Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in the Iranian capital, Tehran for meetings with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.
The meetings which have been largely described as successful, coincided with the beginning of work on Iran’s second nuclear power station, which will be constructed by Russian engineers and master builders.
Iran’s Supreme Leader spoke positively of the meetings and encouraged Russia to join with Iran in developing alternatives to the US Dollar as a basis for international trade. Ayatollah Khamenei stated,
“By ignoring the negative propaganda of the enemies, that seek to weaken relations between countries, we can nullify US sanctions, using methods such as eliminating the dollar and replacing it with national currencies in transactions between two or more parties; thus, isolate the Americans”.
Khameni also stated that he looks forward to further manifold cooperative efforts with Russia. President Putin responded by calling Iran “a strategic partner and a great neighbour, and we will take advantage of every opportunity to expand and consolidate relationships in all dimensions”.
Similar words were echoed by Iranian President Rouhani who called Russia a “good neighbour and friend” and pledged “to further develop relations with our good and very important neighbour and friend – Russia, as well as to continue working together on security issues”.
Putin’s meeting with the Iranian leadership is highly significant both for bilateral relations and for wider regional and global developments. Here are the key points to emerge from the meetings:
1. Sanctions busters
Russia’s continued and growing economic relations with Iran, including in the field of nuclear energy, is a sign that Russia has no intention whatsoever to follow the US lead in attempting to isolate Iran. Furthermore, as a party to the JCPOA (aka Iran nuclear deal), Russia like China, France, Britain, Germany and the EU as a whole, is perfectly satisfied that Iran is in full compliance with the letter and spirit of the JCPOA.
Russia, which will also assist Iran in building a gas pipeline to India, is positioning itself to fill any economic voids in Iran’s commercial and energy needs, created by a potential (some would say likely) withdrawal from the JCPOA.
With China working to promote the Petroyuan as a means of exchange in the global energy markets, Iran as an OPEC member, is well placed to step away from the US Dollar in cooperation with countries like China, Russia and Venezuela who are already making strides in ditching the Petrodollar.
As Russia and Iran both find themselves on the receiving end of US sanctions, it makes increasing pragmatic sense for both countries to find ways to avoid the restrictions on transactions that are based on the US financial system.
2. A message to Syria
Russia and Iran have been and continue to be Syria’s most important state allies in the war to liberate the Syrian Arab Republic from terrorist occupation. This unified front, including on security matters, will help assure Syria that its partners in the fight against Takfiri terrorism will continue to stay the course until Syria is fully liberated.
Iran and Russia also continue cooperate, along with Turkey which itself has recently developed healthy relations with both Moscow and Tehran, in the Astana Peace Talks for Syria.
3. A message to Israel
Many pundits and even politicians remain perplexed at the fact that Russia has uniquely good relations with both Iran and Israel. China it must be said, has good relations with the regional rivals as well.
While China’s interests in the Middle East are mainly commercial interests, as well as the overriding desire for a more stable Middle East so that One Belt–One Road can pass smoothly through key destinations, Russia’s interests are inclusive of China’s but go several steps further.
Russia seeks a stable Middle East where current borders are solidified, with the exception of working slowly with any amiable partners to realise a two-state solution in respect of the Israel-Palestine issue.
While Russia supports Iran’s aims at pacifying terrorist activity in Iraq and Syria, something opposed by Israel, Russia also is not willing to risk direct conflict with Israel over its long-standing hatred of the Ba’athist government in Syria. Russia, however, also refuses to give way to Israel’s demands for countries like Russia to define the Lebanese political party Hezbollah as a terrorist group.
The ultimate conclusion of this policy is one of strategic balance, one made more apparent when one realises that while Russia is effectively a neighbour of the Middle East, it is not part of the Middle East and therefore does not look at events in the region through the prism of emotion. Russia’s lack of emotion on the Middle East is sometimes thought of as ‘disloyal’. However, one cannot be disloyal to a region that is ultimately foreign, albeit neighbourly and fraternal.
By visiting Iran, Putin is making it clear that no matter what Israel says, the status quo will not change. Ultimately, Iran is a larger state and therefore a more important long term strategic partner to Russia than Israel or Palestine could either be. This is the cold hard reality of the situation which while balanced, still comes out slightly in favour of Iran, something from which, many who support both Syria and Palestine should ultimately derive a sense of relief.
4. A message to the US and EU
In showing that Moscow’s doors to business and cooperation are open to Iran, Russia is demonstrating that US bullying, whether against Russia or Iran, will not negatively impact on existing and future relations. If anything, Russia and Iran both have an interest in playing up the idea that the US attitude to Moscow and Tehran are galvanising both sides in the Eurasian partnership.
When it comes to Europe, Iran, Russia and major EU players are on the same page–they all want to leave opportunities with Iran firmly open, in spite of Washington’s attitude to the JCPOA.
In doing business with Iran, Russia is effectively sending the following message to Europe: ‘We can help you to continue and do business with Iran, in keeping with the JCPOA, but in order to win Russian trust, the EU must drop its own sanctions against Russia.
Russia isn’t overwhelmingly concerned with the European response to this implied message. However, Russia is laying a very realistic set of cards on the table. If the EU wants to remain on good terms with Iran, Russia, as a superpower with exceedingly good relations with Iran can help, but this help requires the EU to do something for Russia.
With many in Europe realising that major EU countries backed the losing side in both Syria and Ukraine, many in Europe are moving towards a more pragmatic position. It still however remains to be seen whether this movement away from fanaticism will lead to meaningful results. Russia for one, isn’t going to wait around to find out, it will continue making progress with its eager partners, including Iran.