Opinion| Russian-Iranian rapprochement in the face of US unilateralism

Marwa El- Shinawy
8 Min Read

It seems that the punitive approach adopted by the United States — believing that the best strategy is to subjugate countries — has backfired, changing the balance of global power and undermining the American unilateralism that has lasted for years.

These negative results appeared clearly in the past period through the Russian-Chinese cooperation in confronting Washington. And today it is more clearly evident through the Russian-Iranian rapprochement, which has become a topic of conversation around the world in the past few days.

Marwa El-Shinawy
Dr Marwa El-Shinawy

Despite the ideological contradictions between Russia and Iran, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s statements in Russia a few days ago as well as statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian officials indicate that Russian-Iranian relations are of great importance for the two countries in the present, and even in the future; because they stand in the face of several severe US sanctions imposed on them years ago, which prompted them to continuously strengthen their economic, military, and security relations.

This was clearly expressed by the Iranian president in his first words after he arrived in Moscow and his meeting with his Russian counterpart. “Under the policy of the United States and the West, our relations must be stronger. We have been confronting the United States with Russia for 40 years,” he said.

More importantly, according to the Associated Press, during a meeting with Putin in Moscow on Wednesday, 19 January, Raisi said that Iran had “drafted a 20-year agreement between the two countries.”

“We want to develop our strong and multifaceted relationship with Russia… It should be sustainable and strategic,” Raisi affirmed.

Furthermore, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said on 11 December that “the drafting of the 20-year cooperation document with Russia is about to be completed” and that it will be similar to the “Iran-Chinese cooperation document,” which has a term of 25 years.

In fact, the US was counting a lot on the contentious issues between Russia and Iran, which might have prevented them from becoming allies. One of the most important issues is the Russian-Iranian competition in Central Asia, as — despite the common interests between the two countries in this region — Tehran still has its independent interests, on top of which is preventing Russia from maintaining a dominant role in the region.

The other issue, which is no less important, is the Iranian nuclear programme. Although Russia cooperates with Iran in building the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant and defends Iran’s right to possess nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, it accepts the imposition of sanctions on it to deter it from proceeding with the development of its capabilities in the field of uranium enrichment.

The Russian position in both cases is governed by its interests and Russian national security, as Russia opposes Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, considering that such a development would radically change the balance of power in the region. The Russian authorities have made no secret of their view that a nuclear-armed Iran on Russia’s southern flank may pose a threat in Central Asia and the Caspian Basin and undermine Moscow’s influence in the areas of the former Soviet Union.

For this reason, Moscow committed itself to vote positively in favour of all Security Council resolutions that imposed sanctions on Iran — six resolutions between 2006 and 2010 — for not responding to the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Additionally, Russia suggested being a mediator for Iranian uranium enrichment on its land, which Tehran strongly rejected.

Nevertheless, under the weight of sanctions and escalation with Russia over Ukraine and the unwillingness of the US to lift sanctions on Iran or reach an agreement in the Vienna negotiations, these differences have become irrelevant at present for both countries.

There is also no doubt that despite the conflict of interests, the two countries agree in their view of the regional and international environments. Russia, under President Putin’s rule, seeks to rise again as a competing power in the international system by confirming its presence in global regions. Meanwhile, Iran seeks to prove that it is a regional power with its interests, and the two countries have been keen to establish a relationship between them to serve those aspirations.

Therefore, the US and European sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Ukraine and Syria, and Western sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme and political project were a factor that brought them together.

On the one hand, Russia views Iran as a country with a strategic location whose influence cannot be ignored — whether concerning Russia or its interests in the Arab Gulf region and the Middle East — especially since Russia is facing two strategic threats; the first being the attempt to besiege it by the US through the expansion of the NATO to contain and encircle Russia and control Iran’s power and expansion, and the second is the threat of extremist Islamic organisations that are spreading in most Central Asian countries.

On the other hand, Iran agrees with Russia and shares its concerns in this, as the ideological and sectarian dispute with some extremist Sunni Islamic currents — led by the Islamic State (ISIS) — places it and its interests within the dangers of this organisation, and it is also facing American hegemony and the sanctions imposed from it.

All this explains the two countries’ attempt to confront these threats by agreeing to manage some issues in a way that harms neither of their interests.

Certainly, Washington is aware of the danger of Iranian-Russian cooperation, so the US Department of Defence has previously warned Moscow and Tehran against cooperation during the era of former president Donald Trump. Therefore, the eyes of the whole world are now turning to President Joe Biden and how he will face the upcoming Iranian-Russian-Chinese cooperation.

Will Biden be able to succeed this time, or will he continue to blame his predecessor Trump as usual?

Marwa Al-Shinawy: Assistant Professor at the International American University for Specialised Studies (IAUS)

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