One of the major consequences of the imminent agreement between the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia plus Germany) and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme is expected to come in the form of increased military co-operation between Russia and Iran. In fact, the stage has already been set for further shipment of Russian arms to Iran. Moscow is waiting for the final agreement over Tehran’s nuclear programme to be signed and the United Nations sanctions to be lifted to put into action a key military and security agreement with Tehran.
During a rare visit to Iran by a Russian defence minister early this year, Moscow and Tehran signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that covers a broad range of military and security issues. They include military training and joint exercises; cooperation on regional and global security; and combating what the agreement called “terrorism, extremism and separatist tendencies”. The MOU also signalled Moscow’s agreement to supply Tehran with the previously withheld S-300 missile batteries, the upgraded MiG-29 and Sukhoi-24 fighter jets; and the provision of the more developed Sukhoi-30. Pro-Iran analysts and commentators called the agreement a “strategic alliance” between Tehran and Moscow. Russian media was more cautious and spoke of “shared interests” that tie Iran to Russia.
Given the imminent agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme, the two countries seem to have genuine interests in developing their military ties. Iran seeks to modernise its outdated military machine after the anticipated lifting of the UN sanctions, whereas Russia does not lack the zeal to sell weapons for hard currency following the drop in oil prices and the western sanctions over Ukraine. But calling the signing of the agreement a strategic shift in the relationship between the two countries might be a little bit premature, given the fact that Russian-Iranian relations have long been plagued by mutual suspicion and a lack of trust.
For decades, the Russians have managed to use Iran as a bargaining chip in their complex relationship with the West. Russia has, in fact, sided with western powers on all of the major UN Security Council resolutions related to Tehran’s nuclear programme, including UNSC Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1929 (2010). Iran-Russia relations have even soured on a number of occasions. In 2010, for instance, Moscow refused to honour the sale of the S-300 missile defence system, despite Iran’s payment of the $ 800 million (Dh2.93 billion) price tag, prompting Iran to resort to the Paris-based International Court of Arbitration for redressal. Iran sought $4 billion in damages from the Russians. Russia has, for long, also declined to service Iran’s outdated submarines, which would have given it increased operational manoeuvrability in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
In addition, the way in which Russia dragged its feet over the construction of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility was yet another side to a long history of disappointment. More recently, it was not too difficult to sense the lack of trust amongst a sizable part of Iran’s political elite in Russia’s true intentions following the adoption of the UNSC Resolution 2216 concerning Yemen. Last April, Russia declined to use the veto to block the resolution, which was seen as a resounding victory for the Arab Gulf states. The resolution supported the legitimacy of the interim Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, imposed economic sanctions on Al Houthi leaders (Iran’s allies), and urged all member states to take all necessary measures to prevent “the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of arms to Al Houthis. The resolution was indeed a big setback for Iran and its allies in Yemeni and this would not have been possible had Russian not abstained in the UNSC.
For its part, Russia has had its own misgivings about Iranian policies. The lack of trust in Tehran’s nuclear intentions was made absolutely clear at last year’s Non-Proliferation Conference hosted by Moscow, when Russia adopted the western position on Iran’s nuclear programme. There is also the widespread belief amongst Russian officials that Tehran will not hesitate to sell them out the moment its relations with the United States improve. Russia will always remember that it was kept in the dark by its presumed Iranian allies over the secret negotiations with the US, mediated and hosted by Oman in 2013. Paving the way for the Geneva Interim Agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, these talks formed part of a trend towards bilateral negotiations between Tehran and Washington that sit outside the framework of the P5+1 talks, a process which Russia was never comfortable with. Russia must also be worried about Iran’s ambitions to become a main supplier of energy to Europe, knowing fully well that energy supplies are a major incentive for the West to arrive at a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. All these reasons and many others will form major obstacles towards full-fledged Russian-Iranian alliance.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.