20-year Cooperation Treaty between Iran and Russia: Bilateral Strategic Partnership or Disappointing Agreement
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Following the topic of the 25-year Iran-China Cooperation Agreement, there was a discussion on a comprehensive long-term strategic treaty between Tehran and Moscow. This was not good news for the White House and its strategy of maximum pressure.
In a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, had agreed to review the 20-year cooperation agreement. The question is why such a contract has been concluded at the present time. Some critics believe that before concluding such an agreement with China and negotiating a 20-year contract extension with Russia, Iran was cooperating with these two countries in a balanced way, and it was logical that if a contract was needed, it should have been concluded for two or three years. However, the regional and international situation has become very difficult for Iran. Factors, such as the Syrian crisis, the pressure of economic and arms sanctions and the issue of a nuclear deal, have led Iran to take the risk of concluding long-term bilateral cooperation with Russia and China.
Before raising the issue, it is necessary to make a brief reference to the content of the 20-year agreement between Iran and Russia in 2001. The treaty is entitled “The Treaty on the Basis of Mutual Relations and Principles of Cooperation between Iran and Russia”, which was signed on March 12, 2001 in Moscow in the presence of the Presidents of the two countries (Khatami and Putin). The term of this agreement, which was also approved by the parliaments of the two countries, was originally ten years, but it has twice been extended for five years after the end of the term. Article 21 of the treaty states, “This treaty shall be concluded for a period of ten years, and if neither party notifies the other party in writing of its intention to terminate the treaty in writing at least one year before its expiry, it is automatically extended for the next five years.” This treaty contains an introduction and twenty-one articles. Article 6 of the treaty refers to cooperation between the two countries in the field of energy, including nuclear energy, and states, “Nuclear energy will help build nuclear power plants, industry, science, technology, agriculture and public health.”
Other sections mention cooperation between the two countries in various fields of economy, energy transportation, politics and security. The treaty was seen as a diplomatic turning point at the summit, which was almost the first meeting at such level in 40 years. The agreement was opposed at the time and provoked a negative reaction from the Americans. “Some may like the agreement and some may not,” said General Leonid Ivashov, a senior Russian Defense Ministry official at the time. “Our countries will work for our interests.”
The deal at the time was also a signal to the U.S. administration of George W. Bush that Iran and Russia intend to further limit U.S. influence in the region. “We are particularly concerned about the sale of advanced conventional weapons or sensitive technologies, such as nuclear technology,” said Richard Butcher, a State Department spokesman at the time.
Naturally, extending this treaty or changing it into a comprehensive long-term strategic agreement will provoke a negative reaction from the United States yet again, and such a reaction has already been the case with the 25-year cooperation document between Iran and China. Since the United States basically seeks political and economic isolation of Iran, any cooperation of Iran with any country is in violation of this policy in Washington. The White House has sought to weaken Iran’s economy over the past few years by pursuing a policy of “maximum pressure.” For this reason, any loophole to get out of this situation undermines this U.S. policy.
Therefore, one of the main reasons for concluding this agreement could be that U.S. pressure has led Iran to embrace China and Russia. Since the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, Tehran has faced a severe economic crisis and has been forced to seek support of other nations to escape the crisis. In its turn, Washington sought to extend and even increase sanctions at the UN Security Council as the UN arms embargo expires in October 2021. As a result, Tehran has approached Beijing and Moscow and tried to respond to Washington’s pressure with some tactics. Iran has often said that it has other options if the United States does not show readiness. With the pressure that has been put on Iran due to sanctions and the COVID pandemic, Iran is nevertheless ready to take risks, such as talks with the United States.
Given the long-term dealings with Russia and China at the same time, Iran seems to be willing to change its foreign policy while seeking a coalition against Washington’s political and economic pressure. However, Iran participated in an unprecedented naval exercise with Russia and China in 2019, and it seems amid the new developments that Iran has finally decided to go “East.” Contrary to the draft agreement reached with China, the content of the updated 20-year agreement with Russia is still unclear.
Meanwhile, Kazem Jalali, Iran’s ambassador to Russia called on China and Russia to form an anti-sanctions club with Iran to withstand pressure from Washington. Sharing the concept, he said it was time to build a coalition of countries affected by sanctions and that there would be many powerful countries with developed economies among its members: Russia, China and Iran. However, some argue that such a unilateral foreign policy may in the end be restricted for Iran which only managed to establish relations with the East and the West through a nuclear deal five years ago. The easiest way to avoid sanctions is to start negotiations to update the nuclear deal, but Iran seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
The most important issues that Iran and Russia seem to be pursuing include the following:
1. Preventing the spread of arms sanctions
Russia is one of the countries that opposes the U.S. request for an extension of the UN arms embargo on Iran, which is scheduled to end in October this year. U.S. government officials have tried to persuade other countries to impose arms embargoes on Iran, but have so far failed. Iran’s ambassador to Russia told a Russian newspaper that Iran was interested in buying new weapons from Russia “to increase its defense capabilities.” Buying and selling Russian and Chinese weapons to Iran after its legal deadline can be economically viable for Russia and China. It remains to be seen what weapons Russia and China will offer to Iran if sanctions are not renewed. It should be noted, however, that the two sides are considering selling arms to Iran.
2. Nuclear deal with Iran
Perhaps, the most important issue to be addressed in the extension of the Iran-Russia agreement is the nuclear deal. With the withdrawal of the United States from this agreement, the conditions for the resumption of negotiations to reach a collective agreement have become a little more difficult. Meanwhile, Russia and China and, to some extent, the European side have shown a desire to maintain the nuclear deal. The Russians seem to be seeking to preserve the nuclear deal because they know the best possible way is to control Iran in this case and to use the Iran card to play the United States on regional (Ukraine or Syria) and global (sanctions and balance of power) issues.
The Iranian government believes that Russia’s and China’s opposition to a resolution against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and their strong opposition to U.S. efforts to extend the UN Security Council arms embargo indicate “strong ties between Iran, Russia and China and their resistance to U.S. unilateralism.” Russian officials said the nuclear deal was the most important achievement of multilateral diplomacy and stressed that there was still a chance to preserve it. Therefore, the 20-year agreement between Iran and Russia, according to the Iranian government, can lead to long-term Russian support for Iran, and most important is the use of Russia’s UN Security Council veto against the United States. However, it should be noted that the use of such vetoes for Russia will not be without advantages.
3. The Syrian crisis
The Syrian crisis is another concern of the diplomatic leaders of Iran and Russia, which is both a focus of cooperation and disagreement between the two countries. On the one hand, the victories achieved in Syria with the help of Iran and Russia have kept Bashar al-Assad in power so far, on the other hand, but the future of Syria will undergo changes that may create some differences in Iran and Russia. It seems that one of the important issues in extending the 20-year contract is the future of Syria and Iran’s role in it because Iran is worried about not having a serious presence in the political future of Syria. Evidence shows that Russia, the United States and Israel have reached agreement in Syria, and this indicates that in the 20-year agreement Iran seeks to emphasize its role alongside Russia in Syria’s future. On the Iranian side, there are also concerns that a Russia-U.S.-Israel-Saudi alliance will be formed not in the long term, leaving Iran alone in the region. Therefore, before achieving such a goal, Iran started working on it, seeking to maintain Russia’s support in this matter with a long-term strategic agreement.
It should be noted that although Moscow insists that it went to Syria only to fight terrorism, it is trying to change the regime and the security systems and install more loyalists in the Syrian army. (One of the most important Syrian figures promoted by the Russian media is General Soheil al-Hassan, who leads the Tiger forces in the Syrian army. In many ways, this person is considered the ideal person for Russia’s interests in the future after Assad.) It is possible that Assad could stay in power by changing the Syrian economy and security services, but Russia knows that keeping Assad in the presidency is of no use because Europe does not support reconstruction projects in Syria with Assad. Russia and Iran disagree on Syria’s political future, and Putin backs Assad as long as Russia’s interests are met and in line with its foreign policy and in the future, he is looking for a replacement for Assad who may be different from what Iran thinks.
In the end, the scales seem to be heavy for Russia and China. (Perhaps, it is difficult to point out the win-win situation in both contracts with Iran). Because Iran has decided to make such an important decision in the context of the economic and political crisis that its internal and regional consequences are unknown. Whether all the provisions of these agreements become operational depends on the international agreement with Iran. The most important thing is mutual trust between the two parties to the contract. Iran’s experience in nuclear cooperation with Russia in the previous agreement is not a good sign for concluding a long-term agreement and whether the economic and political context inside Iran is ready for such a thing or not.
Russia seems to have the upper hand in this agreement. On the other hand, both Russia and China are concerned about a shift in Iran’s foreign policy toward the West. Therefore, with this long-term contract, they can somehow control Iran.
Given the special relationship between Russia and Israel, this agreement will not affect Israel, because Israel is Putin’s red line and it is unlikely that the issue of Israel will be raised in the forthcoming agreement. Apart from the presence of Russians in Israel and Jews in Russia, the personal relationship between Putin and Netanyahu is very close, and Putin will not allow Russian citizens to be threatened in Israel. Israeli airstrikes against Iran’s positions in Syria, as well as Russia’s request for Iran to withdraw from the Golan Heights, illustrate this point. Regarding the change of world order, it should be said that both Russia and China seek to change the balance of power and usher in the multipolar world. But the most important point is that the plans and views of Russia and China, as well as Iran, on this issue and the change of balance at the international level are different, and each pursues its own interests. There does not seem to be a strategic alliance between Iran, Russia and China in the long-term. Iran must first be able to form a coalition at the regional level and then pursue this goal at the level of the international system. Russia is more likely to join the U.S.-centric Saudi-Israeli regional network.
PhD student in Political Science and Regional Studies, State University of Saint Petersburg, Russia
Blog: Aref Bijan's Blog