TEHRAN, Iran — After weeks of heated campaigning and controversial televised debates, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani managed to secure a second term in the May 19 presidential elections. Now, with electoral passions considerably eased, the question of possible change in both Iran's domestic and foreign policy is being seriously raised, leading many observers to debate Rouhani’s priorities and approaches in his second term.
When it comes to foreign policy, most of the discussions have been focused on the prospect of Iran’s relations with the West, and particularly the future of the nuclear deal under the new regional and international circumstances. However, another very important but highly overlooked issue is that of the future of Iran-Russia relations, which have in past years become a determinative factor in shaping developments in the Middle East — especially in Syria.
In analyzing the Iran-Russia relationship, it could be said that considering the current trend in relations as well as the official positions adopted regarding their bilateral ties, the next four years will be a period in which we will likely see an even closer partnership.
On the bilateral level, the two sides have been quick in clarifying their prospects in the coming years. Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first world leaders who congratulated Rouhani on his “convincing victory” in the May 19 elections, reaffirming his readiness to develop the Tehran-Moscow partnership on bilateral and international issues. A week later, on May 27, the two leaders held a phone conversation in which they discussed a range of issues, from implementation of the nuclear deal to the situation in Syria. One particularly important part of the conversation was Putin’s underlining of Moscow’s commitment to further develop cooperation with Iran in the nuclear field on the basis of international law. On his part, Rouhani welcomed nuclear cooperation between the two countries, also stressing Iran’s willingness to also engage in closer cooperation in the fields of infrastructure, industry, energy and banking. He additionally stressed the necessity of strengthening the Tehran-Moscow partnership in Syria.
In terms of motives to strengthen ties with Russia, it could be argued that after having seen US President Donald Trump’s increasingly confrontational policies toward Tehran, which has put the future of the nuclear deal in danger, Rouhani has come to the conclusion that normalization with the West is a rather hard task, especially while Trump is collaborating with Iran’s regional rivals. As such, Tehran needs to strengthen its current partnerships in order to balance the situation.
Furthermore, contrary to some previous suspicions about Russia’s “real” game plan in the Syrian arena, Moscow has so far treated Iran as a real partner and respected its fundamental interests in Syria. Meanwhile, Russia’s neutral approach toward the Iranian presidential elections removed some concerns that Moscow might take the side of the conservatives or even meddle in the electoral process. Therefore, it seems that Rouhani now sees an even more reliable partner in Russia than before, and this is why we should anticipate warmer Tehran-Moscow ties in his second term.
Indeed, the fact of the matter is that the two countries have already started the process of enhancing cooperation. On March 28, right after Rouhani’s state visit to Moscow, some reports were published indicating that the two sides were planning to sign a memorandum on peaceful nuclear cooperation, which would include provisions on “transportation of nuclear materials, coordination of joint activities and rules.” In the economic sphere, Russia’s Energy Minister Alexander Novak announced June 2 that Tehran and Moscow had signed a “revised” oil-for-goods deal, which had previously stirred controversy.
Iran-Russia cooperation in Syria has been elevated to a new level after Russia formally named Iran as one of the three peacekeeping forces in Syria within the framework of its plan to establish “de-escalation zones” in the war-torn country.
Military cooperation aside, it was announced May 18 that Iran and Russia have taken the first step toward integrating their bank card systems, a move that could potentially facilitate tourism and micro-trade activities. At the same time, the two countries have reached agreements on facilitating visa requirements.
These two latter developments are of great significance because they indicate that for the first time in the history of their relationship, Iran and Russia are trying to break their sole concentration on cooperation at the governmental level and are becoming aware of the importance of people-to-people interactions. This could provide a kind of “social infrastructure” for their partnership, helping to at least ease some of the mutual mistrust.
Cooperation at the multilateral level is also becoming an increasingly important aspect of Iran-Russia relations. On May 29, Kazakh Minister of Economy Timur Suleimenov announced that the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) will finalize a free-trade pact with Iran by the end of 2017. Subsequent to these remarks, Iranian Minister of Communications and Information Technology Mahmoud Vaezi traveled to St. Petersburg on June 1 to discuss the pact with EEU officials. Such a deal could be regarded as the first step for Iran to have a role in Russia’s ambitious plan for an integrated economic zone in Eurasia.
Enhancing cooperation within the framework of the International North-South Transport Corridor has been another indication of more active Iran-Russia cooperation. Among the corridor's objectives are for it to connect Russia to India through Azerbaijan and Iran, thereby facilitating trade between all parties involved.
Another multilateral framework with the presence of both Iran and Russia is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which Iran is an observer state. Ahead of the annual June 8-9 SCO summit in Kazakhstan, Russia declared that Iran should be the next state to become a full member of the organization.
This increasingly growing multilateral dimension, together with the abovementioned economic and social cooperation, are important and new elements in the Iran-Russia relationship. If realized, they could elevate the nature of Tehran-Moscow relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership.