Russia’s calculations in Iran
London - Talks between Russia and the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) over freezing oil production fell through in April but may resume as OPEC members meet on the sidelines of the International Energy Forum in Algeria. The main problem in April appears unresolved: What to do about Iran, which wants to expand exports after the easing of international sanctions.
The Saudis have insisted that any freeze should not allow Iran to increase production and maintained this position after the recent announcement during talks at the Group of 20 summit in China that Riyadh had reached an agreement with Moscow. The Saudis remain at odds with Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, has called for a production cap that would allow Iran the exports levels it enjoyed before punitive US and EU sanctions bit in 2012.
Russia is playing the honest broker. In an interview with Bloomberg News at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok before the G20 meetings, Putin stressed his hope that everyone “interested in maintaining stable and fair global energy prices will in the end make the necessary decision”. He also called the Saudis “partners” and praised Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz as “very reliable”.
There is a tendency in Washington to assume that, as rivals to the United States, Iran and Russia must be natural allies. This has been encouraged by their cooperation in bolstering Syrian President Bashar Assad during the five-year Syrian war.
But parliamentary questions in Tehran embarrassing Iran’s senior officials after Russia announced its planes were using an airbase near Hamadan for Syrian bombing missions highlighted the complexities of relations between the two near-neighbours. Their alliance over Syria sits amid diverging interests and motivations.
The spat over Russia’s use of the base — leading to official Iranian assurances it had just been to refuel and was temporary and therefore did not violate Iran’s constitutional prohibition on foreign military bases — reflected Iranians’ memories stretching to the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay when Imperial Russia acquired under the threat of force Iranian-held territories, including Armenia and much of Azerbaijan. More recently, the Soviet Union intervened in Iran during and after World War II, particularly in backing separatist movements among Iran’s Kurds and Azeris.
True, Iran and Russia are nuclear partners. Moscow completed and supplies Bushehr, Iran’s only atomic power station, and is in long-running talks about building more but in 2006 Russia backed the US-led international move to refer Tehran’s nuclear programme to the UN Security Council. This was a jolt for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who had been assured by the then top security official Ali Larijani that his “tilt to Moscow” could prevent such an eventuality. Instead the referral led to UN sanctions that would be removed only when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear capacity.
Today’s alliance of Russia and Iran in Syria does not preclude Moscow’s close relations with Israel as well as Saudi Arabia: Russia’s intelligence coordination with Tel Aviv has been enhanced to improve early identification of each other’s aircraft in Syria’s skies. Regarding energy, while Russia backs Iran’s desire to expand oil exports, the two sides have never developed potential for cooperation in a global gas market where their combined share is 35.5% of reserves (Iran 18.2%, Russia 17.3%).
The two countries do coordinate through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), in which Moscow supports Iran’s request to upgrade from observer to full status. But the SCO is less a political alliance than a forum for basic coordination between Russia and China and the central Asian former Soviet republics (also beginning next year, new members India and Pakistan). China has good relations with Saudi Arabia, its largest supplier of crude.
For many years, to the alarm of Israel and some in Washington, Russia has supplied arms to Iran, including recently the S-300 surface-to-air missile system. These missiles are primarily defensive and less advanced than Antey 2500 missiles that Russia supplied to Egypt.
“Nothing the Russians have provided [Iran] so far has materially changed the military balance in the region,” said Sam Gardiner, consultant and former US Air Force colonel. “Ten years ago, Israel defined the S-300 as one of its red lines with respect to Iran, [meaning] they would have to initiate a conflict if the Iranians got the system. We have not seen that kind of reaction as they more recently acquired the system. I have concluded that is because Israel has found ways to penetrate and neutralise the S-300.
No doubt Tehran would like more advanced weapons. Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan, calling Moscow’s announcement of its use of the Hamadan airbase as “showing off” and “discourteous”, was evidence of a wider frustration with Moscow.