Russian President Putin’s visit to Iran captured international media’s attention. Representatives of gas exporting nations were to discuss cooperation prospects with global geopolitical landscape in mind. One of the intriguing topics was the areas where Moscow and Tehran sought strengthening of mutual ties. The talks held between the parties demonstrated that they had significant potential in this regard. Geopolitics, economy, energy and fighting terrorism are the areas where both have common interests. In the meantime, it is impossible to ignore some of the present geopolitical factors. Some intriguing aspects of Russian leader’s visit to Tehran become evident once viewed in a broader context.
Energy Projects and Fighting Terrorism: Where is Convergence Line?
Recent Gas Exporting Countries Forum held in Tehran saw developments of global relevance, particularly the extensive discussions between Russia and Iran with respect to expansion of cooperation in different fields. According to the media, both sides agreed to broaden ties on number of fronts, and since key aspect of this subject is associated with geopolitical factors, there is a need for analysis.
While in Tehran President Putin told the journalists, ‘Eurasian Economic Union will consider, in practical terms, options for creation of free trade zone with Iran’ (see: Путин: Россия готова выделить госкредит Ирану на $5 млрд / ТАСС, 23 November 2015). Experts view this information as a factor capable of impacting world geopolitics. The trade area encompassing vast geography could emerge, if that endeavor were to be successful. The countries of South Caucasus and Central Asia could be incorporated here. Moreover, both China and India have a positive stance towards such a project.
In the meantime, a plan to establish a free trade zone between the Eurasian Economic Union and Iran resembles the one between the U.S. and the European Union. It is no secret that some countries in Eurasia are wary of potential trade and economic damage if Washington and Brussels succeed. Turkey is one of them. Can Ankara be supportive of Moscow and Tehran on the establishment of a free trade zone? It is difficult to make a prediction after the recent incident with the downed aircraft. That said, in politics nothing is perpetual.
Another aspect of the problem is associated with the fact that Russia and Iran are developing joint plans in the energy area. In general, the parties did not conceal their intention to increase the trade cooperation, diversify economic ties and make greater use of national currencies (see: Россия и Иран ищут пути для наращивания сотрудничества / ТАСС, 23 November 2015). This has to be a comprehensive arrangement. Tehran also wants to solidify its cooperation with Moscow in nuclear energy sphere, while taking bilateral relations to a new level in terms of quality.
In this context, enhancing industrial cooperation between the two countries was made a priority. Vladimir Putin said in this connection, ‘…For that purpose Russia is ready to provide a $5 billion loan to Iran’ (see: Путин: Россия готова выделить госкредит Ирану на $5 млрд / ТАСС, 23 November 2015). In light of those facts plans of two countries to pursue joint activity on the natural gas front evokes interest. Russian President spoke of the increasing world demand on this type of energy. Worldwide gas consumption should reach 5 trillion CBM by 2040, whereas in 2014 the figure was 3.7 trillion CBM (see: Путин: рост темпов потребления газа в мире требует ввести в строй новые газопроводы / ТАСС, 23 November). The role of the compressed natural gas is also likely to grow. Therefore, President Putin particularly emphasized the potential of both Russia and Iran in implementation of joint projects.
Security Dilemma: Any Solutions?
Russian President specifically mentioned diversification of gas supply routes. He mentioned construction of new pipelines and reiterated eastward preference in the choice of routes. Putting of the issue in such fashion demonstrates geopolitical substance of cooperation between the two countries in the energy area. Moscow has apparently decided to create alternatives to energy projects promoted by the West.
While doing so Moscow also aims to strengthen economic integration across the Eurasian geography. Establishment of free trade zones combined with building extensive system of energy infrastructure conforms to that purpose. Interestingly, Russia allows Iran a special role in this process. The point is that any tangible work in this direction would be inconceivable without recognizing China factor. In this regard, Beijing’s posture and role remains an open issue. In any event, Beijing is unlikely to remain out of bounds should Russia and Iran successfully execute their plans. Only then can we talk about an emergence of cooperation format across a vast geopolitical space alternative to the West. The decision to forge closer ties in terms of combating terrorism is another important aspect.
Syrian and ensuring energy security was among the subjects of discussions between Russia and Iran. The statements that followed demonstrated absence of differences between Moscow and Tehran on this topic (see: Путин и Хаменеи обсудили вопросы энергетического сотрудничества и ситуацию в Сирии / ТАСС, 23 November 2015). Iran’s supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei reiterated that it was unacceptable that external influence be involved in the resolution process in Syria; something that the experts view as a sign of increasing cooperation between Russia and Iran in the Middle East.
This dismisses the possibility of these powers standing in the same coalition with the West in Syria. While meeting the French President Hollande during the latter’s visit to Moscow on 26 November President Putin spoke not of a coalition but ‘possibility of coordinated efforts’ (see: Никакой коалиции, но больше координации”: СМИ о визите президента Франции в Москву / ТАСС, 26 November 2015). According to the French newspaper Le Figaro, ‘Hollande returned from Moscow simply with a promise to step-up cooperation between the Air Forces of two countries’ (see: previous reference).
Thus, Moscow and Tehran demonstrated their determination to forge a coalition with a status equal to the one led by the West. The abovementioned information shows that Putin is committed to pledges made in Iran. This proves that battle for energy security and geopolitical relevance, and the fight against terrorism is going to continue with greater fierceness. Kremlin was not disheartened by the shooting of its plane in the skies above Turkey, while reaction of the Western states showed that they also were not willing to stand down.
This begs the question: Is Russia and Iran seeking geopolitical confrontation with the West. Does not this imply protraction of the conflict in Syria? Those are difficult questions but the chances of this fight to endure are quite high. Therefore, Putin’s Tehran visit should be viewed as a logical continuation of Moscow’s foreign policy course pursued for years.
Furthermore, there is another factor that cannot be dismissed; it is still unclear how successful Russia and Iran would be in realization of their plans. Agreement on lifting the sanctions against Iran reached between Tehran and the Western nations could be one of the reasons. Moscow and Tehran are competitors in supplying natural gas to Armenia and that could also be an issue.
There is no doubt that Iran, with its ancient traditions of statehood would never sacrifice its self-interests, not even when it comes to Russia. It is will continue to explore avenues for cooperation with the West and try to develop its energy engagement with Armenia. Therefore, although there are abundant opportunities for Russia and Iran to be on the same page, presence of certain factors undermining this process are undeniable, and that compounds clear projections regarding the prospects of their cooperation.