The headlines on Russo-Iranian relations at the end of January focused on Iran’s support for a “gas OPEC” and Russia’s reiteration of the idea that this is an attractive prospect that it needs to examine (www.president.ru, February 1, 2). However, this proposal is hardly news. Iran first called for it in 2001 (Kommersant, January 30), and Russian officials were initially skeptical and even dismissive of the idea at the time (RIA-Novosti, January 29).
Nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin had called for a gas cartel led by Russia in 2002 and for an energy club at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s annual summit in 2006 (NTV, June 15, 2006). Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad soon seconded that idea. But perhaps no less interesting — but generally overlooked by commentators — was Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motaki’s statement last month that Russia and Iran could jointly play an important role in ensuring stability in Central Asia and the Caucasus (Kommersant, January 28).
This statement, coming after Motaki’s talks with the head of the Russian Security Council, Igor Ivanov, is new and demands explanation. Although Iran has supported previous Russian security initiatives in the Caspian Basin, such as the Russian proposal for a Caspian naval force, it has never openly said that it could play such a role, which would undoubtedly clash with Russia’s priority goal of being the exclusive regional security manager. Iranian commentators, despite Tehran’s dependence upon Russian support for Iran’s nuclear project and weapons programs, have frequently speculated that Russian and Iranian interests might not be so harmonious (Sharq, January 2, 2006). So the question is why would Iran make this statement now?
Certainly there is a connection to gaining Russian support for a gas OPEC, because Iran fears being left out of such an organization, as a constant theme of Russian energy policy in the Caucasus has been to prevent those states from turning to Iran as an alternative to Russian energy. But it would appear that the ground has been shifting steadily in Iran toward concern about where its insistence on a nuclear program may lead. Foreign reports indicate that apprehension in Tehran has grown about the costs of its obstinate and reckless rhetoric and policies that led even Moscow and Beijing to vote for sanctions (admittedly mild or insignificant ones) against Iran in the UN Security Council. These apprehensions have led to speculation in Western newspapers that a government shakeup might be in the offing or that a U.S. attack might be in the works despite repeated denials from Washington.
Second, Tehran has begun to feel the bite from the financial sanctions unilaterally imposed by Washington, as well as the consequences of Iran’s wasteful economic policies of subsidizing much of the country’s consumption. Thus the Iranian petro-dollar fund is now empty (Tehran, Ettemad-i Melli, January 25). This means investments in infrastructure cannot be made, making it impossible to overcome the defects of Iran’s energy industry and reach out to other Caspian Basin states like Georgia. So it has become impossible for Iran to compete with Russia as a provider of gas to members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) like Georgia for both economic and political reasons.
Not surprisingly, as early as 2006 voices like that of the Iranian ambassador to Russia were heard advising Tehran to cleave even more firmly toward Russia in the face of its economic and political obstructions and to cooperate with it in all areas (Interfax, August 24, 2006). More recently, when Ivanov came to Tehran in January, Iran called Russia a global mediator and stated a desire for fresh proposals; namely, the abortive Russian initiative on nuclear enrichment that it rejected a year ago. Notwithstanding Ahmadinejad’s continuing intemperate and flaming rhetoric, it appears that Iran must now show its support for Russia’s overall agenda and pledge to be a supporter of Russian initiatives throughout the CIS in order for it to withstand the gathering U.S. and Western pressure.
Therefore it appears that the motive behind Motaki’s support for Russia as a CIS security manager and for its gas OPEC proposals are intended to lift the pressure on Iran and to keep Moscow in its corner by demonstrating Iran’s acceptance of Russia’s larger agenda in the CIS. Together these moves will help Iran keep moving forward on its nuclear program, which it regards as a kind of magical talisman that will ward off all foreign pressure if it can be completed. Iran, as has been the case all along, is playing for time. But paradoxically, thanks to its quest for total freedom in defense and foreign policy, it now is forced to submit to Russia in regard to the Caspian littoral states and its northern neighbors.