Amid regional escalation, Moscow and Beijing woo Iran
The escalation of Saudi-Iranian tensions may jeopardise Iran’s economic recovery and plunge the Middle East further into chaos, with Russia playing a destabilising role, according to experts in Washington.
The timing of the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran may prove to be a setback for Iranian President Hassan Rohani, just as Iran was looking to reap economic benefits from the nuclear deal with Western powers.
“Rohani was getting this close to sanctions being lifted on Iran but then a bunch of hoodlums attack the embassy,” said Iran expert Alex Vatanka of the Washington-based Middle East Institute (MEI), referring to the attack on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran in response to the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Speaking at a panel hosted by MEI, Vatanka said the embassy attack could not have happened without blessings from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“And we haven’t heard from the supreme leader since, probably because he realised it was a mistake very fast,” said Vatanka.
Nonetheless, the row may have left Rohani with his hands tied domestically because he cannot be seen as soft on the Saudis, whom Vatanka suggests may be the “next boogie man” that Khamenei is looking to create given the thaw in relations with the United States and the West.
Iranian politics have long been divided into two lines of thought, though they usually converge on pragmatic grounds. The more Western-oriented political leadership says economic recovery requires pivoting towards Western economies, which was Tehran’s main incentive in negotiating the nuclear deal.
And despite the supreme leader’s aversion to the West, Vatanka says that Khamenei and the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) “get it”. They recognise that the country’s economic recovery comes through rapprochement with the West, which is why they grudgingly allowed negotiations to move forward.
But during the years that Iran has endured economic sanctions, the IRGC became heavily involved in the country’s economy, investing in projects in partnership with China and Russia. This economic empire may become threatened with an opening to the West and a changing economic terrain.
“Look at the Ahmadinejad period when the (IRGC) got involved in the Iranian economy like never before, starting to make money. And now they fear that Rohani will give some of these projects to Western companies. The (IRGC) has better relations with China and Russia,” said Vatanka.
For their part, China and Russia want to maintain relations with Iran regardless of domestic and regional dynamics.
China expert John Garver of Georgia Tech University in Atlanta said Beijing had its eyes on Middle East oil, which represents 60% of global production. A nuclear-armed Iran may have led to a regional war, something that would have threatened China’s oil imports.
“So China dangled a carrot to Iran: If you settle the nuclear issue, we’ll do big business with you. If you can’t, then we can’t help you,” Garver said at the MEI forum. He noted that China worked in tandem with the United States on the deal and is one of its signatories.
Russia and Iran have for decades wavered between tension and tolerance but the latest turmoil in the region appears to have cemented a sort of pragmatic bond between the two countries.
Moscow likes to think of itself as a great Middle East power just as the Soviet Union was, but to achieve this it needs a partner and Iran is a natural fit because its powerful mullahs are inherently anti-Western.
Russia supported and prodded Tehran to reach a nuclear deal because Moscow feared that if Iran became a nuclear power, it would lead to a war that would result in American domination of the Gulf. For Russia, a non-nuclear, non- Western Iran is the best outcome.
“You need to see it in terms of Moscow’s point of view,” Russia expert Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council told the MEI forum. “For all the bad history that exists between the two countries, Iran is still the most overtly anti-US country in the region and therefore most likely to respond to Russia.”
An alliance with Iran also supports Russia’s economic interests. Iranian energy exports to Europe, for example, could displace Russian energy exports. It thus behoves Moscow to invest in Iran’s energy sector to gain influence on energy deals abroad.
And Moscow already finds itself unequivocally on Iran’s side in the ongoing turmoil in the region, especially in Syria, where Russian forces actively support the government along with Iran and its Lebanese protégé, Hezbollah.
“Moscow is opposed to people power so they’ll keep supporting Assad. And they want to stick it to Washington and create an abiding coalition in the Middle East,” Blank said. “Russia is the only great power that has no viable interest in stability in the Middle East.”