Relations with Russia have always been one of the more complicated aspects of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. Following the Iranian Revolution, a fledgling Islamic Republic under severe threat from the United States began cultivating closer relations with Moscow in the late 1980s—even before the Soviet Union’s final collapse—and continued doing so after the Soviet Union had given way to the Russian Federation. Yet, while the Islamic Republic has a clear interest in positive relations with Russia, Iranian policymakers have always been skeptical that their Russian counterparts really welcome Iran’s emergence as an independent regional power; they have also watched Moscow periodically compromise relations with Tehran to curry favor with Washington.
Last week, as the Ukraine crisis heated up, both Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and President Hassan Rohani’s chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, made statements—see here and here—pointedly noting that Iran would be a reliable energy supplier for Europe. It strikes us as tactically smart, especially in the context of the Ukraine crisis, for Tehran to highlight its interest in accessing European energy markets—and, in the process, to underscore for Moscow and others that Iran has options for promoting its economic and strategic goals. After all, if Iran’s relations with the West improve, Russia may have to “work harder”—that is, provide more tangible payoffs to Tehran—to maintain the kind of relationship with the Islamic Republic that Moscow wants.
But there is also a risk that Iran could be perceived as putting itself forward to help the West—against Russia—on a matter that Moscow considers a vital interest. For an important analysis of Washington’s refusal to respect post-Soviet Russia’s core security interests, see here for an interview with the brilliant Russia scholar Steve Cohen. (The interview with Cohen starts 4:53 into the linked video, after an interview with former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.)
So how will the Ukraine crisis affect the Kremlin’s calculations about Russia’s Iran policy? On this point, we want to highlight a provocative analytic piece, see here, published last week by Fyodor Lukyanov. (Lukyanov—among other things, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and a member of the Russian Council for International Affairs—is, in our experience, an exceptionally interesting analyst of Russian Middle East policy.) We also encourage all of you to weigh in with your views.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett