Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, officials in Tehran have been keenly watching Moscow’s deteriorating relations with the West, particularly the United States. Some voices in Tehran believe that Russia’s ostracization from the West presents an opportunity for Iran to seek a strategic alliance with President Putin. And yet no one in Tehran has so far formulated a convincing blueprint to move towards this goal. We asked Mehdi Safari, Iran’s former ambassador to The Russian Federation (1993-1999), on what was going on between Iran and Russia on some controversial issues and what future awaiting both nations in their bilateral relationship.
It says that Russia has been eager to work with Iran on security issues, but their actions have not proven their intentions. How do you see the picture?
“The Russians have always been ready to have strategic and security cooperation with Iran. They have been waiting for an appropriate response from Iran. It is worth noting that strategic and security cooperation has to be implemented and executed. This is while they have not practically received a strong response from Iran yet.”
What is your opinion on Russia’s approach towards Iran’s full membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization?
“I do not believe Russia have been disagreed with the membership of Iran in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). They have never been reluctant regarding Iran’s membership. I was the ambassador to Russia at the time of the initial formation of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (former Assembly of the "Shanghai -5") was not yet an organization. At that time, Iran was suggested to be a member of this assembly, but this membership did not occur. After the assembly became an organization, efforts were made in this regard and finally, Iran became an observer member of the organization. Then, some claimed that Russia opposes Iran's membership in Shanghai Organization; but the fact was that Uzbekistan was the main opposition. Uzbekistan did not want Iran to be a member of Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran policies also changed with the change of governments and Iran's foreign policy towards Russia was associated with fluctuations. As a result of these factors, the prohibition of the membership of countries under sanctions in Shanghai Cooperation Organization was passed. I think this condition was a result of the interpretation of the Russians as to the lack of sufficient cooperation of Iran with the Russians on nuclear issues, as they said.”
How about Russia’s promise on S-300 missile delivery?
“The negotiations on S-300 missile system were finalized during my mission, when Mr. Nategh-Noori traveled to Russia. There were some problems in this regard too. Israel and the United States insisted on not giving this system to Iran. This condition occurred in a special period during the rise of President Putin and the tendency of Russia to interact with the West. As you know, Putin initially wanted to interact with the West. But then, he did not receive any positive feedback from the West and felt that the Cold War has never stopped. Despite the initial positive attitude of Putin, NATO expanded the scope of its activities to Russia's borders and even into Ukraine. The Russians figured out that the Americans are not sincere with them. In the initial positive interactive atmosphere, the Americans asked the Russians not to deliver S-300 missile system to Iran in order to prevent upsetting the power balance in the Middle East. Russians' positive response to the West took place at the time of Mr. Medvedev’s presidency. But as I said, the Russians soon realized that the Cold War with the West has never stopped. As a result, they decided to implement their own independent policies and in the end, even tried operating the S-300 missile system contract.”
Despite positive attitude after the JCPOA, why do the levels of Iranian-Russian Economic ties remain unchanged?
“First, Russians are not good at business. They are not good at working in the free market, or in other words, the economic market. They have little knowledge about our market. They do not speak our language and we also have little knowledge of the Russians. The Russians cannot compete with the West in all dimensions, but they can compete with the West in the construction of powerhouses, the steel industry, in aircraft and nuclear power plants; and we can work with them. In addition, due to our culture and language, and the business and communication we have had for many years with the West, France, England, Germany and the USA, we tend to do business with them. However, the West also knows the free market better. The Chinese are successful at business because they know the business language and have been able to compete in various fields. I think the Russians are not able to compete in all fields, but they can compete in the construction of powerhouses, nuclear power plants, airplanes, and recently in Information Technology (IT), Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and even transportation for example in railway and subway.”
“Moreover, we have not been quite willing to do business with Russia because we are not familiar with the internal market of Russia. Thus, business with the Russians has not been formed. However, it seems appropriate that we have concentrated business with the Russians in some limited specific fields such as construction of powerhouses, subway, railway, airplanes, nuclear power plants and also aerospace, mining and steel fields. Shahid Montazeri Power Plant and another power plant in Bushehr are among the works of the Russians. We can see that similar western power plants are off (inactive) in peak hours but these two power plants are active during these hours. Most of the exploration of Iran mines is done by the Russians. The Metallurgy of Iran is based on Isfahan Steel Company. In addition, steel and heavy machinery industries of Iran are created by the Russians. The Russians are good at the construction of railway. The subway of Russia is more advanced that other countries. The aerospace science of Russia is very advanced. The technology of the Russians regarding power plants is very good and advanced. As previously stated, they are also relatively good at oil and gas industries especially in gas industries. If these limited cases are concentrated, they can prepare the grounds for the development of economic relations. In contrast, we cannot count on the competitive ability of the Russians in fields such as home appliances or car manufacturing industries.”