US President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, his agreement to supply Saudi Arabia with $300 billion worth of US arms, his implacably hostile rhetoric towards Iran, and the openly expressed intentions of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to launch a pre-emptive war against Iran, clarify policy options for Iran’s leadership and people.
It is now clear that the option of a rapprochement between Iran and the West does not exist whilst Iran remains an Islamic Republic.
Instead the US sees or pretends to see an existential threat from Iran towards Israel and – bizarrely – towards itself, and has sided decisively against Iran with Iran’s enemies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman has moreover said that there is nothing the Iranians can ever say or do which will make him change his attitude of implacable hostility towards them.
This means that the only realistic option for Iran’s leaders – both the so-called reformists like Rouhani, and the conservatives – is to commit wholeheartedly to the strategic partnership Russia has offered them, and to integrate Iran fully into the Eurasian institutions which Russia and China are busy creating.
There are four of these Eurasian institutions that matter, though there are others – such as the ephemeral “Commonwealth of Independent States” set up by Boris Yeltsin in 1991 as a purported alternative to the USSR – which retain a sometimes shadowy existence.
The four Eurasian institutions which really matter are:
(1) The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a security grouping led by China of which Russia is a key member;
(2) The One Belt, One Road project, a Chinese project replacing the previous Silk Road project, whose aim is to integrate the whole of Eurasia economically by creating a massive infrastructure web;
(3) the Eurasian Economic Union, a Russian project to reintegrate certain of the economies of the former USSR, which was originally built around Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, but which is now expanding to include other former Soviet states as well; and
(4) The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (“CSTO”), a Russian led military alliance bringing together essentially the same states that make up the Eurasian Economic Union, but of which Serbia and Afghanistan are observers.
Since Iran is a non-aligned state it cannot realistically join the Eurasian Economic Union or the CSTO without compromising this status, and the Russians would anyway be reluctant to have it do so since that would extend these two institutions beyond the territory of the former USSR, which these institutions are intended to reintegrate.
However there is no reason why Iran cannot develop close bilateral relations with China and Russia and with the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO, and no reason at all why Iran cannot participate to the fullest degree in the two Chinese led institutions, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the One Belt, One Road project.
Moreover since it is clear that the Chinese and the Russians are working towards fusing the Eurasian institutions each of them has created – the Chinese led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and One Belt, One Road project, and the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO – as part of their joint ‘Greater Eurasia Project‘ (that ultimately was what the One Belt, One Road conference in Beijing earlier this month was all about), Iran loses nothing and compromises nothing by integrating itself fully in the two Chinese led institutions whilst forging ever closer links to Russia and to the two Eurasian institutions led by Russia.
Iran has observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and formally applied to join in 2008. It could not do so then because it was under UN sanctions. These have now been formally lifted following the 2015 nuclear agreement.
During his visit to Iran in January 2016 Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China supported Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a full member, and Russian President Putin told Iranian President Rouhani during their recent summit in Moscow that Russia now does so also.
In the light of the threats coming from Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel, Iran should make joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a full member its foreign policy priority, and it should lobby hard in Beijing and Moscow for it to be allowed to do so without delay.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is not a fully fledged military alliance in the way that NATO and the CSTO are. However it is a security grouping which bring together two Great Powers – China and Russia – and a potential third Great Power – India, and of which four nuclear powers – China, Russia, India and Pakistan – are members.
Whilst membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation would not cause these powers to defend Iran in the event it came under attack, they would be bound to respond angrily if a fellow member state like Iran came under attack. Since Iran’s key regional enemies – Saudi Arabia and Israel – have close relations with some of these powers (China especially) that would in itself be a powerful deterrent against such an attack.
In addition Iran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation would bury talk – heard often during Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – that Iran is internationally isolated. It would show that on the contrary Iran is a member of a security grouping which brings together some of the world’s greatest powers.
Iran should not however merely seek membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Though the UN sanctions have been lifted, the US is continuing to enforce unilateral sanctions against Iran, and the European Union is unwilling to resume full trading relations with Iran because of them.
Donald Trump’s hostility to Iran, and his alignment of the US with Iran’s implacable enemies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, means that there is no prospect of these unilateral US sanctions being lifted any time soon.
Moreover since the unilateral sanctions were not lifted during the time of the Obama administration – which was significantly less hostile to Iran than the Trump administration, and which agreed the nuclear agreement with Iran – there is no realistic possibility that any other US administration which succeeds or replaces the Trump administration will lift the sanctions any time soon.
What this means is that Iran must plan its economic future on the basis that for the time being at least the sanctions are going to remain in place.
Giant and sophisticated economies like China’s and Russia’s can shrug off Western sanctions, as China did after 1989 and as Russia is doing now. Iran’s much smaller and less sophisticated economy will struggle to do so.
The result is that though Iran has avoided economic collapse despite the sanctions, over the last decade real income growth has stopped or even reversed, and inflation and unemployment – especially youth unemployment – have been continuously high. In the meantime Iran’s infrastructure has been starved of investment.
Until roughly a decade ago a country whose economy found itself in this situation had no realistic option if it was to develop but to try to mend fences with the West, which at that time had an effective monopoly on capital, technology and trade.
The economic rise of Russia and China – especially of China – means this is no longer the case.
Though many Iranian businesspeople continue to hanker after a revival of Iran’s traditional trade links with the West, they now have a realistic and attractive alternative being offered to them, and they should embrace it.
Reports suggest that a major factor holding Iran back from full integration with the Eurasian institutions is Iran’s traditional suspicion of Russia, which together with cultural differences is standing in the way of the proposed joint economic projects which Russia has been proposing.
This suspicion has a historical basis.
Since the seventeenth century Russia and Iran have fought six wars, the most recent of which happened as recently as 1941 during the Second World War. Every one of these wars save the first ended with Iran’s defeat. The fourth and fifth wars resulted in the collapse of Iran’s position in the Caucasus and the loss of vast territories including Armenia, Georgia and what is now Azerbaijan. The sixth war resulted in the Soviet occupation of northern Iran including Tehran.
Over and above these defeats, the tsarist government in the decade before the First World War sought to carve out with British agreement a Russian sphere of influence in northern Iran, which would have included the capital Tehran, whilst following the end of the Second World War the USSR attempted to do the same in the Iranian controlled part of Azerbaijan.
During the Cold War Iran whilst still under the rule of the Shah was strongly allied against the USSR with the US, and many Iranians continue to resent the fact that the USSR supplied arms to Iraq during the later stages of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Beyond this there is the fact that post-Soviet Russia supported UN sanctions against Iran, whilst former Russian President Medvedev did lasting damage to Russia’s relations with Iran by blocking the supply in 2010 of S-300 missiles to Iran, as previously agreed by Russia and Iran in 2007.
This history explains why there is considerable suspicion and hostility towards Russia in Iran.
This has sometimes taken self-destructive forms. For example it seems that following the US cruise missile attack on Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base Iranian social media filled with comments mocking Russia’s alleged inability to shoot down the missiles.
Russia for its part has not always treated Iran with the sensitivity that is required. As a Great Power which conducts its foreign policy on a global scale, Russia inevitably sees its past dealings with Iran as a minor detail of its history, and has not always shown proper awareness of the fact that Iranians see this history very differently.
The time has however now come for Iran to put all this to one side. Its only realistic alternative is to do what the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel want it to do, which is change its system of government, jettison its Islamic constitution, revert to being the loyal subordinate to Western policy which it was during the time of the Shah, and ‘open up’ its economy to Western influence, with all the neoliberal ‘shock therapies’ that will come with that.
There are certainly people in Iran who would embrace that option, but everything that is known about the country suggests they are a small – if noisy – minority.
Besides with the rise of Eurasia and of China and Russia that sort of policy risks putting Iran on the wrong side of history.
Iran’s interests clearly point to its need to put aside whatever residual doubts it still has, and commit itself wholeheartedly to strong relations with Russia and China and the highest level of integration possible with the Eurasian institutions. That way lies security, independence and prosperity.
The alternatives – subordination to the West or stagnation under the permanent threat of attack – hardly look inviting, and no one who sincerely cares for Iran would propose them.