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The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the development of global international cooperation. The bilateral partnership between Russia and Iran, which was hardened by restrictive measures, is returning to its normal course. Visits of high-ranking officials are resumed. So, on August 22, the Iranian Defense Minister, Amir Khatami, arrived in Moscow to hold talks with Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. A few days earlier, on August 18, the head of the Iranian foreign Ministry, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also flew to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The Iranian delegations were among the first to arrive in Moscow after the lifting of quarantine restrictions, which underlines the paramount importance of restoring the former level of cooperation between the two sides.
Foremost, Russia and Iran resume cooperation in the military sphere. The Iranian security Minister held talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, and also visited the VI International Military-Technical Forum “Army 2020”.
“Cooperation between Iran and Russia on defense and military issues is gaining an accelerated pace every day. A new chapter of cooperation between Iran and Russia in the military-technical sphere is on the way,” said Qasem Jalali, the Iranian Ambassador to Russia.
Amir Khatami’s visit took place before the start of the International Army Games, which started on August 23 in conjunction with the forum, and in which the military forces of Iran participate, among others. The Defense Minister met with officers and soldiers that were sent to Russia to participate in competitions between military police units in the section known as “Guards of order”.
The VI Army international games “Army-2020” include 31 international competitions that are held on the territory of 11 countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, Russia and Uzbekistan, as well as Iran. 90 countries, including NATO member countries, were invited to participate.
The military-technical cooperation between Russia and Iran is increasing as a response to US hostile pressure. A new agreement for the purchase of military weapons to Iran is expected to be signed soon. Firstly, the Tehran’s interest is turned to electronic warfare systems, coastal defense systems and S-400 missile system. New contracts for the purchase of such military equipment to Iran will certainly cause further concern from Washington establishment.
The priority of expanding strategic cooperation for the two sides is evidenced by the visit of Iranian foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who flew to Moscow from Ankara, where he discussed with his Turkish counterpart the preparation of an Astana format summit on Syria.
This time, Zarif visited Moscow for the 30th time. He noted that he had probably broken records for the frequency of visits to Russia among all foreign Ministers. His previous visit took place on June 16.
The main purpose of such a soon arrival in Moscow was to hold talks with the Russian Foreign Minister. However, in addition to meeting with Sergey Lavrov, Zarif managed to hold a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom he allegedly passed a message from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, despite the fact that the leaders of the countries had communicated by phone a few days before the meeting. Details of the conversation between Zarif and Putin were not disclosed. Meetings of high-level diplomats with the highest level leaders of another country always reflect the special significance and importance of issues on the agenda of international relations.
Among the questions discussed during the talks of the foreign Ministers in Moscow, there were: the military situation in Syria, a common regional agenda, bilateral cooperation, including the implementation of joint projects in the fields of energy, transport and agriculture, as well as already “traditional” discussions of the preservation of the Iran nuclear deal.
Numerous negotiations have led to positive results. Moscow and Tehran agreed to conclude a new cooperation agreement that will replace the Agreement on the basis of relations and principles of cooperation between the Russian Federation and Iran, signed in 2001 for ten years with automatic extension every five years. The Iranian side expressed its commitment to renew the agreement that should address the current international challenges and threats. Moscow also agreed to the need to update the basis of bilateral cooperation in order to enhance it.
“We agreed today that 20 years is a long time, ” Sergey Lavrov said, answering that during this time there have been” serious, deep changes in the international arena”, new threats have appeared — terrorism, different types of organized crime, climate change and viruses.
Both sides will start working together to develop a new document. The next extension of the agreement from 2001 is planned in 8 months. Even if the new agreement is not developed until then, its extension is not threatened in any case.
One of the main areas of cooperation between Iran and Russia in the international arena is the ongoing struggle to preserve the nuclear deal within the framework of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). After withdrawing from the JCPOA two years ago, the US continues its sanctions policy against Iran. In response to the measures taken by the US, Iran suspended part of its obligations under the JCPOA in two stages. In the summer of 2019, Iran announced that it was beginning the process of enriching uranium at a level higher than the 3.67% required by the nuclear deal.
“Touching this package means absolutely destroying resolution 2231 and the JCPOA,” the Iranian foreign Minister said.
Actually, leading European countries, France and Germany, which make part of JCPOA, do not support the US policy. The European Union expressed regret over Washington’s decision to restore sanctions. For its part, Tehran proclaimed that it would comply with the terms of the nuclear agreement if the European Union compensated for the damage caused by Washington’s sanctions. The EU took several measures to support Iran. For example, Iran was disconnected from the SWIFT international interbank system in 2018. In one year, France, Germany, and the UK officially launched a settlement tool with Iran designed to preserve trade and economic relations and prevent European companies from falling under US anti-Iranian sanctions. The tool for circumventing US sanctions was named INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges).
The European reaction encourages Moscow and Tehran to pursue an active policy aimed at preserving the nuclear deal. This approach is also supported by China.
Iran and Moscow are working closely on a military solution to the settlement in Syria. The both sides proclame the importance of maintaining the “Astana format”, in which Turkey, Iran and Russia take joint actions to resolve the Syrian crisis. Moscow and Tehran emphasise the need to continue cooperation, and the importance of strengthening bilateral contacts on this issue.
Today’s frequency of high-level contacts between the two sides signals an encreasing partnership between Iran and Russia. In the current international situation, it is advantageous for both Tehran and Moscow to inter in a new high level of cooperation as soon as possible, given the growing pressure exerted from across the Atlantic ocean.
The сommitment to update the foundations of cooperation between Iran and Russia is resulted from the changing political environment in the region and the degree of involvement of various actors in the regional agenda. The U.S. is loosing influence and reduces its activity in the region. Israel’s successful foreign policy has led to the normalization of relations with the UAE, which in turn is challenging Saudi Arabia. France is increasing its presence in the region. Turkey continues to pursue an active policy. The configuration of new alliances begins to be viewed. In so doing, these alliances will be very flexible, and there will definitely be more than two of them. Under these conditions, the partnership between Moscow and Tehran will be beneficial.
Today, Iran is experiencing significant economic problems due to the coronavirus pandemic, and they are likely to worsen in the coming months. Meanwhile, neither Russia nor Iran can pursue a less active regional policy. This will create a void that will be quickly filled by other stakeholders in the region.
At the same time, the national interests of Russia and Iran coincide only partially. This is what determines that they are rather tactical partners then strategic allies.
However, today Russia and Iran are not strategic partners, but tactical ones. The main factor linking the two sides is political support in the international arena, which is not backed by the necessary level of economic cooperation. At the same time, interaction in the economic sphere is complicated by the fact that both countries are competitors in the world oil market, as well as potential rivals in the gas sector.
The long-term cooperation between the two sides seems very vague, given the completely different approaches to conducting policy in the Middle East. Russia adheres to a multi-vector policy. Taking advantage of the fact that the US presence in the region is decreasing, it has the opportunity to strengthen its influence. Despite growing ambitions to increase its influence in the region, Russia does not have the necessary capacity to secure its own position in the region. It has no interests in the region other than economic ones, but the investment, technological and infrastructure capabilities of Russia-based corporations are limited. At the same time, the number of threats on its Western border continues to grow. In the Middle East, Russia is not interested in increasing its military presence; it seeks to create a regional political order that will be based on a balance between the various parties. Within this framework, Russia does not play the central role, but represents the final pound, which have the power to restore the necessary balance of regional order in accordance with the situation.This forces Moscow to use multilateral cooperation in order to secure its position as the main external mediator that leads to varying degrees of cooperation with Iran’s rival countries, such as Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, etc. This should not satisfy Iran, which is striving to establish a leading position in the region. On the other hand, the emergence of a dominant force as Iran in the Middle East is also unprofitable for Russia.
Moscow and Tehran maintain close cooperation on issues of a global nature, without engaging areas where their interests are not complementary. At the same time, differences do not prevent the parties from building a fairly stable partnership. The main reason for this stability is the need to counter a common rival. Given the continuing influence of a fairly high level of the United States in the region, as well as on the global stage, bilateral cooperation between Russia and Iran seems to continue to strengthen in the coming years. In addition, there is a development of trilateral cooperation with the main counterweight of the United States, China. So, the intention to hold regular joint exercises with Russia and China was expressed by the Iranian Defense Minister Amir Khatami during his last visit to Moscow.