Russia and Iran Are Shaping a New Reality in the Middle East

The Middle East continues to be one of the most important strategic areas in the globe, drawing the attention of the major powers in the world due to its geographic significance and a number of internal inconsistencies. Although, of course, not all of the nations in the region have an adequate supply of these kinds of strategic raw materials, the terms “Middle East” and “rich in oil and gas” are sometimes seen as interchangeable.

The majority of the world’s oil reserves, or around 66.5%, are in Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait, each of which has proven oil reserves above 100 billion barrels. In other words, proved crude oil reserves—reservoirs examined by geological and engineering data—are evaluated with a high degree of certainty as commercially recoverable in the identified countries.

Accordingly, Middle Eastern countries hold approximately 41% of the world’s natural gas reserves, with proven reserves in Iran at 17%, Qatar at 13%, and 11% in other countries of the region (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt, Oman, and others).

The global energy market is highly dependent on this region, where more than half of the world’s oil and gas purchase and sales contracts are concluded. In this regard, Iran continues to be a significant worldwide partner and has a significant export potential for its oil and gas resources. This is true despite the sanctions policy.

The Middle East, by virtue of its geography, acts as a connecting region between Central (Southeast) Asia and Europe with Africa, between North and South and vice versa. The most important trade land, sea and air communications pass through here. In this sense, the Persian Gulf countries including Iran are of increased interest to the global economy and trade.

One empire replaced another in this area over the course of history, and there were frequently violent conflicts between them. These conflicts have continued into the present day as geopolitical, geoeconomic, and civilizational (ethno-religious) contradictions, such as the Persian-Arab, Persian-Turkish, Arab-Turkish, Arab-Israeli, and other conflicts. The internal contradictions that divert the Middle East from progressive peaceful development are periodically accompanied by a complex of external contradictions, i.e. the clash of interests of the region’s countries with the Middle East policy of the world’s leading actors. The development of the entire Middle East is heavily dependent on Iran’s position, along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

It is important to note that Russian-Iranian relations have stood the test of time, where objective geopolitical interests in the 18th and 19th centuries led our countries and peoples to clash in the Caucasus and Central Asia. However, from the second half of the nineteenth century until March 22, 1935, Russia and Iran were reliable partners. Of course, there have been periods of closer cooperation and vice versa in our history.

Therefore, one of the principal transit routes for significant military and humanitarian shipments from the Allied countries under the Lend-Lease program was located here in 1941–1945 after the Red Army units occupied the north of Iran. During the Cold War, unfortunately, the Pahlavi Shah regime adopted a course of strategic partnership with the United States and Britain and curtailed the progressive development of Iran-Soviet relations. From 1955 to 1979, Iran was a member of the regional pro-NATO bloc known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) or the Baghdad Pact, and only after the February 1979 Islamic Revolution did Tehran change its foreign policy away from the West in favor of independent national development.

The hopes of Soviet politicians that, with the change of the Shah’s regime, Iran could take a course in favor of strategic partnership with the USSR, unfortunately, were not justified. On November 5, 1979, the theocratic government of Iran, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, declared the United States to be the “big Satan” and accused it of propagating corruption and imperialism. It also referred to the Soviet Union as the “lesser Satan” because of its atheistic communist doctrine. Khomeini urged Iranians not to support either side in the Cold War. In the same distinction, the Iranian supreme leader called Israel “the lesser Satan” because of its ties with the US and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, Iran has not actively engaged in subversive efforts against Russia, and good neighborly relations between our nations have been upheld. Tehran, according to the provisions of the Treaty of Turkmenchay of 1829, did not violate its historical agreements with Russia regardless of the regime changes in Russia in 1917 and 1991, respectively, and did not cross the border line along the Aras River.

During the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), relations between the Soviet Union and Iran were put to the test in various ways. The Soviet Union was put at a disadvantage by this war. Moscow’s initial stance of “strict neutrality” was revised to one of extensive military backing for Iraq in the latter stages of the conflict. At that time, Iraq was our ally, but Iran, under Reza Shah Pahlavi and after the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, refused ties with the USSR. Moscow feared the possible defection of Saddam Hussein to the U.S. and the loss of an important partner in the region. It was Soviet military aid to Baghdad in 1986 that allowed the Iraqis to launch a counteroffensive and end the war in 1988.

The Soviet Union, despite the fact of Iranian-American cooperation, provided considerable economic assistance to Iran in the 1960s and 1970s. It was the USSR that built a large metallurgical plant in Isfahan, a tractor factory in Tabriz, a machine-building enterprise in Arak, the Iran Gas Trunkline (IGAT), and the Aras Dam on the border with Soviet Azerbaijan.

At the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, new times of partnership have come in Russian-Iranian relations. As is well known, the first nuclear power plant in Iran’s history was being built in Bushehr in 1975 by the Kraftwerk Union AG, a division of Siemens AG. But in 1980, the West German government gave in to American anti-Iran sanctions and put a stop to the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant’s development. In August 1992, Russia and Iran signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of peaceful atomic energy and the continuation of the construction of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. In 2010, the nuclear power plant was put into operation, and in September 2011 it was connected to Iran’s energy system. Thanks to Russia, the construction of the first Iranian nuclear power plant took place.

Taking into account the reliability of the Russian side, in November 2014, Tehran signed a new agreement with Moscow to build two new turnkey power units. The second unit of the $10 billion Bushehr unit 2 is expected to be finished in 2024, followed by Bushehr unit 3 in 2026.

Iran did not officially or secretly back the separatist movement and military struggle in Chechnya in the 1990s, in contrast to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Tehran had knowledge that NATO interests and those of Great Britain, the United States, and Turkey were behind the start of this anti-Russian struggle, which had Chechnya as its focal point and exploited the religious issue. The idea is to bypass Russia and gain access to the Caspian basin’s energy wealth in Azerbaijan. At the same time, the Sunni trend of Islam represented mainly by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, including the radical Wahhabism of the KSA, tried to occupy a niche in the Caucasus and other post-Soviet regions with a predominantly Muslim population, taking into account the ideological vacuum created after the collapse of the USSR. Naturally, Tehran viewed this NATO regional strategy in the South and North Caucasus as a challenge to Shiism and the geopolitical and economic interests of Russia and Iran.

The situation in Syria was a new area of Russian-Iranian constructive partnership, with Moscow and Tehran supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad and taking common positions on eliminating the threat of ISIS (an international terrorist organization banned in Russia), preventing the territorial division of Syria, and countering the aggressive activities of the US. The efforts of Russia and Iran for a comprehensive Syrian settlement allowed the formation of the Astana platform of peace talks with the involvement of Turkey and representatives of the Syrian opposition.

In the context of resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute and bolstering peace in the South Caucasus, Iran backed the Turkish-Azerbaijani plan to establish a broad regional cooperation platform based on the 3+3 format (Turkey, Russia, Iran + Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia).
At the same time, Tehran is unequivocally in favor of preserving the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the three Transcaucasian republics, but rejects any pressure on Yerevan on the issue of unblocking the Zangezur corridor in the Meghri region at the expense of undermining Armenian and Iranian interests. Tehran is strongly opposed to the formation of a “pan-Turkic bridge” through Armenia to link Turkey with the rest of the Turkic world and NATO’s advancement into Transcaucasia and Central Asia, which is equally detrimental to Russia’s regional interests.

At the same time, Russia and Iran are planning to launch a new strategic North-South transit route through Azerbaijan. In fact, this direction of transit communications will get a new impetus after the completion of the construction of a bridge connecting Iran’s Rasht with Azerbaijan’s Astara. And, despite the fact that all agreements have been signed and Moscow and Baku are ready to finance the project’s completion, the Iranian side, despite outwardly agreeing, delays construction completion for a variety of reasons. Perhaps, such an approach of Tehran is caused by another aggravation of Iranian-Azerbaijani relations in the light of strengthening interstate (including military-technical) ties between Baku and Tel Aviv.

After the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the start of the “Special Military Operation”, Tehran supported Russia’s accusations against NATO and the United States. In addition, the collective West’s harsh anti-Russian sanctions have catalyzed a closer Russian-Iranian regional partnership. Moscow is interested in studying and utilizing Iran’s rich experience of staying under harsh Western sanctions. Iran is Russia’s reliable outlet to the Persian Gulf zone – the countries of Asia and the Middle East. Transit communications, energy, agriculture, exchange of high technologies, military and military-technical cooperation are important areas of Russian-Iranian partnership in modern times.

In July 2023, Iran changed its observer status to membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an international organization gaining prestige where Russia, China, and India are leading partners. Within the framework of multilateral cooperation, Iran is also highly interested in such international organizations as BRICS; in particular, in June 2022, Tehran applied for membership in BRICS.

In July 2022, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Russia’s Gazprom signed a memorandum of energy cooperation worth about $40 billion. This agreement envisages the development of Kish and North Pars gas fields, a pressure increase in the South Pars gas field, the development of six oil fields, the exchange of gas and petrochemical products, the completion of LNG projects, the construction of gas export pipelines, and other scientific and technical cooperation.

In a similar context, Iranian Petroleum Minister Javad Owji proposed that Russia, along with Turkmenistan and Qatar, build a gas hub in the Asaluyeh industrial zone in Bushehr Province  in the south of the country, on the coastline of the Persian Gulf.  Given that Iran is the second-largest holder of gas reserves after Russia, and thus a competitor in the gas export market, Tehran’s offer suggests the prospect of joining the big adversaries for a greater purpose. An Iranian gas hub controlling 60% of the world’s gas reserves would pose a clear challenge to the West and the global market.

An important area of Russian-Iranian cooperation in modern reality is the military-industrial sphere and the exchange of high technologies for the production of high-precision weapons. Russia, Iran, and China have begun joint military and naval exercises on Iranian territory and in the Persian Gulf region, which cannot help but affect the overall regional security situation in this strategically important region, including challenging the US Fifth Fleet headquartered in Bahrain. The West has begun to support the artificial information pretext of another accusation of Russia and Iran in military-technical cooperation, especially on alleged deliveries of Iranian Shahed drones to the “Special Military Operation” zone.

The growth dynamics of Russian-Iranian trade turnover in 2022 amounted to approximately $5 billion, exceeding the numbers of 2021 by 15%, owing largely to the current crisis in ties between Russia and the EU-US. At the same time, the rates of development of Russia’s trade relations with Iran suggest steady growth in the current year as well.

In this context, it is noteworthy that the cargo turnover of Astrakhan seaports increased by 68%, which is due in no small part to the expansion of Russian-Iranian trade. Moreover, according to the results of a recent meeting between the heads of regions, Igor Babushkin, Governor of the Astrakhan region, and Seyyed Mahmoud Hosseinipour, General Governor of Mazandaran Province, it was decided to open a direct shipping line to connect the Astrakhan port of Olya in the mouth of the Volga River with the Iranian port of Amirabad in the south of the Caspian Sea. At the same time, Astrakhan region and Mazandaran province are important links in the North-South corridor, which delivers goods from India, China and Arab countries of the Persian Gulf through Iran. As a result, Russia intends to expand its merchant fleet, particularly its dry cargo ships and tankers.

Finally, Russia and Iran are in the midst of drafting a new substantial interstate cooperation pact, the signature of which would pave the way for our countries to increase multi-vector collaboration in the near future.
Thus, intensifying the Russian-Iranian relationship benefits both Moscow and Tehran while shaping the balance of power in the Middle East and its surrounding regions, including the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Combined with Iran’s constructive diplomacy with China, India, and the Gulf states, the Iran-Russia partnership complements the new contours of the Middle East, where NATO countries and Israel will have to respect the interests of their opponents.

By Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD
Source: New Eastern Outlook

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