di Laura la Zazzera
The aim of this article is to analyse and reflect on the relationship between Russia and Iran, trying to answer a very basic question: if a concept such as Islamic solidarity exists, and all the Muslims of the world have to be solidary to each other beyond national borders, why does Iran accept without much criticism Moscow’s repression against the Chechen Islamist rebels and the population? The answer is that even a theocratic republic like Iran can shove religion aside when other important political and economical reasons take over.
From the first Chechen war on, Moscow launched a heavy military repression campaign in the Caucasian republic, starting with the attempt to “restore the constitutional order” in 1994-96, and then waging “war on Islamic terrorism” in 1999. The two conflicts were characterized by great violence and caused casualties on both sides, but the federal army intervention in Chechnya implied brutal tactics, carpet-bombings, major human rights violations, indiscriminate zacistki and violence against civilians, among whom about 100,000 died, 200,000 were injured and 500,000 were displaced. After the Chechen separatist movement gradually turned into an Islamist movement, it started perpetrating terrorist attacks against the Russian population, army and security forces. As a consequence, an anti-Chechen feeling spread among the Russian Slavic citizens, ending up influencing their general perception of the Muslim, who became easily associated with Chechen terrorism, whether there was an actual link with Chechnya or not.
Given the Russian conduct in Chechnya and the increasing islamophobic feeling of the Russian Slavic population, it should seem hard to explain the liaison between Russia and Islamic Iran, or it could sound quite unusual, at least2. Despite the recent developments that, maybe in the near future, might change the relationship between Tehran and Moscow (Russia and China signed the UN Resolution 1929 last June, imposing additional sanction on Iran), in the past Moscow had generally tried to protect its ally from the international community’s criticism and UN sanctions. Moreover, those times that Russia, reluctantly, voted in favour of the sanctions against Iran, it could always limit them so that they would never resolve into military sanctions3. For decades, Moscow has helped Iranian development of a nuclear industry, despite the accusations and protests of US and other countries that this transfer of nuclear technology from Russia to Iran might be in violation of the Non Proliferation Treaty obligations4. In return, Teheran has never interfered with the Chechen question, never showing any open support for the Islamist separatists and never criticising the Federal army violence against Chechen civilians.
One reason that explains the friendly relationship between Moscow and Tehran is purely economical: the latter is one of the few countries that still buys Russian quite antiquated and unsophisticated weapons, missiles and technology (see, for example, the case of the construction of Bushehr nuclear reactor), which helps to keep the Russian Military-industrial complex and atomic energy branch alive5. As someone argued, «Russia’s strategy has been to sell lower quality weapons at considerably lower prices, and to do so means selling to poorer client states, some of whom are inevitably going to be rogue regimes»6. The Iranian economical advantages are obvious; Russia’s help to Iran is precious (and not so expensive) for the latter to develop its nuclear industry and remain a regional power. This kind of consideration also transcends any other moral issue. Indeed, despite the fact that in 2004 Khamenei issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons, defining them «immoral», religious principles are being pushed aside in favour of an hegemonic policy7.
Other numerous explanations of this liaison between the two countries are politically grounded. On the one hand, Russia would probably prefer having a nuclear Iran near its borders than an Iran destabilized by a US, or even Israeli, military attack8. This is why Moscow protects it from military sanctions. But, on the other hand, a potentially dangerous neighbour like a nuclear Iran could also represent a reason of concern for Russia, that therefore tries to “control” Iran by establishing good relationships with it and by directly controlling its nuclear development.
It could also be a matter of mere international political equilibrium. Moscow attempts to convince Iran to sign the new NPT, and to implement it, could be a good chance for Russia to show the West that it is «a responsible member of the non-proliferation regime […] vindicating the independent role it claims in international affairs»9. Moreover, in spite of the «new chapter» in NATO-Russia relationships opened in Rome Summit 2002, Russia might be allying with Iran to challenge the NATO influence in Eurasia10. This alliance is probably also meant for Teheran and Moscow to look stronger in front of other influential powers in the area like China, India, Pakistan. In addition, Russia might be trying to reaffirm its power and influence in the world scene, warning the US that if they keep on ignoring Russia it will side with rogue states like Iran.
This is how things have been so far, but, as mentioned above, it will be interesting to see how Russia-Iran relationships might change now that Russia has voted in favour of the new UN sanctions against Tehran. Some other international actors as, for example, the U.S. are pushing for a deeper Russian involvement in disarmament policy. The chance for success will basically depend on the adjustment of the balance between costs and profits of this Russian-Iranian liaison.
2 Manifestations of Radical Nationalism and Efforts to Counteract It in Russia during the First Half of 2010, http://www.sova-center.ru/en/xenophobia/reports-analyses/2010/07/d19436/.
3 Russia and Islam, Russian Analytical Digest: http://www.res.ethz.ch/analysis/rad/details.cfm?lng=en&id=56894.
4 The Russia-Iran Nuclear Connection and U.S. Policy Options, Victor Mizin, MERIA Journal, Volume 8, No. 1 – March 2004, http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2004/issue1/mizin.pdf.
5 Liliia Fedorovna Shevtsova, Putin’s Russia, http://books.google.it/books?id=l1mIBMVZ_UC&pg=PA200&dq=russia+and+Iran&hl=it&ei=ksahTP2tLIabOPPg-IsE&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CEMQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=russia%20and%20Iran&f=false.
6 The Russia-Iran Nuclear Connection and U.S. Policy Options, Victor Mizin, MERIA Journal, Volume 8, No. 1 – March 2004 http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2004/issue1/mizin.pdf.
7 Secrecy News from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy, http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/secrecy/2005/08/081105.html#1.
8 Russia and Islam, Russian Analytical Digest: http://www.res.ethz.ch/analysis/rad/details.cfm?lng=en&id=56894.
9 Russia and Islam, Russian Analytical Digest: http://www.res.ethz.ch/analysis/rad/details.cfm?lng=en&id=56894.
10 NATO-RUSSIA Council, Rome Summit 2002 http://www.nato.int/docu/comm/2002/0205-rome/rome-eng.pdf.