By all indications, Iran’s President Rouhani’s two-day Moscow visit represents a new milestone in the already intimate neighborly relations between the two countries. Accompanied by several cabinet ministers, Rouhani’s main aim is to expand the level of trade and economic ties with Russia and to deepen the strategic symbiosis that exists between Tehran and Moscow on a range of regional and global issues, including the conflict in Syria and anti-terrorism. Highlighted by the signing of 14 bilateral agreements — encompassing nuclear, transportation, energy, telecommunication, tourism, and legal — at a Kremlin ceremony on Tuesday, March 28, Rouhani’s official visit is sure to turn the leaf in Iran-Russia relations toward greater cooperation deemed strategic by both leaders, based on their national interests. This is reflected in the joint statement by the Russian and Iranian presidents that frames the relations in long-term strategic, and comprehensice terms.
The proximity between Tehran and Moscow is transpiring at a delicate time in the on-going Syria peace talks and the uncertainties surrounding the new US administration which has hinted at its willingness to bolster its anti-ISIS efforts in coordination with the other major stakeholders in the conflict. Concerning the latter, the mere fact that Iran and Russia were not invited to the Washington summit on defeating ISIS does not bode well for Trump’s campaign promises against ISIS and, hopefully, represents a reversible error by a young administration. For sure, neither Tehran nor Moscow do not regard the conflict in Syria in zero-sum terms and are open to policy coordination with the White House under the right circumstances.
With respect to the evolution of Iran-Russia relations in the so-called post-sanctions era, there has been a 60% growth in their bilateral trade in year one of the Iran nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This includes the sale of 38 tons of Iran’s heavy water to Russia and the Russian sale of approximately 130 tons of natural uranium to Ian, not to mention the beginning of construction by Russia of two new nuclear plants in Bushehr with the combined capacity of 2000 megawatt. Expanding the non-oil bilateral trade, which grew modestly from $1.2 billion in 2015 to $2 billion in 2016, is on the agenda, as well as increasing Russian investment in Iran’s energy, tourism, industry, telecommunication, and other sectors. Facilitating consular relations in order to bolster tourism between the two countries in yet another goal of this trip, in light of Iran’s post-JCPOA hope of attracting more tourists.
Indirectly, these positive developments in Iran-Russia relations bode well for the prospects of Iran’s full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which has inducted Iran as an observer. Iran is keen on taking advantage of the economic opportunities in the SCO zone and, in turn, represents a viable post-JCPOA “emerging market” for the SCO countries, including China, which is pursuing the ambitious New Silk Road project covering Iran. There are possibilities to connect this to the North-South transportation corridor eyed by Iran and Russia. Another area of Iran-Russia cooperation pertains to the Caspian Sea, shared by the two countries and other littoral states, such as by strengthening Caspian tourism and environmental cooperation.
With respect to Syria, where the fight against terrorism has reached a new tipping point, with ISIS terrorists rapidly losing ground, the stage is set to achieve a meaningful breakthrough in the deadlock for a political solution, in the light of the three Astana and five Geneva rounds and the UN’s appreciation of the constructive role of trilateral diplomacy by Iran, Turkey, and Iran. These three countries ought to continue and deepen their present efforts to coordinate their diplomacy and mediate between Damascus and the political opposition, in order to bring this catastrophic conflict that has exacted such a heavy toll on Syria and its neighbors to an end. This is, of course, a major challenge that involves a host of other regional and extra-regional players and does not lend itself to any quick fix, but rather patient and flexible diplomacy aimed at a viable political transition in Syria. There is, unfortunately no dearth of sinister attempts to thwart the trilateral Iran-Turkey-Iran peace diplomacy and to keep the furnace of Syrian strife ignited indefinitely, all the more reason for this timely summit between the Iranian and Russian leadership, who recognize the wealth of common interests binding the two nations together.
This article was published at Iranian Diplomacy