Rafael Enikeev

Visits of high-ranking Ukrainian and Croatian officials to Tehran and their negotiations over possible future gas agreements could be interpreted as a red flag for Russia and therefore require thorough analyses. Definitely, we can’t completely exclude the prospect of Russia losing its supply-markets in Europe someday as well as the bad impact such a prospect would have on the state of the Russian economy. Nevertheless, we wouldn’t go that far to take mentioned above visits for the first step towards westernization of Iran.

Lifting of sanctions from Iran created a new geopolitical and economic reality in the region which makes it impossible to ignore Tehran’s ambitions. It would be too naive to suggest that now after spending about 10 years under international sanctions Tehran would voluntary refuse to use every single opportunity it has for boosting economy growth, primarily concerning the world hydrocarbon market. Of course in terms of stagnation in the Russian economy and unprecedented political pressure from the West Moscow faces nowadays even discussions about possible supplies of Iranian gas to Europe acquires political overtones. However, we could hardly call such an economic competition a “stab in the back” from our strategic partner if only because today Tehran officially isn’t considered to be one of a kind.

The author mistakes the wish for the reality when he speaks of Russia and Iran as strategic partners. Indeed, there are a large number of experts and even officials on both sides who strongly advocate for the improvement of our bilateral relations to a strategic level. Such calls strengthened against a backdrop of close cooperation Moscow and Tehran have in Syria in spite of certain disagreements concerning the post-conflict settlement of the Syrian state. Nevertheless, our bilateral trade lags far behind political and military cooperation. Moreover meanwhile there haven’t been any practical steps from the Iranian side to enforce their calls for strategic partnership.

Lifting of economic sanctions doesn’t imply that Iran will inevitably face westernization even in midterm.  For sure that for Iranians who got used to living under strict restrictions both for economic reasons and religious grounds the access to foreign goods and services could be considered as temptation. However we are far from thinking that in the following decade (the author himself sets such time limits) it would lead to democratization of the country in the Western manner and even moreover to abolishing or severely curtailing the institution of the Ayatollah”. Think by yourself, such a reform could be interpreted as a kind of an “anti-Shiite” revolution and would have great consequences not only for Iran but also for keeping of peace and strategic balance in the Middle East. We should take into account that for more than 30 years Iran has been successfully representing an “anti-Western” system in the region. It has even built up the so-called Shiite Axis of Resistance which nowadays faces hard pressure from pro-Western states not only in Syria, but also in Iraq and Yemen.

Despite certain disagreements within Iranian elite IRGC is still strictly monitoring the political situation there. Obviously, in terms of ongoing military conflicts in Syria and Yemen and continuing instability in Iraq the influence and stance of the Iranian “conservatives” is likely to stay unshakable. Moreover, the deceitful double-standards’ policy of the West also works in the multipolar “conservative” elite’s hand (take the example of imposing “antiballistic” sanctions on Iran shortly after proclaiming the lifting of economic restrictions).

There is no doubt that Iran represents a serious competitor to Russia’s ambitions on the world market of energy resources. In this sense Tehran challenges Russia by acting like a pragmatic actor which follows its national interest. And we are sure that Russian leadership should follow suit taking into consideration Iran’s growing economic appetite including Tehran’s interest towards countries which are traditionally considered to be the Russian “backyard“. As for the inevitability of the coming “westernization” of Iran we see it as an exaggeration. In our opinion, it’s unlikely that Iran will face such dramatic political transformation in the following decade.

The article is published in a discussion order.

 

Andrew Korybko

Iran’s inter-elite split could spell trouble for Russia’s energy interests in Europe

Two curious meetings took place in Iran in the last half of May, with the Croatian President and the Ukrainian Foreign Minister both visiting the country to discuss increased energy cooperation with the Islamic Republic. Commenting on the Croatian leader’s visit, President Rouhani proclaimed that “we decided to realise our agreements and expand our economic relations, notably in energy and transport”, while he remarked to his Ukrainian guest that “Iran and Ukraine potentials in fields of energy and transit can be used for boost of regional cooperation particularly in the area of economy.” The common thread linking these two visits together is that Croatia is constructing a foreign-financed LNG terminal on Krk Island and Ukraine hopes to connect its own energy network to Poland and/or Lithuania’s respective terminals one day (if not build its own facility in Odessa), all of which is part of the US’ long-term objective of “diversifying” European energy supplies away from Russian sources.

Iran fits into this model by having the world’s largest gas reserves and being the only supplier capable of realistically competing with Russia on the European market. The US therefore has a vested strategic interest in encouraging Iran to export LNG to the Croatian, Lithuanian, Polish, and perhaps even one day a Ukrainian processing terminal in order to undermine Russia’s market share and subsequently subvert its strategic leverage. While it may initially seem odd to countenance the Iranian government actively working against Russian energy interests in Europe, a closer look reveals that this actually isn’t all that surprising when considering the inter-elite split that’s been growing in the Islamic Republic. Despite the high-level cooperation between Russia and Iran in the War on Terror in Syria and their headline-grabbing nuclear energy partnership, there still remains a part of the national elite that isn’t as warm to Russia as some might have thought and would instead like to prioritize relations with the unipolar West instead of the multipolar East.

The pro-Western “moderate” elite that Rouhani represents are responsible for complicating the policies favored by the multipolar “conservative” elite that the Ayatollah leads, and while this inter-elite split rarely results in major foreign policy divergences, Iran’s moves to position itself as a leading energy competitor to Russia in the European market are undoubtedly an example of this occurring. If the Ayatollah had his way, Iran wouldn’t so blatantly intrude in Russia’s traditional spheres and sectors of influence (the natural gas market in the Balkans and Eastern Europe), especially not in the midst of their joint anti-terrorist campaign in Syria, but this just goes to show how Rouhani actually has more independent influence over the state than most people would care to believe (and comparatively, how the Ayatollah has less than most would want to admit, too). Furthermore, it’s clear that the pro-Western “moderates” are trying to sow the seeds of suspicion between Russia and Iran in order to divide the two multipolar Great Powers from one another, thus making Iran’s potential large-scale LNG exports to Europe an event of game-changing magnitude if everything goes according to the US’ plans.

Energy Geopolitics

A basic background in contemporary energy geopolitics is needed so that the reader can grasp the significance of just how big of a deal it would be if Iran becomes one of Europe’s main LNG players.

Technology Briefing:

To begin with, the global energy industry has been undergoing a technological revolution over the past couple of years as fracking and LNG totally changed the entire field. The former made it possible to extract gas from unconventional sources, while the latter meant that such resources could now be transported all across the world. Both technologies come with a steep cost, however, and the scale of capital investment that’s generally needed is beyond the financial capability of most host countries, thus requiring that they seek foreign (mostly Western) state and/or non-state (big business) support. The role of foreign financial assistance is the whole reason why the comparatively poor counties of Croatia, Lithuania, and Poland have LNG terminals or plans to build them in the first place, since they simply wouldn’t be able to muster the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to do so on their own.

Theory vs. Real Life:

The US backs the construction of foreign-funded LNG terminals in key geostrategic states such as the ones previously mentioned because it wants to undermine Russia’s energy diplomacy, one of the key tenets of Moscow’s foreign policy toolkit. Energy cooperation such as the kind that has been in existence for decades now up between Europe and Russia typically deepens strategic relations between all sides by weaving the the partners together in a web of complex interdependence. The thinking goes that buyers and sellers have equal need for one another, and that this will prevent either side from reneging on their obligations to the other. In a perfect world, this functionally necessary form of cooperation could form the foundation for more robust relations in other fields, but such thinking precludes the interference of third-party actors such as the US and its Hybrid War sabotage of transit states like Ukraine.

In real life, suppliers are more dependent on the buyers than vice-versa, which was unforgettably seen when the US-allied Orange government in Ukraine instigated the 2005-2006 gas crisis, which, while hurting Europe to an extent, had a much greater long-term impact on Russia by serving as the impetus for the EU to seek alternative and “diversified” non-Russian energy sources (per the US’ guidance). Given how Russia’s energy relationship with the EU is absolutely inflexible due to the complete dependence that it has on traditional pipelines and years-long contracts, this meant that the dual industry-revolutionizing technologies of fracking and LNG, and the quick ‘one-off’ deals that LNG buyers make in choosing between the most attractive sellers available at any given moment, have the possibility of totally disrupting Russia’s energy diplomacy and eventually displacing Moscow as the EU’s most valuable natural gas partner.

Market theory would suggest that the EU would always prefer Russian gas because it’s cheaper and more reliable, but such obvious claims neglect to factor in the influence that political and hegemonic variables play in this equation. The EU’s anti-Russian sanctions, enacted and retained due to considerable American pressure, prove that there are certain patron-client relationships where politics always trumps economics, and with the EU currently functioning as America’s neo-imperialistic “Lead From Behind” surrogate in the continent alongside NATO, it’s little wonder then that the organization sacrificed its own economic self-interest in order to satisfy its master’s grand political strategy. Accepting that this seemingly illogical situation is regrettably the present-day reality, it’s thus possible to extrapolate further in forecasting the US’ desired international energy set-up in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

American Dreams:

It’s not to say that all of the following will happen in practice, but that they represent the goal that the US is working to further, no matter the extra financial burden that this will place on European governments and their citizens. In Washington’s ideal vision, Azerbaijan’s TAP pipeline through Georgia, Turkey, Greece, and Albania would connect to Italy and supply Southern Europe, but some voices are now voicing trepidation that not only might Baku’s supplies be insufficient to substantially meet demand (and become anything more than a symbolic anti-Russian “diversification”), but that the Turkish Civil War against the Kurds might make the megaproject a tempting insurgent target and thus render it undependable. Therefore, it’s likely that the pipeline might be paired in some capacity with the prospective Israel-Cyprus-Greece gas project that taps into Tel Aviv’s Tamar and Leviathan fields.

From Greece, the gas could either be exported elsewhere using the country’s LNG terminal in Revithoussa or moved overland to the Greece-Bulgaria gas interconnector and possibly through the rest of the Balkans and Central & Eastern Europe through the planned Eastring Pipeline. Bolstering the non-Russian capacities of this tentative energy vision would be Iran, which has already expressed its desire to use the Greek LNG terminal to access the broader European market. Coupled with Iran’s potential exports to Croatia, Lithuania, and Poland’s sister facilities, it’s possible that the country with the world’s largest gas reserves could one day flood the market to such a degree that its liquefied exports are just as, if not more, competitive than traditional Russian pipeline gas, thereby fulfilling the long-sought-after American dream of supplying Europe via a reliable non-Russian source.

Of course, Iran’s domestic facilities would have to be modernized through extensive capital investment first in order to make this a reality, but the Western US-led strategic imperative to do so is so great that this will likely happen sooner than later and within the next decade. By that time, Russia might have succeeded in rebalancing its export portfolio by clinching pipeline and LNG deals with the growing Asian market, thus replacing whatever potential economic losses it could eventually incur through Iran’s competitive incursion into its traditional European sphere (the Balkans and Eastern Europe) and sector (gas exports). Nevertheless, Iran’s large-scale introduction into this market could offset the functionality of Russia’s energy diplomacy there, which would be very difficult for Moscow to replicate through other means and would result in a relative weakening of its strategic capabilities in the region. The only hope for retaining Russian influence there in a similar manner would be through the completion of Nord Stream II and Balkan Stream, both of which are currently under threat by the US and precisely for this very reason.

Iran’s Inter-Elite Split

Comprehending how Iran could severely offset Russia’s long-term energy diplomacy in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, it’s now time to turn to an explanation of why Tehran would even want to do this to Moscow at the moment that both sides are experiencing an historically unprecedented period of high-level bilateral relations. The author comprehensively explored the nature of Iran’s inter-elite split in an article series for Katehon (the most relevant parts are here, here, and here, and should be read in that chronological order), but this part of the current article will briefly summarize what’s going on and how it relates to the energy issue in particular.

The General Situation:

For the most part, a growing divide can be witnessed in the Iranian elite, whereby the traditional multipolar “conservatives” led by the Ayatollah are being progressively displaced by the up-and-coming pro-Western “moderates” represented by Rouhani. This process was a long time in the making, but it also comes down to the US’ sly soft power manipulation of Iran’s burgeoning youth bulge and the exploitation of the youth’s characteristic suspicion of “conservative” values and existing power structures. There are definitely overt signs of a generational split emerging in Iran, and the primary point of competition between the two categories of elite will be in attracting and retaining the support of the youth demographic, which the pro-Western “moderates” are adept at doing.

Perceptions And Nuances:

This new class of Iranian leaders and influencers is expected to become further entrenched in the coming years as the removal of international sanctions leads to the creation of a growing mercantile class that’s tied much closer to the West than any of their predecessors ever were, to say nothing of the inevitable viral-like spread of Western culture (whether discretely hidden or explicitly evident). Contrastingly, the multipolar “conservatives” are less appealing to the new generation because they’re perceived as being “too stiff”, “no fun”, and “paranoid” – characteristics which the youth do not seem to attach to the pro-Western “moderates”. Moreover, in the post-sanctions environment and the noticeable toning down of American-Israeli conventional threats against Iran that have accompanied it, the masses might become strategically disarmed into thinking that the danger has largely passed, dismissing the multipolar “conservatives’” warning about the ever-present existence of Color Revolution and other asymmetrical threats as discrediting “paranoia” that reactively pushes them closer to the pro-Western “moderates”.

Dividing The State:

Right now it’s too early to say that these two categories of elite have totally divided state interests between them, but a clear pattern is definitely discernable by this point. Multipolar “conservatives” tend to have more determining influence in the military and security spheres than their counterparts do, while pro-Western “moderates” seem to be increasing their influence over the economic and energy sectors. For example, Russia’s anti-terrorist cooperation with Iran in Syria is emblematic of the role that multipolar “conservatives” have in this respective field, since it’s highly unlikely that the pro-Western “moderates” would have permitted such close military interaction with the West’s hated foe at the exact time that they were trying to put on a “good face” and clinch more business deals. In connection to this, Iran’s multi-billion-dollar shopping spree that defined Rouhani’s visit to Europe at the beginning of the year shows just how much importance he and his posse place in restoring Western economic relations and spending their money in this part of the world instead of the East. While the recent Chabahar deal with India might be touted as an example of Rouhani’s “multipolar credentials”, it should be remembered that Modi recently undertook a decisive pro-Western pivot that essentially makes him and his country a Western proxy in South Asia, thus nullifying the claim that this is a multipolar breakthrough (unless the Indian leadership’s intentions change, which would then reverse the appraisal).

Behind-The-Scenes Intrigue:

The cultivation of contradictory and diametrically opposed elite inside of Iran is inherently unstable and will eventually lead to political conflict. Although there’s a theory that these forces could be complementary to one another, that’s only true if there’s full coordination and trust between them, which doesn’t seem to be the case. There’s no irreconcilable split yet, but the “moderates” and “conservatives” plainly have different visions for Iran’s future trajectory, and the divergences between them will only widen with time. Additionally, the backbone of the multipolar “conservatives’” institutional support – the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – is vulnerable to falling under pro-Western “moderate” influence if they leverage their connections to exploit Iran’s economic “re-opening” and enrich themselves with Western contracts. Therefore, it can be said that both camps must expect to compete with one another not only for the popular masses’ support, but eventually, even for the Islamic Guard’s, though the latter is less likely to transpire anytime soon given the firm patriotism of this group.

What’s more likely to happen in the coming future, and which is already being seen by Rouhani’s unfriendly intentions to become Russia’s main energy competitor in Europe, is that the pro-Western “moderates” will try to use their prevailing influence over the economic and energy fields to subvert the multipolar “conservatives’” military-strategic partnerships by manufacturing an obvious clash of interests between the two that undermines Iran’s reliable reputation among the multipolar community. Most of this competition has been underway behind the scenes for some time, but it’s only in this rare instance that it has so dramatically spilled over into the public domain. When Russia and Iran announced their anti-terrorist coordination in Syria late last year, most people would never have expected that Tehran would end up courting Kiev for energy contracts as a means of displacing Moscow, but that’s exactly what’s happened and which proves the existence of the previously speculated-upon inter-elite split in Iran.

Going forward, as Iran opens up more to the West and the “moderates” continue their progressive gains at the “conservatives’” expense, it’s inevitable that they’ll make a power play at an undetermined point in the future, though only when they feel that they have enough public and institutional support to do so. Although a more violent repeat of the 2009 “Green Revolution” (essentially an “Arab Spring” Color Revolution prototype) is certainly possible, it’s more likely that the US would prefer to keep Iran internally stable if it can help it so that its political proxies can harness the state’s full potential and redirect it towards “containing” Russia in the Caucasus, Caspian, and Central Asia one day. Acknowledging this desired (albeit if currently unrealistic) long-term strategic imperative, the pro-Western “moderates” might make a push to promote a “democratic reform” in abolishing or severely curtailing the institution of the Ayatollah once they feel the time is right, which could be after they believe they have enough public (youth and young adult) and institutional (parliamentary) support and possibly in the aftermath of the present Ayatollah’s inevitable passing.

Addressing The Hard Questions

The research has now moved to the point of addressing difficult questions about the topic of Iran’s post-sanctions international trajectory, specifically its pro-Western economic engagement, the energy threat that it poses to Russia, and the sources of distrust between Tehran and Moscow.

In Defense Of Iran’s Pro-Western Economic Engagement:

To be fair, there are more reasons than just the ascent of pro-Western “moderates” to power in explaining why Iran is flirting so much with the West. For one, multipolarity, like the author wrote in his “Meaning Of Multipolarity” series for Katehon, should not be confused with “Orthodox Anti-Americanism” or “Orthodox Anti-Westernism”, meaning that there is nothing wrong with pragmatic and win-win cooperation with a multipolar state and their unipolar counterparts provided that it’s neutrally intentioned and not aimed against a third-party state. This mostly explains why there’s no problem with Iran enhancing its economic relations with the West, since this really doesn’t pose a threat to anyone except perhaps the government itself, and only if it unwittingly becomes inordinately dependent on its new “partners”. Bearing in mind that Iran is China’s key Mideast node in the One  Belt One Road project through its maritime (Chabahar) and mainland (trans-Central Asian railroad) connective potential, Beijing could easily counterbalance the West’s rising economic influence in the country provided that it retains uninterrupted access to the Iranian market (e.g. barring Central Asian destabilization and an obstruction of China’s Sea Lines Of Communication in the Indian Ocean).

Iran’s Energy Threat To Russia:

If Iran’s pro-Western economic outreach was only limited to the real-sector economy and infrastructure investments, there resultantly wouldn’t be any reason for Russia to be wary of this development, but because of the large-scale energy cooperation being envisioned and all but formally announced by Iran and its “Western partners”, Russia has plenty to be suspicious of.  While some might scoff at the ability or even the willingness of Ukraine to pay for future Iranian LNG imports, it’s already been proven through the EU’s anti-Russian sanctions that politics trumps economics when it comes to this field, and it can’t be discounted that Brussels and/or Washington will provide some sort of multilateral financial support in actualizing this scheme. Furthermore, the Ukrainian authorities vehemently hate Russia and would be more than happy to spite it by actively replacing it with its Mideast ally. Although this is impossible to carry out in full no matter how much the US feverishly wants it to happen, its partial fulfillment would still go a long way in promoting the goal of non-Russian energy “diversification” for Europe. Due to the symbolism that this entails for Washington, it’s doubtful that Ukraine would renege on its economic commitments to this matter and risk angering the US government, so it can be expected that it will dutifully carry out its financial responsibilities whether it has the means to do so on its own (no matter the austerity sacrifices of its people) or is multilaterally supported by a combination of state and non-state (international banking cartel) actors.

Another thing to remember is that Iran’s prospective LNG exports to Eastern Europe and the Balkans are not limited to Ukraine alone (whether directly supplied via a future Odessa terminal or indirectly through Lithuania and Poland). The TAP infrastructure being built across Greece, Albania, and under the Adriatic Sea to Italy could be expanded to accommodate for Iranian LNG shipments that would connect to it via a short pipeline from the Revithoussa terminal. In fact, even if Azerbaijan is completely cut out of the equation, Iran would be more than capable of supplying the European part of TAP on its own. Not only could it send regasified LNG to Southern Europe via TAP, but it could also partially supply Central and Eastern Europe through the Greece-Bulgaria gas interconnector and the Eastring pipeline. Seen from this perspective, Greece is the single most important partner in Iran’s nascent European energy strategy, but it’s also not the only one. Like it was mentioned before, Croatia’s Krk Island facility could eventually make Iran a serious Balkan gas player, especially if Zagreb succeeds in its plans to build one or a few regional pipelines branching out from the coast. Additionally, Iranian supplies through Lithuania and Poland could also create obstacles for the expression of Russian energy diplomacy, but only in the event that they are competitively priced with Russia’s pipeline gas and have their own connective infrastructure that makes them a viable alternative.

If the US and EU can finance the relevant infrastructure within a decade’s time and Iran starts dependably supplying LNG to Croatia, Greece, Lithuania, and Poland, then Iran would undoubtedly become Russia’s number one gas competitor in Europe, thereby endangering the strategic relations between both sides by producing a significant source of distrust.

Reviving Bad Memories:

As it stands, Russia has no current grievances against Iran, though there are future risks that it’s obviously monitoring and planning contingency measures for dealing with if the need ever arose. Should Iran emerge as a serious competitor to Russia in the European gas market, then Moscow would obviously have to redefine its currently close relations with the Islamic Republic to match the masked hostility of its leadership in confronting Russia in its own backyard. Likewise, if Iran and India team up on behalf of the unipolar world and seek to “contain” Russian-Chinese influence in Central Asia, then that would also have to be responded to appropriately. Nevertheless, there are no present inhibitors to the enhancement of bilateral relations today, and everything that Russia is worried about when it comes to Iran deals entirely with two main future scenarios, neither of which are predestined.

This means that the onus for deepening the strategic partnership between the two rests entirely on Iran, which has admittedly been making large strides in doing so, as their multilateral anti-terrorist collaboration in Syria and coordination along the North-South Corridor can attest. Still, there are two issues that are holding back the Iranian state from going even further in these directions, and those are the S-300 spat and Russia’s interest in selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. Some Iranians even cite the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay as the reason for Tehran’s lingering distrust of Moscow, but seeing as how self-proclaimed multipolar states have presumably decided to enter a fresh era of relations with one another free from the baggage of the past (or so it’s believed), there’s no use in digging this far back into history and exchanging polemics about it. Instead, it’s much more relevant to deal with these two recent developments that have been much more influential in shaping the mindset of Iran’s elite, and not only its pro-Western “moderate” one, but even the multipolar “conservatives” to an extent.

S-300s

Regarding the S-300 issue, it’s been popularly perceived that Russia ‘sold out’ to the West by reneging on its earlier agreement to provide this highly vaunted defensive unit. Western-friendly Medvedev did agree to the UNSC sanctions against Iran which provided the ‘plausible’ cover for backing out of the arrangement, but while his naiveté (or worse, as some allege) is easily blamed, it’s possible that there were actually very real strategic considerations behind this move. At the time, the US and Israel were constantly threatening Iran with conventional military action, and Tehran needed the S-300s in order to have a credible deterrent in safeguarding its sovereignty. Reversely, however, the decision to ship and deploy S-300s inside of Iran might have actually served as the tripwire for triggering Washington and Tel Aviv’s aggression because it would have totally deprived them of the ‘strategic ambiguity’ that they endeavored to maintain during the years-long and completely fabricated ‘nuclear crisis’. Both countries wanted to indefinitely leave the possibility of a conventional strike open so as to maximally exploit their strategic positions as aggressor states, but sensing that their games would irreversibly come to an end with the S-300, they might have been pressed to strike Iran before their window of ‘opportunity’ ran out, thus catalyzing the very catastrophe that Russia wanted so hard to avoid.

Honestly speaking, Russia could have done a much better job at conveying the true reason behind its decision to pull out of the S-300 deal, even if it informally did so through unmistakable nuances and inferences. Standing by the ‘official’ story that Russia’s sole interest was in abiding by the same UNSC sanctions that it itself helped to promulgate into effect predictably led to the expected and popular impression that Russia had “sold out” to the West, despite such vocal pundits conveniently never offering any explanation for why multipolar China agreed to these very same measures. Anyhow, even if Russia had perfectly expressed the real motivation behind its decision, this still wouldn’t have calmed the Iranians’ resentment, since from their perspective, there was no other way to see this besides being a disappointing reversal of policy. Although the two sides have since cleared up their disagreement over this issue after Russia finally sent the defense systems to Iran in April, the multipolar “conservative” military-security establishment that the Ayatollah represents probably didn’t forget about the issue and is still likely influenced by it to an undetermined degree, though not as strongly as one might assume because it did after all agree to multilateral anti-terrorist cooperation with Russia in Syria.

This “water under the bridge” attitude is of course related to the fact that a conventional war never actually did break out between the US/Israel and Iran, though if it had, then Iran would have blamed Russia for not providing it with the S-300 deterrent that it had earlier purchased and which, in its view, could have prevented the speculative conflict. Since everything turned out alright in the end, there’s little reason for Iran to hold any grudge against Russia, though it’s understandable in a sense if some people still feel upset by it despite nothing tragic having come from this decision. Even so, there’s nothing about this issue that could justify Iran making the decision to go against Russian energy interests in the Balkans and Eastern Europe in the present day.

Possible Russian Weapons Sales to Saudi Arabia

The second hot-button issue that’s actually still in effect today is the sensitivity that Iran has about any prospective Russian weapons deal with Saudi Arabia. The topic was officially broached at last year’s Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum when Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with President Putin. The issue hasn’t substantially gone anywhere in the time since, mostly because Saudi Arabia has been so openly hostile to Russian strategic aims in Syria through its support of terrorism and earlier threat to invade the country. Even so, Russia did not have any intent to provide Saudi Arabia with offensive arms that could be deployed in combat against it or its allies, but rather with large-scale defensive units such as the S-300 and others. In fact, this is still generally in the cards anyhow despite the bad blood between both sides over Syria. Russian Presidential aid Vladimir Kozhin confirmed on 19 May that “Talks are underway, there are no contracts yet. They [Saudi Arabia] are interested in a lot of things and they have been for a while”.

If such an agreement miraculously manages to be reached, it would be a milestone for Russian “weapons diplomacy”, which the author described in a previous work for The Duran as entailing the sale of weapons, training local troops to handle them, and the provision of maintenance as needed in order to prepare the groundwork for more robust and comprehensive relations in other fields. It may seem out of place in the current context to imagine Russia selling arms to Saudi Arabia, but the author wrote about that too in the past in a four-part series for Oriental Review dealing with the potential for a “Polar Reorientation In The Mideast”. That series explored the strategic-energy reasons for why the US and Iran could intensify their relations and unwittingly provoke Russia and Saudi Arabia to do the same in response, and the scope of what’s covered is much too extensive to speak about in this present article. What’s important to note, though, is that Russia’s sale of defensive weapons to Saudi Arabia wouldn’t be aimed against Iran, but at maintaining strategic parity between both sides and thus mitigating the chances that they’ll ever clash. Russia pursues this same “balancing” policy with Vietnam-China, China-India, and Armenia-Azerbaijan, so it would be nothing new for it to do so with Iran-Saudi Arabia if the opportunity presented itself.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with this approach, it’s an obvious  element of Russian diplomacy and has already been practiced for over two decades already. It’s not the author’s intent to argue one way or another about whether Russia should sell defensive armaments to Saudi Arabia or not, but just to point out that this would fall into the pattern of Russia’s “weapons diplomacy” in “balancing” between antagonistic partners. The Iranians might reasonably be upset if this ever happens, but it’s questionable whether this would be a deal-breaker for them in loosening their ties with Russia and actively working against it on the European gas markets. After all, just about every one of Iran’s new “Western partners” has already sold some form of offensive armaments to its Gulf nemeses and has close military collaboration with them, so it would be disproportionate for Iran to turn against Russia solely because Moscow decides to play ‘catch-up’ by selling defensive weapons to the Kingdom like everybody else is.

Concluding Thoughts

Russian-Iranian relations are presently of a positive and very high-level strategic nature, but they aren’t as broad as one might initially think. Their world-changing cooperation in the War on Terror in Syria and headline-grabbing nuclear energy partnership are big ticket items that largely define the parameters of the relationship (and with good measure), but while there are exciting economic plans (e.g. the North-South Corridor), these sorts of ties still need more time to play out in full in order to gauge their eventual results. If left to their own designs and without any significant external interference, then there’d be no reason to doubt the positive trajectory of Russian-Iranian relations, but regrettably, Western strategic tinkering inside of Iran through the cultivation of a pro-Western “moderate” elite has created all sorts of complications for the ruling multipolar “conservative” establishment, the latest of which has publicly manifested itself through Rouhani’s desire to compete with Russia in the European gas market. This runs counter to the hitherto historically unprecedented close relationship that the Ayatollah had clinched with Russia and can be seen as both an attempt to undermine his influence over international affairs and a provocative push to disrupt this partnership.

Friendly competition can enrich the multipolar community, but only when it’s not aimed at a third-party state like Iran’s prospective energy engagement with Europe is (particularly as regards Ukraine). Trying to undermine Russia’s core interests in its geographic backyard is an unwelcome sign that elicits immediate suspicion and a dedicated investigation into its causes. As the research has argued, this move is at odds with what the Ayatollah and his fellow multipolar “conservatives” would like, but that the pro-Western “moderates” have gained premier influence over Iran’s external economic and energy dealings and are thus working to sabotage his grand strategic vision in some respects. This inter-elite split is usually kept behind the scenes so as to avoid unsubstantiated speculation that could be weaponized against the Iranian government, but in this case, it’s impossible to deny that some kind of break has occurred.

Rouhani and his energy businessmen are courting Kiev at the exact same time as the Ayatollah and his Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are working closely together with Russian military forces in Syria, leading to the very peculiar instance where Tehran is pursuing contradictory grand strategic policies vis-à-vis its relationship with Moscow. On the one hand, the Ayatollah and Putin have joined forces in militantly opposing the US’ Hybrid War on Syria, while on the other, Rouhani is poised to inadvertently (?) fulfill the Obama Administration’s policy of assisting Europe in the development of non-Russian energy “diversification” networks. This sort of double-sided policy is untenable and will naturally lead to a weakening of the Russian-Iranian Strategic Partnership after the shared historic goal of saving Syria has been achieved. Even if direct military cooperation fades with time after the war, both sides will still retain their strategic technical relations in the nuclear, arms, domestic energy infrastructure, and other spheres, as well as hopefully tasting the fruits of the North-South Corridor by that time, but a major point of divergence between the two would naturally arise if Iran is serious about competing with Russia in the European gas market.

If the Ayatollah and his multipolar “conservatives” can’t wrest control of the Islamic Republic’s energy policy back from Rouhani’s pro-Western “moderates”, then it’s only a matter of time before Iran’s antagonistically anti-Russian energy policy in Europe begins to seriously impact on the Russian-Iranian Strategic Partnership and progressively lead to its undoing, just as the US intended all along.