Due to Moscow’s growing reliance on Tehran for weapons and its desire to use Iran as a means of circumventing Western sanctions (see EDM, December 15, 2020; November 1, 3), the Iranian authorities have been able to expand their influence not only in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, where Moscow celebrates them as allies against Turkey and the West, but also in the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga (Eurasia Today, September 23). These are two Muslim regions within the Russian Federation where the Kremlin had welcomed Iran’s economic role but is now worried about Tehran’s longer-term cultural and religious influence. In the past, Moscow sought to control the situation by limiting Iranian links to economic projects within these Muslim republics, something the Kremlin was confident it could do forever given the fact that Iran is a Shiite nation while the Muslims in these two regions are overwhelmingly Sunni (see The Jamestown Foundation, May 4, 2016). But indications are growing, both in the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga, that Moscow’s ability to do so may be shrinking and that Tehran, which has been known for playing the “long game,” seeks not only economic but also cultural and geopolitical gains for itself at Russia’s expense.
Two events in recent days prompt further consideration of this possibility. The first was a meeting between Russian and Iranian officials in Chechnya to promote broad cooperation not only between the two countries but also between Russian regions and Iranian regions (Kavkazskiy uzel, November 3). The second was a meeting between Iranian and Bashkortostan officials during which the two sides signed an agreement calling for a radical expansion in trade. Given that trade between Russia and Iran is currently running at a rate four times greater than in 2020, the two sides expect to realize their plans in which Bashkortostan and the neighboring regions will send Iran agricultural products and Tehran will send the Russian regions industrial exports, an exchange that will see more Iranians traveling to the Middle Volga and more Russians from that region visiting Iran (Bashinform, October 18, 20; Kaspiyskiy vestnik, November 2).
The Grozny meeting was likely the more significant and may in fact mark a turning point, leading to expanded trade between Iran and Russia, as well as Moscow’s Muslim regions. Nevertheless, it has already triggered concerns in the Kremlin about what that may mean for Muslims in Russia and their attitudes toward Iran and Russia itself. In the past, Russian-Iranian meetings about trade—more than 16 of them—have taken place in the capitals of the two countries. This time, however, the meeting occurred in a Russian republic, apparently because Tehran wanted it that way; and experts say they expect future meetings to occur in other regional centers in both countries. Such contacts by their very nature open new possibilities for influence—welcome or not.
Radzhab Safarov, head of Moscow’s Center for the Study of Contemporary Iran, for example, says that the decision to hold such meetings outside the central capitals “makes possible drawing into relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran not just Chechnya but also the entire North Caucasus. This will undoubtedly give an impulse to the development of trade.” But it will do more than that “considering the obvious movement of Iran to strengthen cooperation with Russia and the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union in all spheres”—including the cultural and political spheres (Kavkazskiy uzel, November 3).
The Grozny meeting, Safarov added, is crucial because, as a result, “the initiative for these relations will come, as it were, from below. Iran can contribute much that is useful for the economy and cultural life of the region,” just as that region will be able to contribute to the lives of other Iranian regions in the future. Safarov dismissed the view of some in Moscow that Grozny’s attacks on Shiite Muslims in the past will either offend Iran or immunize North Caucasians against Iranian influence. Other Russian scholars agree. According to one, Lana Ravandi-Fadai of Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies, “Iranians are known for their pragmatism and try, at least officially, not to divide Muslims into Sunni and Shia.” Instead, she insists, “The Iranians, in the first instance, talk about a single Muslim umma” (Kavkazskiy uzel, November 3).
According to another, Akhmet Yarlykapov, a senior scholar at the Center for the Study of the Caucasus at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), the situation between Russia and its Muslim regions, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other, is quite different from what it was only a few years ago. “A new reality exists,” as Moscow is seeking allies and an escape from sanctions, one that gives Iran new opportunities to expand its influence, including in the Russian regions where Moscow had looked askance at such efforts in the past (Kavkazskiy uzel, November 3).
Similar to his colleagues, Yarlykapov argues that “the Shiite question is in no way connected with Iran’s interest in the North Caucasus,” at least for the time being. Iran gains more by presenting itself as a Muslim power interested in promoting Muslim interests more generally. According to the MGIMO researcher, “Iran’s policy of penetrating various countries and regions is soft but long term and patient. First, it establishes economic relations, then there can be cultural and religious influence as is already felt in Dagestan. In this sphere, the Iranians are already cooperating quite well. Therefore, any limits on Shiites [as appears to be the case in Chechnya at present] are not a stumbling block for Iranian policy” (Kavkazskiy uzel, November 3).
To the extent that Yarlykapov and his fellow experts are right, Moscow may now have another problem on its hands—one of its own making. By becoming so dependent on Tehran, the Kremlin may now face a problem inside its own borders, as its Muslim citizens are increasingly willing to listen to and be influenced by Iran—a development that will make the Kremlin’s task of managing its multiethnic regions and keeping them together far more difficult.