Russian President Putin was amongst the first world leaders to call Iran President Rouhani to congratulate him on his re-election.
The Kremlin’s summary of their conversation shows why
The President of the Russian Federation confirmed his readiness to go on with active joint work in the further development of Russian-Iranian partner cooperation both in terms of bilateral and international agendas.
In his message, the President also expressed confidence in the further successful implementation of agreements, including those reached during Hassan Rouhani’s recent official visit to Russia, in the interests of the friendly peoples of the two countries, and within the framework of joint efforts to sustain stability and security in the Middle East, the Far East and in the world in general.
Rouhani is often spoken of as a ‘liberal’ or ‘reformist’ and perhaps in the context of Iranian politics he is. However in terms of Iran’s international orientation it is important not to confuse “liberal” with “pro-Western” – a mistake once made by the George W. Bush administration, which wrongly perceived Iran’s previous ‘liberal’ and ‘reformist’ Presidency – that of Mohammad Khatami – in precisely that way.
There definitely are people in Iran who can be described as ‘liberal’, ‘reformist’ and ‘pro-Western’ all at the same time. However Hassan Rouhani – Iran’s current President – is not one of them, whilst the perception that his ‘liberal/reformist’ predecessor Mohammad Khatami might have been undoubtedly in the end did him damage, triggering the conservative backlash that brought Rouhani’s stridently anti-American predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.
In reality Rouhani is very much focused on advancing Iran’s national interests, which is why he and the Russians – who take a similarly pragmatic and hard headed view of international relations – get on so well. Certainly there is no doubt the Russians far prefer him to his volatile and unpredictable predecessor, the “anti-American” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The result is that under Rouhani – the so-called ‘liberal/reformist’ – whilst Iran’s relations with the US remain in deep freeze, Iran has drawn closer to Russia (and China), and done so faster, than under any previous Iranian leader in the whole of Iran’s history.
China’s One Belt, One Road project – which centres heavily on Russia – is an indicator of how China through ambitious infrastructure programme aims to integrate Russia, and through Russia the rest of Eurasia, into China’s world economic system.
On an obviously much smaller scale the same thing is happening between Russia and Iran, with the Russians planning substantial infrastructure investments in Iran’s economy both in order to modernise its economy and to integrate it into the Russian (and Chinese) economic sphere.
To that end there is talk of Russia updating Iran’s civilian nuclear power industry, of its building a web of rail and transport links across Iran, of its modernising Iran’s ports and transport hubs, and of its investing heavily in Iran’s badly run down oil and gas industry.
There is also talk of Russia exporting manufactured goods – including civilian aircraft – and agricultural products (especially grain) to Iran in return for imports of certain Iranian goods (including food products) whilst acting as a middleman for some of Iran’s oil and gas exports.
These plans are highly ambitious and there is no certainty of their success. Russian businessmen who have visited Iran speak of severe cultural differences and mistrust standing in the way of economic cooperation.
There is also no doubt that a significant portion of the Iranian business community still hankers after rapprochement with the West, and would rather pursue a policy of achieving that than one of economic integration with Russia and the rest of Eurasia.
What all this means is that if the Russians’ long term plans for Iran are to bear fruit than a firm and consistent policy from the Iranian government in favour of these plans over a sustained period is what is needed. That would give time for Russian and Iranian businessmen to get to know each other and to sort out their differences so that they can learn how to work together successfully.
In passing I should say that one key country that has the potential to act as a bridge between Russia and Iran in helping the people of these two countries achieve a better understanding of each other is Armenia, whose people not only have a well-founded reputation for commercial ability, but who have also had a long history of intense and successful interaction with both nations. Suffice to say that it is not a coincidence – on the contrary it is certainly intentional – that the Russians have chosen for their ambassador to Iran an individual who judging from his name – Levan Dzhagaryan – is an ethnic Armenian.
All this points to the need from Russia’s point of view for stability and consistency of policy in Tehran. No one at the moment is better suited to provide that than Hassan Rouhani. That is why the Russians have welcomed his re-election so warmly.