Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Tehran today, where he has promised to ease Russia’s ban on exporting nuclear technology to Iran following this year’s agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. Putin, who is in Tehran for the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, is also expected to discuss both countries’ military activities in Syria with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Russia and Iran have enjoyed ever-closer relations in recent years, as both countries seek to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and to assert greater power in their respective regions at the expense of the US and its allies.
Warm relations between Russia and Iran are new. Historically, the countries have usually been rivals. Iran lost its imperial possessions in the Caucasus to Tsarist Russia in the 19th century, and following the Russian Revolution of 1917, resisted Soviet territorial ambitions. Relations warmed somewhat after the collapse of the USSR, and again after Vladimir Putin became president. Even so, traumatic memories of confrontations with a powerful northern neighbor are still fresh in Iran. A 2009 poll by a Russian news agency showed that 95.3 percent of Iranians had a negative view of Russia.
Tsarist Traumas, Soviet Subversion
During the reign of Tsar Peter the Great (1682-1721), Russia competed with Britain throughout much of Asia, driven in part by a dream of securing warm water ports in India. Nineteenth-century relations between Persia and the Russian Empire were defined by Russian military victories and Russian annexation of Persian-dominated territory. The Treaty of Gulistan (1813) ceded Russia several of Persia’s Caucasian provinces in modern-day Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as the exclusive right to maintain warships on the Caspian Sea. The Treaty of Turkmenchai (1828) saw Russia annex Armenian and Azeri territory and assert extraterritorial rights over Iran. Russian domination spread through Iran’s north into the early 20th century, and Russia opposed Iran’s first experiment in democracy by supporting the Qajar despot Muhammad Ali Shah against the Constitutional Revolution of 1905, ultimately shelling the new Iranian parliament in 1908.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, says Abbas Milani, Professor of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, Soviet leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin developed a theory that the East was to be the space of Bolshevik revolution. “The Bolsheviks began to expand their network in Iran, they sent agents to help create the first communist party of Iran, and helped to create the first Soviet Republic of Iran in Gilan province.” Fear of such Soviet subversion, he says, caused Britain to seek strong centralized authority in Iran in the form of Reza Khan, who became Shah in 1925.
In 1941, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, believing Reza Shah to be pro-German, jointly occupied Iran. At the end of the war, Soviet forces refused to withdraw, instead using its troops to support independence movements in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan. “Clearly there were legitimate complaints about the central government and its policies [in those regions], but Josef Stalin wasn’t interested in those complaints, but was using them as a bargaining chip to get his hands on Iranian oil reserves,” Milani says.
At the end of the war, says Mark Katz, Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, Iran had to use diplomatic guile to get the Soviets out. “What ended up happening was that the Shah persuaded the Soviets to leave with the promise of Soviet involvement in the Iranian petroleum sector, which of course, once they left, the Iranian parliament turned down at the Shah’s behest.”
Iran in the Cold War
After the Second World War, the Shah became an ally of the United States. In 1955, fearing Soviet-backed leftist opposition within Iran, he joined the Bagdad Pact (later known as the Central Treaty Organization), a US-backed anti-communist alliance between Britain, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, which was designed to defend against Soviet infiltration of the Middle East.
Soviet attitudes to the Shah varied considerably. “If they thought they could get economic interests, if they thought they could get their long-standing goals in the Middle East actualized,” says Milani, “they took positions sympathetic to the Shah, and when the Shah went on an anti-communist trajectory, they criticized him in strong terms as a lackey of imperialism.”
In a 1973 interview, the Shah described both the inherent interests and dangers involved with relations with the Soviet Union:
With the Soviet Union we have good diplomatic and trade relations. With the Soviet Union we have a gas pipeline...Technicians come to us from the Soviet Union...But the question with the Soviet Union will always be the same, and in negotiating with the Russians, Iran must keep in mind the chief dilemma: to become communist or not? No one can be so crazy or naïve as to deny Russian imperialism...There’s their dream of reaching the Indian Ocean by passing through the Persian Gulf.
Revolution and the “Second Evil”
Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran proclaimed a policy of resistance to both superpowers under the slogan, “Neither East nor West.”
The Soviet Union reacted negatively to the Revolution, but still hoped to turn its anti-American character to Soviet advantage. “It was perceived as an emerging threat because of the religious content,” says Alexander Shumilin of the Moscow Academy of Sciences. “The Soviet Union was always concerned about religious radicalism.”
But despite Ayatollah Khomeini’s denunciation of the Soviet Union as “the second evil” after the United States, he says, the Soviet leadership presented the revolution as anti-American, and as an indication of the United States’ policy failures in the Middle East and in the wider world. The Soviet Union was the first country to recognize the provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan.
As with the rest of the world, Katz says, the revolution caught the Soviet Union off guard. “There was hope in the early stages of the revolution that, like so many revolutions in the Third World, the downfall of a pro-Western government would lead to the rise of a pro-Soviet one. The trouble was that unlike Arab countries, which had no real experience of Russia, and could persuade themselves that Russia was their friend, Iran had no such illusions.”
As a member of the clergy, Milani says, Khomeini had made clear his anti-communism and fear of Soviet atheism. While he had a pragmatic understanding that Russia could be used against the United States, he says, as soon as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Khomeini was among the first leaders to support Shiite Muslims fighting the occupation. Two million Afghan refugees made their way to Iran as refugees during the war.
The Soviet Union feared that Iran would export its revolution to Muslims in the Soviet Union. “This was perceived as a real threat,” Shumilin says. Khomeini, he says, did try to export his radical Shiite ideology to the Soviet republics of Central Asia, including Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and other southern, Muslim-majority republics, where there were some Shia communities, but his efforts were not successful because Sunni majorities in those republics “were not so sensitive to the Shia propaganda.”
In the years immediately following the revolution, the Soviet Union retained a loyal Iranian communist party, Tudeh. The Soviet Union, Milani says, dictated policies to Tudeh, and was its primary source of logistical and financial support, and ideological training.
Khomeini, Katz says, saw Tudeh as a threat. “The very fact that they were such a big party bothered him. It was one more sign of Moscow’s hostile intentions that this party existed at all. In his mind, it was him or them.” While Tudeh initially collaborated with the new regime to suppress its leftist rivals, in 1982 the Islamic Republic arrested over 5000 of the party’s members, executed many, and outlawed the party.
The Soviet Union further undermined relations by siding with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. “Saddam Hussein, Arab nationalist, was a guy the Russians had a lot of experience with,” Katz says. The Soviet Union, he says, feared the rise of Islamism affecting their interests in the Middle East, and valued what it perceived as Saddam’s secular nationalism.
“The Soviet Union behaved the same way almost everyone else behaved—opportunistically,” Milani says. While the Soviets were unwilling to abandon Saddam Hussein, he says, they also saw an opportunity to sell arms to Iran. “They played both sides of the fence, and they didn’t give a darn about the cost of the war to the Iraqi and Iranian people. They helped arm both sides and they milked both sides to the end.”
In 1989, with the Iran-Iraq War over and the Cold War coming to an end, Khomeini sent a now-famous letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, advising him to study Islam. “He said that the Soviet Union was going to collapse, and that the only solution was to send some clergy from Iran to teach them the ways of Islam,” Milani says. Khomeini’s gesture can be read as one of frustration with rapprochement between Cold War camps, Shumilin says, but since Gorbachev’s policy was addressed to global issues, Russian-American relations, and Russian-European relations, he politely ignored Khomeini.
When the Soviet Union did collapse in December 1991, Shumilin says, Iran had just witnessed a moment of American triumph in Operation Desert Storm, during which U.S. troops had gathered on the soil of Persian Gulf neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Gorbachev had already withdrawn troops from Afghanistan, but ascendant forces in that country were unfriendly to Iran. While Iran greeted the collapse of the “second evil” ideologically, he says, it did little for Iran geopolitically.
1990s: Relations on the Rise
By the 1990s, most factors undermining relations between Moscow and Tehran had evaporated. Not only had communism collapsed, but Khomeini had died in 1989. While Khomeini had denounced the Iranian nuclear program started by the Shah, Milani says, Russia became a critical contributor to the nuclear project when Iran’s leaders decided to re-launch it. Russia replaced the Europeans who had developed the project under the Shah, and began to build the Bushehr nuclear reactor. “Iran became dependent on Russian technology,” he says.
With the ideological constraints of Khomeinist fervor fading and communism no longer a factor, realpolitik defined the relationship more than ever. When Boris Yeltsin sent troops into the breakaway Muslim-majority republic of Chechnya in the Russian Caucasus in 1994, Iran mostly stayed quiet.
“It was an ambivalent stance on the Iranian side,” Shumilin says. “On one hand, the Iranian leadership had to proclaim solidarity with the Muslim struggle for independence, but on the other hand, they were Sunni radical Muslims—the rivals of Iran—and the Chechen leaders were supported by the Saudis and the Gulf monarchies more than other Muslim countries.” Iran, he says, adopted a cautious policy throughout the First Chechen War, and also the Second Chechen War, which began in 1999.
Unlike the Saudis, Katz says, Iran did not support Chechen independence because Iran was susceptible to secessionist nationalism on its own territory in the same region. “They became more concerned about their own Azeris, their own Kurds. They felt that secession in Chechnya would set a bad precedent. This is one of the reasons why, in the 1990s in particular, Russian-Iranian relations were so good.”
Throughout the 1990s, Shumilin says, economics became the determining factor in Russia-Iran relations, but Iran’s ongoing standoff with the West complicated economic relations. He notes in particular the 1995 agreement between U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, by which Russia agreed to limit arms trade and nuclear assistance to Iran. It was from this period, he says, that Russia began to pose as a mediator between the West and Iran. Some in Iran, Katz says, took the agreement as proof that Russia would sell Iran out for the right price from America. The US offered Russia investment and business development assistance, as well as technical cooperation, particularly with regard to joint space projects.
Putin and Khamenei: Partners in Style
In October, 2000, just over a year into his first presidency, Vladimir Putin repudiated the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, and renewed Russian arms sales to Iran, as well as Russia’s commitment to completing the Bushehr reactor. In 2001, Mohammad Khatami became the first Iranian president to visit Russia since the Iranian Revolution. But while Russia had related well to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as president, Katz says, “They didn’t like Khatami, because he seemed willing to pursue good relations with the west.”
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, Katz says, Putin saw him first as a godsend, but later as a clown. “He was certainly anti-Western, but he was not pro-Russian. He was a real Iranian nationalist. The chemistry between Ahmadinejad and Putin was quite negative.” Russia, he says, came to regard Ahmadinejad as ungrateful after it immediately recognized his second term as president following the 2009 Green Movement protests. “How did Ahmadinejad thank Russia for its support? He called for Russia to provide compensation to Iran for its occupation during World War II. The Russians were mightily offended.”
Putin has publicly rebuked Ahmadinejad for his irresponsible remarks. In a roundtable interview with pro-Kremlin journalists for the Kremlin-supported channel Russia Today, he chided an interviewer who said that Ahmadinejad’s infamous comment about wiping Israel off the map had been misquoted:
It doesn’t quite matter whether it’s a proper quote or not. It means it’s best to avoid a wording that could be improperly quoted or could be interpreted differently.
He also described threats that Israel could be destroyed as “absolutely unacceptable.” Nevertheless, he went on to express admiration for Iran:
I have a great respect for Iran, and a great interest in it. This is a great country indeed...They have their own understanding of their position both in the region and in the world, and that’s something you have to respect. Iranians are very smart and cunning politicians, and to a certain degree they have exploited their confrontation with the United States...they are extremely crafty in this, and they do it to tackle their domestic issues.
Milani observes similarities between Putin’s leadership style and Khamenei’s. “Putin’s form of authoritarianism, and his Russophilic ideas—that there is something unique about Russia and that the West is decadent—fit nicely with Khamenei and his anti-Western ideology.” Every time Putin becomes more assertive against the West, Milani says, Iranian hardliners are tempted to use the Russian card against the US. Others in the regime caution that Russians, and Putin in particular, are not reliable.
It remains to be seen whether technological collaboration, along with overlapping objectives in Syria and antipathy to the US, will be enough to cement a new relationship.
This is an edited version of an article first published on July 28, 2014.