The idea of a Russian-Iranian alliance makes sense to many for four main reasons. First, Russia and Iran have a shared interest in disrupting the U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order in the Middle East. Second, the Russians were seen as leaning towards Iran during the nuclear negotiations because they supported Tehran’s nuclear program, by building reactors in Iran and pushing for more favorable terms for sanctions relief during Iran’s negotiations with P5+1. Third, Iranian and Russian interests in Syria have converged into a coordinated military campaign to prop up the government of Bashar al-Assad. Fourth, Russia hopes to exploit newfound economic opportunities in Iran now that sanctions have been lifted. H.E. Dr. Mehdi Sanaei, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Russian Federation and the founder of IRAS, told Energy Diplomacy Magazine (in Farsi) about Iran-Russia relationship and its impacts on the regional developments. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is your assessment of the course of Iran and Russia's interests? Are they the same or different?
"The fact is that it may be considered that I am an optimistic diplomat, but I truly believe that there is no conflicting aspect in issues raised on the relations between Iran and Russia - that, for example, what happened 200 years ago on the historical evolution, is another discussion -, but if we classify the relations now, not only there is no conflict between classification of relations, but also there are close and friendly relations between the two countries. If the Iran-Russia relationship is not called strategic, undoubtedly it has some strategic aspects. This means that there are various aspects of cooperation in the relationship that are undoubtedly strategic."
Do you think that the presidency of Donald Trump will change Iran-Russia ties?
"If this question was raised, for example, 12 or 16 years ago, then I might say that it was very influential, but now I say that Trump’s rise to power will either have no affect or have a very minimal impact. Meaning under the current situation in Russia and the relations between Iran and Russia, the effect of this issue will be negligible. For Islamic Republic of Iran, the change in the US Presidents will have no serious effect on the quality of its relations with other countries, because we basically do not have diplomatic relations with the US. We hope that the new President of the US learns a lesson from mistakes of its past policies in the Middle East, and ends the US intervention in the affairs of our region. We believe that our regional countries are themselves able to provide their security and interests, and there is no need for trans-regional powers to interfere [in their internal affairs].
"Iranian relations with Russia are growing and constructive. Under President Rouhani, the relationships grew deeper. We can say the current level and quality of relations between Iran and Russia cannot be compared to any period of cooperation between the two countries. I think relations between Iran and Russia have not been and will not be influenced by third parties. Leaders of the two countries are monitoring the process with interest, and are willing to further expand their cooperation. So I do not believe that a country’s domestic developments can affect the good relations between Iran and Russia. Eastern policy of Russia is a long-term policy, and it is not based on the interests of third countries."
Given the current conflicts in the Middle East, what are the similarities and differences in the approaches of Tehran and Moscow? Will Turkey-Russia détente threaten Iran's regional interests?
"Iran and Russia have a strategic cooperation on Syria. For this reason, there are ongoing consultations between them at different levels in this regard. Talks between the two countries from the presidential level to the deputy foreign ministers and ambassadors of the two countries are ongoing. For example, recently there were two telephone calls between the Presidents and multiple telephone calls between foreign ministers. Special Representative of the Russian President visited Tehran several times during the last month.
"Iran and Russia regularly communicate with each other, because it is considered very important for them to combat terrorism. Here the position of Iran and Russia may be distinguished from that of Western countries. For Iran and Russia, theoretically and practically, terrorism is considered a first-level threat and problem. That is why we believe that we must unite all our forces, and we think this problem cannot be solved until all parties are united. Western countries theoretically say that terrorism is a dilemma, but practically they have at times other plans and priorities. That is why this issue has not been so far resolved.
"I hope the Western parties improve their position towards the Middle East, because there is no other way out. If they continue their policies started since 2011, conditions will be in accordance with the actual, present situation - [no improved situation would be seen]. This policy has led to the reinforcement of terrorism and the rise of the ISIS; therefore, it is important that the West’s attitude and approach to Middle East issues change. I think even if one common solution and decision (on the settlement of the Syrian crisis) is found now, it will be implemented only after the West improves its position.
"Trilateral meeting of foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Syria in Moscow in November last year was also a good practical step in resolving the Syrian issues. In December, a trilateral meeting of Russia, Iran and Turkey was also held in Moscow. The meeting was held in East Aleppo following the joint coordination in the three countries to help defenseless people and disarmed rebels get out [of the city]. The experience in Aleppo prompted the three countries to continue their cooperation in helping to peacefully resolve the Syrian crisis. Therefore, the ceasefire agreements were reached with some armed groups in the late 2016, and these agreements were also confirmed in the UN Security Council.
"Iran’s relations with its neighbor, Turkey, despite some disagreements, have always been good and consistent. When Russia’s relations with Turkey were strained, Iran tried to ease the tension between them. The cooperation of Iran, Russia and Turkey can be useful not only for the Middle East, but also for Central Asia and the Caucasus. We will spare no effort to develop our bilateral and regional relations with Turkey and Russia."
What is your judgment of the impact of recent Iran-Azerbaijan-Russia summit on the regional developments?
"From the perspective of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the interaction among Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia in a trilateral format not only can help develop and strengthen the potential capacities and capabilities that exist among the three countries in various political, cultural and economic spheres, but also can provide new opportunities [for them] to deal with existing challenges in the region by creating synergy and convergence.
"Clearly, holding such a meeting on the current situation in the region and the world by relying on good relations of the three countries and the existing will for further developing and deepening relations is more important. Iran’s foreign policy towards other countries, not to mention neighboring countries, is based on cooperation, synergy and finding ways to achieve common interests. We should try to resolve all conflicts and disputes in the region through negotiation and dialogue and peaceful means, and use all our capacity and power to confront and combat terrorism and extremism at regional and international levels.
"We believe that in today’s world, one country cannot cope with challenges, and use opportunities by itself, and achieving an acceptable level of peace, prosperity and development for the people of any country requires having cooperation and interaction with other countries, especially neighboring countries. Terrorism and extremism, trans-regional powers’ interference in the affairs of regional countries, the instrumental and political use of economic sanctions to advance political goals, environmental problems and challenges, drugs, separatism, organized crime, cybercrime, and etc. are among common threats and challenges that the interaction among Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia is required for confronting them."
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