Engineers and expert builders from the Russian state atomic agency Rosatom, have commenced work on Iran’s second nuclear power facility, Bushehr 2.
While the agreement to construct Bushehr 2 was made three years ago, the timing of this month’s official project start date is significant due to the wider geo-political climate around Iran.
The US has just formally sanctioned Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, a threat most prominently made during Donald Trump’s announcement that he would not re-certify the JCPOA (aka the Iran nuclear deal). The US is also looking to sanction Iran for its ballistic missile programme, as well as Tehran’s refusal to allow inspectors into non-nuclear military facilities. Crucially, Iran’s missile programme and its position on protecting its military bases are in compliance with the JCPOA, something which has been recently reiterated by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
With the exception of Israel, the entire international community disagrees with the US interpretation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “terrorist organisation” and likewise, even America’s partners in the EU accept the IAEA’s statement that Iran is not doing anything that violates the letter and spirit of the JCPOA.
It is in this climate of anti-Iranian sentiments coming exclusively from the US and Israel, that Russia has begun helping Iran to construct its second nuclear power station.
This event is in many ways, a focal point of the failure of the US, in respect of Washington’s attempts to convince other world powers to adopt its stance against Iran. While the US continues to treat the Middle East as a zero-sum contest of ‘us versus them’, Russia remains on good terms with all key players in the region.
Russia is in a unique position of commanding respect and good will among many regional rivals including Iran and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt, Syria and Turkey, Iraq and Kuwait, Israel and Palestine. Russia’s anti-ideological approach to the region has allowed old alliances to be strengthened while allowing new partnerships to be built.
This attitude has not only increased Russia’s regional prestige and protects Russian security interests, but it is objectively a path towards greater peace and cooperation throughout the region. In spite of this, whenever Russia makes overtures towards an ‘enemy’ of a traditional or contemporary Russian partner in the Middle East, many question Russia’s loyalty. Such questions however, reveal a misunderstanding of Russia’s goals for the Middle East.
Russia seeks to act as a mediating power broker in the Middle East, rather than one which uses its power to enforce existing rivalries.
I wrote the following about Russia’s offer to broker a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, shortly after the first ever visit of a Saudi monarch to Moscow:
“Turning to the dispute between Riyadh and Doha, Russia’s genuinely neutral stance on the row between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the other, has earned Russia genuine respect on all sides of this conflict.
And then one has to necessarily turn to the Saudi/Iranian conflict. MBS is considered one of the more anti-Iranian figures in a Saudi state that is de-facto anti-Iran. While some ideologically motivated commentators think that the Saudi monarch’s visit to Moscow is a betrayal of the Moscow-Tehran partnership, this is no more the case than Russia’s increasingly good relations with Turkey has been a threat to Russia’s Syrian partner.
The slow-moving but increasingly obvious outcome of good Russian relations with Turkey has meant that Turkey is now playing a less destructive and detracting role in Syria. While Damascus and Ankara still do not have official diplomatic channels, the fact that Damascus welcomed the Turkish policed de-escalation zone in Syria’s Idlib Governorate, is a sign of a small yet significant rapprochement, albeit via a third party.
Likewise, if both Iran and Saudi become increasingly intertwined in an economic partnership with Russia and also China, there will be less of a chance that Saudi would ever make good on its threats against Iran. Even now, the threats against Iran are mostly rhetorical as Saudi simply does not have the ability to even attempt to win a war against Iran’s superior armed forces.
In this sense, Russia is helping create stability in the Middle East by making previous and current rival nations into countries that each have an economic interest in a common partner. That partner is Russia which increasingly also means China, by extrapolation, as well as overriding realities of Chinese investment in the Middle East. There is only one nation that is one good to very good terms with nations as diverse as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Qatar, Palestine, Israel and in many ways, event the notoriously difficult Lebanon. This country is Russia.
Just as Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from the Premiership in Islamabad has not negatively impacted Pakistan’s close economic and geo-political relations with China, so too would any would-be palace coup in Saudi, or any other Persian Gulf monarchy, not effect relations with Russia as much as some would hope or in other cases, fear. There is only so much that any ideological state can do to resist pragmatism. This far, Russia has quietly made sure that in all such states, pragmatic thinking beats out ideological rhetoric. Saudi Arabia is no exception, it in fact, proves the rule”.
While the US continues to sanction Iran, in moves which are clear provocations aimed at forcing Iran out of the JCPOA, Russia has adopted an approach based on economic and scientific cooperation with Iran, something which is fully in-line with the letter and spirit of the JCPOA.
While Russia continues to expand its relations with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Russia’s ties to Iran in both economic, technology, energy and security sectors, continues to grow.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iran’s President and Supreme Leader, relations between Moscow and Tehran look to build on past successes, in-line with Russia’s model of mutual partnerships throughout the wider Middle East and Eurasia.