Russia and Iran Have Shared Goals, but an Axis Is Not Assured

Developments in the Middle East have brought on fears of a Russia-Iran “Axis of Evil.” Their partnership in the fight against ISIS in Syria has to a degree fueled the hysteria. The Iraqi government, having received support from both powers, is offered as further evidence. There is now an air corridor through Iran and Iraq to ship supplies to Syria. It is accurate to suggest they are in close coordination in some theaters of conflict. Russia and Iran do collude to achieve shared geopolitical goals. Generally, they relate to the fight against Islamic extremism, or what both consider U.S. aggression. 

Russia and Iran could also bolster ties by strengthening economic relations. The toughest sanctions on Iran were enacted in 2009 by the UNSC, under pressure from the White House. Iran became a semi-closed economy, cutoff from the global financial system. To build a strong foundation for a long-term friendship, the two will have to find a way to cooperate in the market place, not compete. Iran’s return to global trade may produce consequences they both would prefer to downplay. 

Iran and Russia are rich in resources. They export large quantities of natural gas to generate income. The sanctions regime brought Iranian gas offline. Restricted trade especially affected Iran’s fuel exports to the EU. In 2009, imports from Iran dropped over 41%, and in 2013 trade reduced to its lowest monetary value. In the last few years, Russia encroached on Iran’s primary markets, Asia and Europe, and that trend could reverse following the deal. Years of Russia using gas as a political weapon in the winter months have forced Europe to diversify. Officials have estimated that up to 35 billion cubic meters of Iranian liquefied gas could reach European shores via Spain. Iran will find that establishing new trade ties with Russia is more difficult than resuming relations with a Europe eager to do business with the Islamic Republic.   

EU.Iran trade

Imports were relatively steady until plummeting in 2012. New barriers to trade put considerable pressure on Tehran to negotiate.

Apprehension about exports to Europe may only be a hiccup, settled in normal diplomatic channels. Iran will go to great lengths to convince Russia that they do not seek to “substitute” it in Europe. After all, Russia played a helpful role in the negotiations, when Iran was seeking a comprehensive nuclear accord. Had Russia interfered, to squash talks, their relationship may have undergone significant strain. That didn’t happen. We have to assume they see one another as useful counterweights to the U.S. as well as useful to each other in the Middle East. America and Europe’s opening to Iran can find geopolitical value, but only if exploited. Agitating Putin’s paranoia will require an active Foreign Policy agenda.

Accommodating some of Iran’s core national interests could drive a wedge in the anti-west coalition. Its basic security cannot be undermined, nor can they be expected to give up on all alliances they have developed across the Middle East. A balance-of-power that satisfies Iran has to materialize if the U.S. is to restore its own leadership and create space for Tehran to drift from Moscow. We may find we agree on some key principles when we set out to resolve regional conflicts in a fair manner.

The current formula is not working. If the U.S. does not recalculate some of its objectives in the region, greater economic ties will produce no geopolitical gains. The accord will remain in the nuclear realm and no greater diplomatic value will we find. Righting the ship is a long process, but we have some time and means to do it now, because of the nuclear agreement.

If not, we can expect Russia and Iran to continue cooperating in the Middle East in ways we disapprove. They will also support one another in the global effort to confront the United States. In Europe, the two may drift apart because of diverging economic interests. That can create contention in their diplomatic channels. The suspicion can only become useful to other powers if they find a way to exploit it.

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