Although the Georgian-Russian military conflict and its still uncertain aftermath may have produced no considerable change in Iran’s foreign policy, the projection of Russian power has created a new security dilemma for the Islamic Republic. Iranians certainly hope that the crisis will open new diplomatic opportunities to obstruct UN Security Council efforts to expand sanctions against its controversial nuclear program. From Tehran’s perspective, however, the emergence of Russian militarism is also a cause for major concern, reminiscent of older Czarist-Soviet expansionist military traditions that threatened Iran’s national sovereignty (Keyhan, August 12). In a manner radically different from its straight-forward antagonistic approach to the United States, the Islamic Republic appears to have an ambivalent position toward the recent developments in the South Caucasus, making adjustments to the new balance of power in order to take advantage of the diplomatic standoff between Moscow and Washington.
In many ways, Iran is playing a political double-game by forging closer ties with Moscow for protection against the United States, while at the same time trying not to get too close for fear of becoming dependent on Russian power (Fars News Agency, August 15). Such an ambiguous political game calls for a fine balance between alliance and autonomy, a classic problem in any sudden shifts in the balance of power. This has made many Iranian officials nervous about Tehran’s shaky response to the Georgian-Russian conflict (Fars News Agency, September 7). Such anxiety largely reflects the unstable political situation in Iran, with heated debates raging between rival factions, namely, hard-line ideologues and pragmatic conservatives, on how best to protect Iran’s national interests, especially with regard to Iran’s sovereignty over Caspian Sea territories and against Russian expansionism (Fars News Agency, September 7).
The key to understanding this is the fact that the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy establishment is guided by factional politics. As competing groups seek to gain influence over the decision-making process, the Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, aims to manage internal divisions by using his absolute authority to bring some cohesion to Iran’s foreign policy. Seen in this political context, the hard-line ideologues, led by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, aspire for a closer alliance with Moscow in order to thwart U.S. threats; while pragmatic conservatives, led by the Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, adopt a more cautious stance, slowly strengthening ties with Russia while waiting to see how the unfolding events in the Caucasus could provide new opportunities, especially with regard to the country’s nuclear program. Tehran’s low-profile approach toward the Caucasus conflict appears to indicate that the pragmatic conservatives are mainly in control of Iran’s foreign policy.
From the perspective of both hard-line ideologues and pragmatic conservatives, the new Russian power is something to be admired and yet feared. Although Iran has emerged as Russia’s most important partner in the Middle East since the collapse of Soviet Communism, Tehran is worried about the return of Russian imperialism as a response to the American presence in Eastern Europe. With memories of Czarist aggression in the 19th century, when Iranian territories, including Georgia, were ceded to Russia, and Soviet expansionism into northern Iran in the twentieth century still fresh in minds of many Iranian officials, Tehran has difficulty accepting the Kremlin as a reliable partner in solving its national security problems. As Mohammad Reza Naseri, a representative of the Supreme Leader, would describe it, Iranians should be cautious of Russian intentions and not be deceived by them (Fars News Agency, August 15).
As Moscow continues to disappoint Tehran over various issues, such as the delay in developing the Bushehr nuclear plant or the latest statement by the Russian ambassador to U.K that the recent conflict in Georgia would not change Russia’s efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear program (Etelaat, September 7), Iranians will continue to see their alliance with Russia as a partnership of expediency, ultimately guided by certain pragmatic objectives and yet subject to change according to regional and global shifts of power. To many hard-liners, however, Russia is primarily to be admired for standing up to the West, particularly Israel, which they believe has the Georgian government as one of its agents in the Caucasus. On a military level, the Russian Duma deputy Sergei Markov explains that what Russia has successfully achieved is to weaken a major American ally in the region and deprive Washington of a significant military strategic position to launch attacks against Iran (Fars News Agency, Etemad Meli, September 8; Press TV, September 3).
Iranian daily papers underline the opportunities the conflict has provided for Iran. In an important editorial piece, the hard-line editor of Kayhan, Hussain Shariatmadari, describes Russia’s initial invasion of South Ossetia as the direct result of the recent expansion of the American sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, the new Russia is now on the verge of adopting an older expansionist strategy with global ambitions for power. The regional conflict in the Caucasus was only a powerful message directed at Washington that Moscow will not remain in isolation (Kayhan, August 12). More importantly, what the Russian projection of power has revealed is the limits of American influence in the region, which failed to persuade Russia to leave Georgia (Fars News Agency, August 16). Given the shift in the balance of power in the region and Russia’s readiness for a possible cold war (Jomhori-e Islami, August 28), the best way for Iran to advance its national interest is to follow Moscow and adopt a more assertive, though not , expansionist, policy in the region and beyond.
As dust of the Georgian-Russian war slowly settles, Iran appears to be taking advantage of new opportunities provided by the conflict. In response to Washington’s financial assistance to Georgia, Moscow has recently declared an increase of nuclear technological assistance to Iran (Mehr News Agency, September 7). In light of such news, Tehran has announced plans to complete the Bushehr nuclear plant with Russia’s assistance by the end of September (Etelaat, September 7). For a state whose nuclear program is under scrutiny, this is a major development.
The renewal of nuclear ties follows a series of military and intelligence cooperation initiatives that imply major changes in Moscow-Tehran relations. The latest meeting between Iranian and Russian intelligence ministers and the new Iran-Russia military alliance, which could lead to an increase of Russian military presence in the Persian Gulf, serve as few examples of the Kremlin’s attempts to send a strong message to Washington in response to its activities in Eastern Europe (Etelaat, September 7; Etemad Meli, September 7). On the economic level, it remains to be seen if Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will back Iranian efforts to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. But one important development that may take place is the creation of an “OPEC” of gas producing states, a proposal originally made to Putin by Ayatollah Khamenei, which would give considerable power to both Iran and Russia as two of the world’s leading exporters of gas (Etemad Meli, September 7).
The extent to which the latest strengthening of Iranian-Russian relations can materialize into a more stable alliance will largely depend on how the two states perceive their national interests threatened by a united foe, namely, the United States and its allies in the Middle East and Caucasus regions. An unwavering Iranian-Russian alliance would signal that Tehran has moved toward the hard-line position endorsed by Ahmadinejad and the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). But such shift of position will primarily depend on various factors, both internal (e.g., the 2009 presidential elections) and external (e.g., confrontation with the Israeli-U.S. military).