On July 21, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, made an unscheduled visit to Russia to deliver a message from President Hassan Rouhani to President Vladimir Putin and meet with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Two days earlier, Zarif had been in Baghdad holding meetings with Iraqi officials, and he was expected to be in Tehran during the Iraqi prime minister’s visit on July 21 to receive his counterpart. Thus, his sudden change of plans and trip to Russia on the same day suggests the situation was urgent. The precise nature of Rouhani’s message to Putin and negotiations with Foreign Minister Lavrov remain a mystery; when asked about the contents of the message, Zarif quipped, “If it was supposed to be said on TV, it would have been announced in Tehran.” Yet some of Zarif’s other statements in Moscow provide clues. In a joint presser, Zarif emphasized the “strategic” nature of Russo-Iranian relations while highlighting cooperation on Syria, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and other regional issues. He also expressed Tehran’s readiness to scrap a previous bilateral treaty— signed in 2001 and covering the non-use of force, respectful relations, and cooperation on wide range of issues from the economy and infrastructure to regional security and counter-terrorism — and replace it with an enhanced one, “if our Russian friends are ready.” That caveat from Zarif and the absence of an official statement from the Kremlin on the matter seems to reveal Russian reluctance.

In what is perhaps another sign of daylight between the parties, Zarif admitted to not having met with Putin in person: “Because of his COVID-19 protocols, I spoke with President Putin on a secure line for almost an hour and conveyed to him our president’s special message on JCPOA and certain bilateral issues.” Why should Zarif, while in Moscow, deliver Rouhani’s message over the phone? Couldn’t Rouhani have made the same call himself from Tehran? Furthermore, it seems unlikely that a high-profile visitor like Zarif would be barred from meeting with Putin in person. The Russian president has certainly made exceptions to COVID-19 protocol before, like at the Victory Day parade on June 24, when he was surrounded by crowds and shoulder-to-shoulder with foreign dignitaries without wearing a mask. This suggests Zarif’s visit was not coordinated with the Kremlin and that Putin likely refused to meet with him in person.

The aforementioned bilateral treaty is a comprehensive agreement and although Zarif declared it would be reviewed, he didn’t mention what specifically would be revised. As Iranian Minister of Energy Reza Ardakanian has said, “Iran and Russia have enough agreements and the framework of cooperation is defined.” So, it seems that the reason for Zarif’s visit to Moscow may not have been the renewal of the treaty after all. Perhaps it was about Russia’s quest for a larger footprint in Iran, given the recent news about the proposed 25-year agreement between Iran and China.

Iran’s growing relationship with China

Iran has tapped some of its highest ranking officials to manage relations with China, signaling its shifting international priorities. Recently, Mansour Haghighatpour, advisor to Ali Larijani, Iran’s former Parliament speaker, stated, “Mr. Larijani played a special role in the strategic agreement between Iran and China and was chosen by the Supreme Leader to oversee relations between Iran and China until an … agreement was reached.” Larijani is a leading political figure in Iran and an advisor to the Supreme Leader, and thus carries greater political weight than Zarif. Although Zarif holds the post of foreign minister, he is nearing the end of his tenure and was publicly rebuked in May by Ayatollah Khamenei for his handling of the JCPOA negotiations. Having witnessed top Iranians dispatched to China, perhaps Russia was expecting someone closer to the Supreme Leader than Zarif. Previously, figures as prominent as Ali Akbar Velayati, Qassem Soleimani, and Larijani had travelled to Russia.

The emergence of China as a major economic partner for Iran places Russia in a tricky position. On the one hand, Moscow is well aware of its financial constraints and, more importantly, the risks of further U.S. sanctions. On the other hand, the Kremlin wants the same access as China to Iranian markets, exports, and high leadership. It is true that in recent years Russia, for fear of further sanctions, has withdrawn from bilateral projects in Iran, without a strategic vision for continuing economic cooperation. But now Russia has seen China negotiate directly with the Supreme Leader’s inner circle to strike a risky but lucrative deal with Iran to secure inexpensive oil. This might push Russia to work more closely with Iran on economic issues.

Can Moscow and Tehran strengthen their economic ties?

In his most recent interview with the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Tasnim News Agency, Russian Ambassador to Iran Levan Dzhagaryan addressed the matter with equanimity. When asked about the horizon for Russo-Iranian relations in light of the deal between Iran and China, Dzhagaryan said, “The capabilities of Russia and China are different. That’s a bilateral deal between Iran and China. No third party can … interfere. We are very happy that two friendly countries achieved an agreement.” However, Dzhagaryan didn’t hide his country’s intention to strengthen its economic partnership with Iran: “We are trying to hold the next session of the Joint Commission in Vladikavkaz, Russia, as Russian Deputy Energy Minister [Anatoly] Tikhonov and Kazem Jalali met in Moscow and agreed on, to talk extensively about bilateral projects,” referring to the Russian-Iranian Joint Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation, which is scheduled to meet in September. With respect to sanctions and banking problems, the ambassador, who is fluent in Persian, argued that “there are banking problems, [as] both countries are under sanctions, but we should find a solution to artificial problems created by a third party.” In his concluding remarks, he emphasized Russia’s solidarity with Iran as two nations targeted by U.S. sanctions, saying, “We are in the same trench as you.”

In another interview with the reformist Etemad newspaper almost a month earlier, Ambassador Dzhagaryan gave the Russian perspective on economic cooperation with Iran in light of current regional affairs. “After the end of the military conflict, Syria will need economic reconstruction, and there is no doubt that our cooperation with Iran will be maintained after this period, of course not just on Syria but on Yemen also,” he said. Dzhagaryan added, “We never consider China as our rival in the Middle East. Especially on Syria and its reconstruction, we can get a lot of help from China. … Syrian reconstruction requires huge investment and the virus crisis has damaged the economies of Iran and Russia, so naturally we can’t do it alone.”

Moscow welcomes Beijing’s economic presence in the Middle East as long as it recognizes Russian interests and claims in the region. On the day of Zarif’s visit to Moscow, Iran’s newly appointed ambassador, Kazem Jalali, told the Kommersant newspaper, “Iran is interested in buying new Russian weapons to enhance its defense capacities. … We will hold consultations with Russia about what we need to enhance our defense capacities. Russia is our priority partner in this area.” In this way, Jalali signaled an opening for Russians to increase weapon supplies. But there are complications. The UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Iran is set to expire on Oct. 18, and while the U.S. effort to extend it indefinitely failed on Aug. 14, the U.S. could retaliate in unpredictable ways against Russia for its dealings with Iran. Thus, if Russia wishes to supply Iran with such weapons, it will need to be as risk-tolerant as China, which plans to invest at least $400 billion in Iran over the next 25 years.

An eastward shift in Tehran’s foreign policy

Iran’s high leadership has come to a consensus on an eastward shift in its foreign policy, and Russia is a salient part of that. Recent indications suggest that, at least for now, the Russians do not want to enlarge their footprint in Iran. Yet Iran wants a more proactive Russia, especially in the infrastructure sector and in projects like the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a developing multi-modal transport network aimed at improving trade connectivity between India, Central Asia, and Russia. A prerequisite for a viable INSTC is a well-equipped Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran that can serve as a thoroughfare for goods to and from India — one its supporters regard as a potential replacement for the Suez Canal. This will require Russian investment. In response to a question about the port, the Russian ambassador stated, “India is active in Chabahar. If they suggest officially, we will assess it. … But for now, we are talking about the North-South Corridor and interested in becoming more active.”

Russia’s feeble interest falls short of Iran’s expectations, however, and this might explain why it didn’t dispatch a higher-ranking representative to Moscow. Based on past experience, Russia’s preferred economic approach toward Iran involves guaranteed, non-competitive, and narrow projects, not long-term commitments. Despite the inconvenience of the Iran-China deal and likely efforts to reach a new agreement with the senior leadership in Tehran, Moscow may not succeed unless it adopts a strategy that can generate mutual economic gains and mitigate the painful effects of sanctions.  

 

Fardin Eftekhari is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Tehran, Iran. His research focus is on Iran-Russia relations. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT/ANADOLU AGENCY via Getty Images