By Emil Avdaliani
TBILISI, Georgia, Jul 21 2023 (IPS)
Iran is not interested in a highly powerful Russia that could block Iranian ambitions in the South Caucasus and Middle East. At the same time, a too weak Russia would constitute a dangerous development paving the way for greater Western influence along Iran’s northern border and potentially even leading to the reversal of Moscow’s dependence on Tehran.
When a mutiny led by one-time Vladimir Putin ally and Wagner Group chief Evgeny Prigozhin began on June 24, 2023, Iranian officials were uneasy. The sudden unrest came at a time of unprecedented alignment between Tehran and Moscow and caught the Iranian regime off-guard.
Iranian media reacted to the events in a variety of ways. Hard-line Fars News Agency published numerous articles on the unfolding events and explained the reasons for the mutiny, essentially parroting information provided by Russian news outlets.
Fars also criticized Western media for double standards for its apparent approval of a revolt led by someone equally if not more brutal than Putin.
The Nour Agency was more explicit in accusing the West of purposefully fomenting Putin’s downfall. The same agency, however, also published more restrained versions such as one noting that threats to the West would multiply if Prigozhin was able to take control of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
The Tasnim Agency featured a series of articles as well as analyses that also blamed the West for exacerbating Russia’s difficult position. Hardline Kayhan newspaper predictably accused the West of direct involvement in internal Russian affairs.
Other analysts were more nuanced, and many blamed the mutiny on Moscow’s failure to meet its military goals in Ukraine. The former head of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Relations Committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, argued that Putin emerged weaker from the mutiny.
On the official level, Iran openly supported its northern neighbor. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman spoke of the rule of law, while Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian expressed hopes that Russia would prevail. President Ebrahim Raisi called Putin two days after the revolt ended to convey his “full support.”
Iran’s official support for the Russian government and its leader was not surprising. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China, and many other countries expressed the same view. What matters is that despite a seemingly careful management of the crisis, uncertainty about Russia’s geopolitical power and, most of all, Putin’s ability to control the situation lingers for Iran.
The stakes are high. The two have been lukewarm partners despite a spurt of activity since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Historical grievances as well as conflicting regional ambitions have often prevented the expansion of cooperation since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The war in Ukraine marked a notable break from the previous era. Pressured by the West, Russia openly shifted toward Asia and the Islamic Republic. Expanding trade through the North-South corridor as well as growing military cooperation have increased the stakes for Iran over how well Russia fares both in Ukraine and domestically.
In many ways, the present alignment is exceptional; such cooperation has not been seen since the late 16th century when both Russia and Persia feared the expanding Ottoman Empire.
A Goldilocks approach: Russia should neither be too strong nor too weak
Yet modern Iran is not interested in a highly powerful Russia that could block Iranian ambitions in the South Caucasus and Middle East. At the same time, a weak Russia would constitute a dangerous development, paving the way for greater Western influence along Iran’s northern border and potentially even leading to the reversal of Moscow’s dependence on Tehran.
Russia’s internal destabilization would also reverberate badly for Iran since the latter has had its own share of internal disturbances since the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini in 2022.
Wagner’s success would have shaken the very foundation on which the Eurasian states have been building a new order: a strong security apparatus that uses modern technologies to control dissent.
Until recently, Eurasian powers had seemed to show that they had harnessed modernity and that the concept was no longer solely associated with the West. The Wagner mutiny, however, exposed that this order is vulnerable and that a modern authoritarian state can easily fall into disarray.
On one level, however, Prigozhin’s failure to achieve whatever his goals were presents an ideal scenario for Iran. Russia is weakened, but not too much and the longer this state of affairs continues, the better for Iran.
Indeed, Moscow serves as a linchpin in the Islamic Republic’s efforts to divert Western attention from the Middle East and gain further momentum in terms of regional influence and its nuclear program. Given the likelihood of Russia continuing the war in Ukraine, this trend could further solidify in coming years.
The mutiny and the ensuing reported purge in the military ranks revealed cracks in the Russian elite, but also provides the Islamic Republic with opportunities to advance its position in bilateral ties.
Putin cannot afford to lose friends, which means greater avenues for Iran to act. Tehran might become more emboldened in the South Caucasus, where it has grasped an emerging vacuum as a result of Moscow’s distraction and pushed for closer ties with Armenia, Russia’s long-time ally.
Another area is the nuclear negotiations where Russia might even lend further support to Iran not to reach a consensus with the West. In Syria, Russia could be more vocal against Israeli strikes against Iranian positions.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity for Iran lies in space and military cooperation. In other trade, Iran might achieve a preferential agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union by the end of this year. Another area for growth could be in Russian investments in Iran.
Under a recently signed agreement, Moscow agreed to finance a railway link for a new transport corridor. This could be a precursor for investment in other sectors of Iran’s embattled economy.
Longer term, Iranian elites recognize that Russia is unlikely to win the Ukraine war, at least not decisively enough, and that the present stalemate is the best that the Kremlin can expect. This dire picture for Russia means its push toward Asia will only grow, feeding into Iran’s own “Look East” agenda, which has encountered some pushback recently over failed attempts to attract investments from China, India, and other Asian actors.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a scholar of silk roads.
Source: Stimson Center, Washington DC
IPS UN Bureau