind of relations which cover all political, economic, cultural, security, and military areas. In fact, strategic relations constitute the highest level of relations between two countries.
Q: If this definition is taken as criterion, can we claim that we have strategic relations with any country?
A: Well, not exactly. Perhaps, our relations with Syria are somehow strategic, but our relations with Turkey, Russia, and China are not.
Q: Why our strategic contacts have been so limited and after so many years, we have not been able to raise the level of relations with countries which can be helpful to us?
A: Look, the main condition for establishment of relations between countries is to accept the mutuality of those relations. Therefore, the level of relations should be determined by both sides and it would be erroneous for us to assume that we can have strategic or even friendly relations with countries whenever we wanted to. On the other hand, there are other variables which should be taken into consideration; variables like impact of a third country on bilateral relations between two countries. For example, relations between Iran and Russia are not totally independent and are affected by another variable; that is, US policies toward Russia.
Q: Why the United States is a determining factor or a variable in our relations with Russia?
A: Relations between countries do not develop out of a sudden and unilaterally. Past conditions in international scene have led to this situation. Rivalry between Russia and the United States dates back to bipolar world system when the former Soviet Union was a counterweight for the United States. On the other hand, we are seeking our own interests under present conditions. In fact, Russia is a balancing factor in Iran’s relations with the West. Whenever Iran is pressured by the West, it relies on Russia.
Q: It seems that Russia is doing the same.
A: Yes, that’s correct. Russia is doing the same.
Q: My question is why we do not tie the interests of this balancing factor to our country’s interests so that it would support us in the UN Security Council or other international bodies?
A: As for Russia, there is not much that we can do. Western countries are putting relentless pressures on us and we have to resist because if we do not resist, we would lose our power in the world and become a second-hand country.
Q: Review of Iran’s trade relations with China and Russia will show that our economic relations with Russia are quite limited, but our economic relations with China are quite vast. Why do you think we have not tried to further expand our economic relations with Russia?
A: The most important reason is the difference between economic capacities and conditions of China and Russia. China is currently the world’s second biggest economy and has overtaken Germany in economic terms to stand the second only after the United States. The country’s foreign exchange reserves have been estimated at 1,200 billion dollars while those of Russia barely equal 500 billion dollars.
Therefore, the Chinese economy is 2.5 times bigger than that of Russia and can meet our economic needs. This is why the volume of trade between Iran and China has reached 50 billion dollars. Russia, however, cannot cooperate with us under the same conditions. At present, volume of trade between Iran and Russia barely reaches 2 billion dollars. Of course, not only in economy, but also in other areas, Russia is no more considered a world power. Although it has veto power in the Security Council and has great military power which gives it some maneuvering room at international level, a true world power needs other factors, including economic and political potentials, the capacity to generate science…. Russia falls short of these conditions and, perhaps, it is more a regional power than a global one. Therefore, correct understanding of the current situation of Russia will cause Iran not to count much on Moscow.
Q: You noted that our relations with no country are completely strategic. How do you think, we must act under the current circumstances to get the best results?
A: The important point which should be taken into account in relations with other countries is a correct understanding of Iran’s position and positions of its friends and foes. Such a correct understanding of our and other countries’ positions will help us make a correct decision. Correct understanding of other countries’ position can also help us make correct decisions in relation to those countries. On the other hand, the more we develop relations at regional and international levels and put up active presence in international organizations and institutions, the more we would be able to promote our standing.
Q: Experts maintain that a review of Iran’s relations with Russia in various junctures of history will not reveal much fluctuation in those relations. Under Bolsheviks, the two countries had limited, cautious relations, but the Russians implemented Isfahan iron smelting project in Iran. Under Yeltsin, relations between Tehran and Moscow were cold, but completion of Bushehr nuclear power plant was entrusted to the Russians. Under Putin and Medvedev, Russia has been both supporting Iran and voting for anti-Iran sanctions resolutions.
A: On the opposite, relations between Iran and Russia have seen many ups and downs. During the Cold War, Russia looked at Iran from position of a world power and was wary of the increasing US influence in this country. Iran was a US ally. Therefore, Russians tried everything, from cooperation and friendship to outright threat, to get close to Iran. Meanwhile, Russians treated Iran from an ideological point of view in that time and Iran’s Tudeh party was in contact with other Communist groups in Iran. Now, however, those factors are no more extant. Iran is no more a US ally and Russia is no more a world power; neither its behavior emanates from an ideology. After the former Soviet Union collapsed and the former president, Boris Yeltsin, came to office, the Russian foreign policy changed course toward the West. In that time, Russians chose Western models for their economic development. As a result, their foreign policy became inclined toward the West which, of course, had no benefit for the country and added to its economic woes. In fact, Yeltsin destroyed the Russian economy under the aegis of privatization. The country’s foreign policy was also totally attuned to the West. Russia, therefore, distanced from Iran and relations between two countries were at a very low level. At the end of Yeltsin’s rule, Russia gradually got rid of that policy and Yevgeny Primakov replaced the Western-minded Kozirov as foreign minister of Russia. Moscow then started to pay more attention to eastern countries and this policy was followed more diligently after Primakov became prime minister. In that period, relations with Iran also picked up.
Q: It seems that since that time, the US has been playing a more influential role as a variable affecting Iran’s relations with Russia. After Putin was elected president in 2000, Russia neither got totally close to Iran, nor distanced from Tehran as it did under Yeltsin.
A: Of course, the United States was influential, but conditions of time had also changed. During the first term of president Putin from 2000 to 2004, Russia tried to mend fences with the West while before that Russia was practically looking to the East. Of course, it kept some level of interaction with Iran. During his second term in office, US President Bush’s unilateral policies prompted Russia to renew its attention to the East and improve ties to Iran. That period started in February 2007 with Putin’s critical address to Munich security confab. At that time, Russia was closer to Iran than any time before. Under president Medvedev, which coincided with the election of US President Barack Obama, Russia took another turn toward the United States and two countries got close again. The United States postponed implementation of its controversial plan to deploy a missile shield in Poland and a radar system in the Czech to gain Russia’s trust. As a result, both countries tried after Obama’s visit to Moscow in 2008 to define common areas of interest and cooperation. Since that time, Russia has been reducing relations with Iran. However, despite Moscow reset its relations with Washington, differences between Russia and the US remained unsolved and it didn’t take long before Russia realized that it had been deceived by the US. This was proven even more when the United States decided to redeploy its missile shield. During the past two years, Obama has shown that to protect the United States’ national interests, his ways are not much different from those of Bush.
Q: It seems that both Iran and Russia are not facing special conditions with regard to the West. In fact, they both have problems with the West. Can we expect another period of improved relations between Tehran and Moscow?
A: It seems so. But let’s not forget that Iran and Russia can get off the hook of the US hegemonic power once and for all. At present, Putin is thinking about improving relations with Iran after starting his third term in office in May 2012. Therefore, we must expect another period of cordiality between Tehran and Moscow. This is also a time when Iran’s diplomatic apparatus can make an effort to reduce the impact of the United States as a factor influencing its Tehran’s relations with Moscow.
Q: You explained about Iran – Russia relations under various governments in Kremlin. Let’s look at it from another angle. Have Iranian governments also taken different approaches to Russia following the Islamic Revolution?
A: Firstly, you should note that I am an expert on Russia and only review Iran’s foreign policy when I have to. Naturally, I am no expert on Iran’s foreign policy. In relation to Russia, however, I don’t seem much difference among post-revolution Iranian governments in terms of relations with Russia. Macro diplomatic policies of Iran are determined by the Supreme National Security Council and governments implement those policies. Therefore, no major change has happened in the approach taken to Russia by various post-revolution Iranian governments. Of course, relations with Moscow have been a function of the country’s national interests, but on the whole, Iran has been willing to have extended ties with Russia through the post-revolution period.
Q: Some critics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believe that he has given too many concessions to Russia during his presidency and has counted too much on Russia. But Russia has been no trustworthy support for Iran. To what extent, do you think that such criticism holds water?
A: I don’t agree that Iran has given too many concessions to Russia. Iran has given no such concessions. I think such criticism is wrong. For example, as for Iran’s share of the Caspian Sea, some claim that Iran’s rights have been ignored, but I don’t agree. The legal regime of the Caspian Sea is being formulated and no concession has been given to Russia in this regard. Another criticism is about Iran’s silence with regard to the situation in Chechnya. They say Iran has not condemned Russia’s behavior in Chechnya, but I say Iran did not need to condemn Russia.
Q: What about S-300 missile system? Why Russians did not live up to their promise in that regard? Even if we could ignore long delay in commissioning Bushehr nuclear power plant, we have to say that by failing to keep their word on S-300 missile system, the Russians proved that they are not reliable friends for us. So, why we still put our hope in them?
A: Iran has filed a lawsuit with Paris Court of Justice with regard to S-300 missile system and the file is in progress. As for Bushehr power plant, it has been commissioned anyway and technology transfer which has taken place is very important. When Russia indicated willingness to launch the plant for Iran, other countries which could have done that were not willing to help Iran. At last, Iran is currently the sole country in the Middle East generating nuclear power and its technology will be indigenized in a few years when Iranian technicians will take over from their Russian counterparts. This is a very important achievement. All told, Russia is not the master key to our problems and we must not rely on that country or other countries in all areas. We must rely on our great nation and believe in ourselves. At the same time, we must hail any positive input from other countries. This is true the other way around. The United States does not also hold the master key to our problems and it would be erroneous to think that reestablishment of relations with the United States will work as a silver bullet to solve all our international problems.
Q: After the British embassy in Tehran was stormed (by students), the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement condemning the incident and his ambassador in Tehran joined the ambassadors who visited Tehran’s Qolhak garden. The ambassador of China, however, did not accompany them. Was that reaction a signal by Russia that it still takes sides with the West?
A: Look, when the US embassy was occupied in Tehran, the Soviet Union which was in intense rivalry with the United States and was a world power, condemned Iran’s measure. With regard to the British embassy in Tehran, the measure taken by the Russian ambassador and Kremlin’s condemnation for the incident should not be considered as signs of closeness between Russia and the West, but it was simply a reaction shown to denounce a non-diplomatic measure. Russians are also concerned that their embassy may also be stormed in Tehran.
Q: You noted that the Russians are disappointed in the West and have incriminated the West of having incited Moscow’s recent post-election unrest. Iran has its own unsolved problems with the West and recent breaking into the British embassy has been added to the long list of those problems. Don’t you think that Moscow’s willingness to mend fences with Iran is a reaction to unsolved problems with the West?
A: Yes, this is exactly true. The more our relations get improved with the West, the more latitude we would have in dealing with Russia. In fact, we must be able to realize our national interests through interaction and reconciliation with other countries.
Hassan Beheshtipour, is an expert on Russia and Central Asia Affairs
Translated By: Iran Review