Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 11

Russia and Iran: The Eastern Temptation

By Aleksei Malashenko

The ties between Russia and Iran, contrary to the expectationsof certain experts both in the West and the East, continue tostrengthen, and are becoming one of the main factors determiningthe political situation in the Middle East and around the CaspianSea. It is in these conditions that a rapprochement betweenIran and Russia is taking place, which has now acquired a steadytactical character. One could, perhaps, say that the main reasonfor this is that both countries–each in its own way, and to variousdegrees–suffer from a "political inferiority complex."Both experience pressure from outside forces trying to exert influenceover them politically, and both are trying to break free of thispressure and look for independent partners. (From this standpoint,one may compare them to "humiliated" Serbia.)

Their mutual interest is intensified by the fact that both countriesfear the prospect of Turkey getting stronger, and fear being leftalone in a Turkic world. Both states are interested in maintainingtheir influence on the shores of the Caspian. And, finally, theeconomic ties between them obviously are profitable to both sides.

It is possible to pick out the three most important aspects ofrelations between Iran and Russia at this stage. First, cooperationin the military sphere. Although, according to official figures,Iran’s military budget has been going down ($3.18 billion in 1990,$4.27 billion in 1991, 1993/1994–$.85 billion), according toWestern sources, the figure is actually somewhere around $10-15billion.

Back in 1991, the USSR sold $1 billion worth of arms to Iran,at a unit price far lower than the real market value. For example,T-72 tanks were allegedly sold for $50,000 each. Since 1992, however,the value of Russian arms supplied to Iran is over $6 billion.

(Here it is worth noting that from 1991 to 1994, Iran bought $12billion worth of arms in Russia, China, and North Korea. Mostof the arms purchased from these two Asian countries are eitherSoviet-made or local modifications of Soviet weapons.) Accordingto 1995 figures, the Iranian Army has approximately 100 Soviet-madetanks of various models (T-54/55, T-59, T-62, T-72). Productionhas begun on the Iranian "Zulfakar" tank, whichis based on the T-72. In the early 1990s, on the basis of contractspreviously signed with the USSR, Russia supplied Iran with twomodern submarines. Iran’s air fleet includes 30 Soviet-made MiG-29s,10 Su-24s, and 26 Tu-22 and Tu-26 bombers. In addition, Iran hasover 70 Iraqi Sukhoi aircraft of various types and a dozen orso Iraqi MiGs, seized when Iraqi pilots fled with them to Iranduring the Gulf War.

Iran also has at its disposal Soviet air defense systems, amongwhich one can certainly count 56 "Vega" and "Volga"surface to air missile complexes, as well as other equipment.Now, it has at least as many Soviet-made systems as it has systemspurchased in the West, and in certain areas, even more.

It is also worth noting that the Islamic Revolutionary GuardsCorps’ (IRGC) land troops are equipped with over 300 Soviet-madeT-54, T-55, T-62 tanks and other battle vehicles. This is especiallyinteresting, for it is well-known that the IRGC, a perennial competitorwith the officer corps for influence in society, is the militarybackbone of the radical wing of Iran’s Islamic fundamentalists,and the guarantor of the continuation of Imam Khomeini’s course.

The second aspect of Russo-Iranian relations–cooperation in thearea of nuclear energy–has been talked about quite a bit in recentmonths, and has, on several occasions, become a central issuein Russo-American relations.

The construction of the atomic power station in Bushehr will becompleted in four years. Its capacity will be 1000 megawatts.Russia will receive $800 million when the first stage of the projectis completed and $3 billion after the second stage. At the presenttime, 150 Russian specialists are working on this project.

Russian atomic energy minister Viktor Mikhailov thinks that "thecooperation between Russia and Iran makes it possible to preventTehran’s using this nuclear technology for military purposes."But former foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, who supported Americandemands that Russia stop cooperating with Iran in this area, thoughtotherwise. The United States, which opposed the construction ofthe atomic power station in Iran, had been able to persuade anumber of other countries, including Spain, India, and Argentina,not to sell nuclear reactors to Iran. But Russia insists on goingthrough with its decision to sell two 440-megawatt reactors toIran for $800 million each.

The creation of a nuclear energy complex in Iran has a militaryaspect as well. The process of creating a peaceful thermonuclearreaction coincides by 95 percent with that of creating a nuclearwarhead. It cannot be ruled out that Iran has already been ableto acquire the necessary components from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan,and Tajikistan, and is now practically ready to produce threenuclear warheads. (According to another–more doubtful–version,Iran asked Kazakhstan to sell it three nuclear warheads for $50million a piece.)

There are five nuclear power plants currently operating in Iran,which employ 50 specialists from the former USSR.

The third aspect of Russo-Iranian relations is their common interestin the extraction and transportation of oil from the Caspian Seashelf. Here, the interests of Russia and Iran differ, from thestrategic point of view. Tehran’s proposal to lay a pipeline throughIranian territory is, undoubtedly, not in Russia’s interests.At the same time, Russia supported Iran in its claim to a sharein the development of Caspian Sea oil, which the United Statesand other Caspian countries vigorously opposed. The Iranian pipelineproject is a "side option" which is not being advocatedby any of the oil companies most active in the region. NeitherRussia, nor Turkey, nor Azerbaijan could be interested in sucha project. Naturally, the Iranian project would not receive supportfrom the United States. But the fact of its existence is an importantcard in the game of "Caspian Sea solitaire."

On the other hand, Russia and Iran have a common position on theCaspian’s legal status, regarding it as an internal lake. Thisruns directly contradictory to the position of Azerbaijan, whichis trying to attract foreign companies in to develop its oil fields,and therefore maintains that the Caspian is a full-fledged sea.

In general, however, it must be admitted that the problems relatingto the Caspian Sea are not dominant in Russo-Iranian relations,which, as has been pointed out above, are dominated by other factors.

Finally, it must be noted that the question of a rapprochementbetween Russia and Iran is an urgent one from the point of viewof the lineup of political forces within Russia itself. One maysay that the question of cooperation with Iran at the presenttime is being used both by the ruling establishment and the oppositionfor their own political and ideological purposes.

Obviously, Russia’s foreign policy orientation has developed an"eastern accent." This accent has gotten thicker withYevgeny Primakov’s appointment to the head of the Ministry ofForeign Affairs. Strategic calculations aside, it must be takeninto account that good relations with Iran, in this concrete situation,have become, for the ruling elite, a symbol of independence, orat a minimum, a demonstration of the independence of Russian foreignpolicy. On a regional level, solid relations with Iran could serveas a counterweight to Turkey’s political and economic expansioninto Central Asia and the Caucasus. Iran is trying to stabilizethe situation in Tajikistan, which Russia is also doing, albeitfrom the other direction. Be that as it may, both sides are interestedin putting an end to the conflict in Tajikistan and in preservingits territorial integrity. So the Iranian factor is an importantcard in Russia’s efforts to maintain its influence in the CaspianSea region.

The Russian political opposition, (both the Communists and thenationalists) consistently demonstrates its sympathy towards Iran.Here, in addition to a purely pragmatic interest, an ideologicalfactor has unexpectedly appeared. Islamic fundamentalism, in spiteof statements that it presents a potential threat to Central Asia(with a new threat emerging from Turkey), is seen by the nationalistsand Communists as a natural ally in the effort to resist Westernexpansionism. KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov and LDPR chairman VladimirZhirinovsky are far from the only "top-rank" politicianswho visit the receptions hosted by the Iranian Embassy in Moscow.

In any case, it seems more than likely that in the near future,even if there is a fundamental change in the Russian government,Russo-Iranian relations will remain of long-term tactical, ifnot strategic, significance.

The situation could only change if there is a complete reorientationin Iran, which brings it back to the foreign policy pursued bythe Shah, but this can only be considered hypothetically. No influentialforces can be seen on Russia’s political horizon which could unambiguouslyput an end to the growing cooperation between Russia and Iran.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky and Mark Eckert