In the latest sign of warming relations between Iran and Russia, President Vladimir Putin arrived in Tehran today to participate in a trilateral summit with Iran and Azerbaijan on regional cooperation and held meetings with Iran’s leadership to discuss ways of boosting bilateral ties between Moscow and Tehran. While diplomatic meetings between Russian and Iranian leaders are now routine, it is the first trip by a high-level Russian delegation to Iran after President Donald Trump last month decertified the 2015 nuclear deal, imposed new sanctions on Iran, and called for international efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic. In his meetings today with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, however, the Russian leader made it clear that Moscow would not side with Washington to address international concerns about Iran's missile activity or regional behavior. Quite the opposite, Putin pledged to continue cooperation with Iran in Syria, stressed he will oppose U.S. “unilateral change” to the nuclear deal, and signed multi-billion-dollar energy deals with Iran.
According to the Iranian press, Khamenei told the visiting Russian president that the two countries should cooperate more closely to “isolate America,” stabilize Syria, and expand bilateral defense and trade ties. The supreme leader emphasized that Moscow and Tehran proved through their cooperation in Syria that they “can achieve common goals under difficult circumstances.” But Khamenei cautioned that the United States and its allies are still “plotting” against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies, and stressed that Iran and Russia must continue to coordinate their positions to “completely resolve the Syrian issue.” Khamenei also described Putin as a “strong and determined” leader and pointed out that Russia’s cooperation with Iran in Syria has helped Moscow reassert its influence in the Middle East.
Putin reportedly told Khamenei that Russia considers Iran a “strategic partner” and stressed that Moscow is keen to further expand economic, defense and diplomatic relations with Tehran. “We showed to the world that we can resolve key issues in our region without the need for transregional countries,” the Iranian media quoted Putin as saying.
Economic and trade ties also loomed large during Putin’s visit. Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft and the National Iranian Oil Company today signed a roadmap to construct joint oil and gas projects that would require up to $30 billion of investment. Putin also said at a press conference in Tehran that the construction of a rail link along the North-South Transport Corridor connecting Russia to India through Iran and Azerbaijan is now complete - adding that a number of containers from India have already reached Russia. Furthermore, the Russian leader said that his country is keen to export gas to norther Iran through Azerbaijan. The three countries also discussed a plan to build a railway line passing through Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan that could link Asia to Europe. Khamenei also discussed with Putin the possibility of connecting Iran’s Chabahar port – which is being developed in cooperation with India – to the Russian port city of St. Petersburg. The supreme leader further urged that the central banks of the two countries use national currencies for their trade transactions instead of dollar in order to “neutralize” U.S. sanctions.
Talks about the future of the Iran nuclear deal took the center stage during Putin’s visit. The Russian leader said Moscow opposes “any unilateral change” to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear agreement Iran signed with the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France in July 2015.
Last month, Trump decertified the Iran deal and warned that he will terminate it if Congress fails to fix its loopholes. Washington wants to end the so-called sunset provisions in the JCPOA that allow Iran to resume enrichment after a decade. It also wants Tehran to halt its ballistic missile work and give international inspectors access to its military sites – demands Iranian leaders have repeatedly rejected.
In his meetings with Iranian leaders today, Putin made it clear that Moscow sides with Tehran rather than Washington on those issues. He said Russia does not want to link the nuclear accord with Iran’s defense capabilities or regional actions.
Since the lifting of nuclear-related international sanctions on Iran in January 2016, the volume of trade between Russia and Iran has nearly doubled. But the aggregate trade turnover was still a meagre $2 billion in 2016, and Iran does not rank in Russia’s top 15 trading partners. While both Moscow and Tehran have pledged to boost bilateral trade to $10 billion in the next two or three years, the realization of it depends on several factors – particularly on the two countries’ relations with the Trump administration. If Washington, for example, decides to reinstate pre-2015 sanctions on Iran, many Russian energy giants and arms manufactures may be reluctant to invest in and do business with Iran. A potential U.S. designation of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” will also complicate Iran-Russia trade ambitions. This is because the I.R.G.C. and its front companies permeate all segments of the Iranian economy and industrial sector, and it is almost impossible to do business with Iran without the I.R.G.C.’s involvement in some capacity.
Furthermore, despite close cooperation in Syria, a history of distrust and divergence of interests are likely to continue to hinder the two countries’ tactical cooperation from translating into a strategic relationship. Iranian media often questions Moscow’s sincerity. When officials of the two countries announced the start of their negotiation over a $10-billion arms deal, a number of Iranian parliamentarians, analysts and media outlets expressed doubt – citing that Moscow delayed the delivery of S-300 missiles for many years. Reformists in Iran are particularly suspicious of Russia and often point out that Moscow sided with Washington to punish Tehran economically when it suited Russia’s interests. However, as the Trump administration is ratcheting up pressure on Iran, there seems to be less resistance in Iran to moving closer to Russia and relying on Moscow to minimize the impact of new U.S. sanctions.