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Russian Military Alliance With Iran Improbable Due To Diverging Interests

The Georgia crisis and the U.S. deal with Poland to locate part of its missile-defense system on Polish soil have revived a Cold War mentality among some observers in both Russia and the West. Even though Russian and U.S. officials have denied any intention of starting another Cold War, some analysts are already predicting a new polarization of the world.

One such analyst is Rajab Safarov, director of the Center for Contemporary Iranian Studies in Moscow. Two weeks ago, he published an article in the Russian pro-government newspaper "Vremya novostei" setting out some ideas that, if implemented, would dramatically change the geopolitical and geoeconomic balance of power in the Middle East and beyond.

Safarov argued that Russia has a multitude of means to counter the pressure Western countries are exerting on it since its military operation in Georgia. Russia, he added, should rely on those countries, including Syria and Cuba, that effectively oppose the expansion of the United States and its satellites. "Moscow should strengthen its military-technical ties with Syria and start negotiations on the reestablishment of its military presence in Cuba," he argued.

However, Safarov went on to say that none of these measures would prove more effective than would forming a political-military alliance with Iran, which "could change the entire geopolitical picture of the contemporary world." Such an alliance, he argued, could lead to the establishment of at least two military bases on Iranian soil, one in the north of the country in the province of East Azerbaijan, and the other on the 130-kilometer-long island of Qeshm, strategically located in the Strait of Hormuz.

Safarov noted that a military base in northern Iran would provide Moscow with the opportunity to monitor "military activities in the Azerbaijan Republic, Georgia and Turkey, and share this information with Iran," while the one on Qeshm Island would allow Russia to "monitor the activities of the United States and NATO in the Persian Gulf...and stop suspicious ships and inspect their cargo, which the Americans have been cynically doing in that region for many decades."

In exchange for the establishment of its military bases, Moscow could provide Iran with modern air-defense and missile-defense systems, as well as the advanced S-400 Triumf (SA-21, NATO codename Growler) surface-to-air missile system with a range of up to 400 kilometers.

Safarov further proposed that, in order to cement the strategic alliance with Iran, Moscow should increase cooperation with Tehran in all spheres, including nuclear energy, and that the two countries, which between them possess 60 percent of the world's proven natural-gas reserves, should form a gas cartel similar to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). "Even small-scale coordination in terms of a single pricing policy," he pointed out, could force half of the world, or at least all of Europe, "to moderate its ambitions and treat gas exporters in a friendlier manner."

Moscow should also, according to Safarov, pave the way for Iran to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In addition to placing "Iran under the collective umbrella of the SCO, including under the protection of such nuclear states as Russia and China," this would pave the way for the establishment of the "powerful Russia-Iran-China axis" that the United States and its allies fear so much.

Divergence Of Fundamental Interests

To date, there is no indication that Moscow is moving in the direction that Safarov advocates. It is possible that he is putting out feelers to test the reaction of the Russian and Iranian elites, as well as those in the West, about such a sea change in the balance of power in the Middle East and beyond. So far, there has been no reaction on the part of either Iranian or Russian officials.
Iranian officials have expressed frustration at Russian delays in finishing the Bushehr nuclear plant.

However, there is no tangible sign that the world is moving toward a new ideologically-based Cold War in the era of globalization that has gained considerable momentum in the last decade or so. Even China, its socialist political system notwithstanding, has made substantial progress towards liberalizing its economy. For Russia to adopt the confrontational policy vis-a-vis the West outlined by Safarov, it would have to reverse the process of its integration with the world economy. Therefore, it is unlikely that a new Cold War is imminent.

The idea of a political-military alliance, as floated by Safarov, seems equally unlikely to come to fruition given the divergence of geopolitical and economic interests between the two countries. Iran aspires to be a dominant force in the Persian Gulf region, indeed, some Iranian officials claim it is one already. Article 146 of the Iranian Constitution forbids the establishment of any foreign military base in the country, even for peaceful purposes. Besides, permitting Russia to establish military bases in Iran in exchange for protecting Iran against likely attacks by the United States, Israel, or any other country would be a blatant strategic error and would reduce the country to a protectorate of Russia.

Moreover, there is an unwritten law in Iran that denies any official the right even to float the idea of a foreign military presence in Iran. Even Mohammad Reza Shah, in spite of signing a number of military agreements with the United States, would not consider the establishment of a U.S. military base on Iranian soil.

The notion of Iran allowing Russia to establish a military presence on its territory -- especially in Iranian Azerbaijan, where the Soviet Union, backing the Azerbaijani Democratic Party, set up a client state in the northwestern part of Iran in 1945 -- flies in the face of historical experience. As well as setting a landmark in the early stages of the Cold War, this left an indelible mark on the Iranian national psyche.

From an economic viewpoint, any form of military alliance with Russia would not simply undermine Iran's independence and sovereignty, but also deprive the country of access to Western technology, investment, and markets. By contrast, it has long been official Iranian policy to look east, particularly to India and China, for diversifying its strategic alliances. Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on occasions, endorsed such a policy.

Establishing a Russian naval base on Qeshm Island would satisfy the long-standing desire of Russia since Peter the Great to gain access to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. But strategically, a Russian military base on the shores of the Persian Gulf would contradict Iran's long-standing goal of establishing itself as the major power in the region. Iran vehemently opposes the presence of any foreign naval presence in the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman and looks back with regret to the era of U.S. "Twin Pillar" policy, when the United States had an over-the-horizon naval presence in the region.

The notion of a Russian security umbrella over Iran is like the Sword of Damocles. As well as providing security, it could also increase the possibility of an attack, even a nuclear one. Iran's current so-called strategic alliance with Russia is a marriage of convenience. In light of the isolation that has resulted primarily from its contested nuclear program, Iran needs Russia.

At the same time, it is fully aware that in the final analysis, in spite of overtures and apparent opposition to punitive sanctions on Iran, Moscow endorsed the last three Security Council resolutions against Tehran. Russia did so because it is in its interests to ensure that Iran does not gain access to nuclear weapons. The delay under various pretexts in completing the construction of the Bushehr power plant is another example of Russia's wavering commitment to Iran. As the conservative Iranian daily "Jomhuri-yi Islami" wrote in an editorial on March 12, 2007, "Russia is not a reliable partner for our nuclear activity."

At a time when Western countries are trying to rally world opinion against Russian aggression in Georgia and its other imputed territorial ambitions, Iran could become a credible, if unexpected ally. However, history bears witness that ever since the mid-18th century, Russia has sought to exploit Iran's weaknesses. It will therefore take a fundamental change in Moscow's approach to alter Iranian perceptions of Russia's motives.