Iran, Relations with

   Persian-Russian relations date to the 18th century as the Romanov Empire began to expand south of the Caucasus. During the 1800s, Russia annexed Persian-held Azerbaijan and displaced Iranian influence in Central Asia. During the Russian Civil War, a Soviet Republic was briefly established in the north of the country; though the Moscow-backed regime quickly collapsed, Tehran was left wary of Soviet influence.
   During World War II, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Great Britain staged a joint invasion of the officially neutral country, occupying the north and south, respectively. Joseph Stalin reneged on a commitment to evacuate Persia within six months of cessation of hostilities, instead creating separatist, pro-Soviet states in the north of Iran with the help of local Azeris and Kurds. Soviet forces finally left in 1946 with promises of oil concessions from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., which were soon withdrawn by the shah, Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi. Outraged by the so-called Iranian method employed by the Americans and the British to limit Soviet influence, Stalin moved quickly to consolidate power in Eastern Europe, refusing to give even an inch to London or Washington. Fearing that leftist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh might bring Iran into the Soviet sphere of influence in the early 1950s, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sponsored a royalist coup d’état, allowing Pahlavi to rule the country as a dictator until he was removed by the 1979 Islamic Revolution. As part of the American-allied “green belt” of Muslim states between the USSR and the Persian Gulf, Iran was stalwart in its anti-Soviet orientation, though economic relations were resumed after 1962.
   While the Soviets were happy to see the shah go, the ascendency of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did little to improve relations; in fact, Moscow viewed the spread of revolutionary Islamism with such dread, it invaded Afghanistan within the year to put down an Islamist government on its long Central Asian border and when the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) broke out, Moscow liberally supplied Saddam Hussein with conventional arms until 1986 when relations between Moscow and Tehran improved. As the Soviet Union lurched toward denouement, Khomeini encouraged Mikhail Gorbachev to consider Islam as a substitute for the “failed” ideologies of atheism and Communism. While Russia did not adopt Islam en masse, the country markedly improved its relations with the Islamic Republic during the 1990s.
   Economic and scientific exchange formed the core of this new relationship, with Russia agreeing to help develop the Iranian nuclear power plant at Bushehr in 1995. Involvement in supplying nuclear technology to a “rogue state” has been one of the most controversial aspects of Moscow’s postindependence foreign policy. With the ascendency of Yevgeny Primakov, the Russo-Iranian relationship developed a political component, as the foreign minister sought to counteract American hegemony. Under Vladimir Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvyedev, Russia has made cooperation rather than confrontation with Iran on the nuclear issue the policy standard, often using the country’s permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to scuttle or veto resolutions directed against Tehran. Russian intransigence on Iranian nuclear issue has negatively impacted relations with the international community (especially France and Germany), particularly since it has become obvious that Russia’s relationship with Iran is not simply an economic one, but also a geopolitical strategy directed against the United States’ interests in the Middle East (particularly against American allies Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia).
   Russia is one of Iran’s largest trading partners, with a turnover of more than $2 billion per year (much of it in the form of arms and military hardware, sales of which were resumed in 1989 and expanded after 2000). While Russia and Iran do not share a territorial border, both states are washed by the Caspian Sea, a shared status that has led to competition over access to natural resources (oil and natural gas), shipping, and fishing rights. While the two countries have sparred over routes for transshipment of Caspian hydrocarbons, their deepening “strategic partnership” in the 1990s was a critical factor in developing the U.S.-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that skirted both countries. The two countries share common goals in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Despite its history of sponsoring transnational Islamism, Tehran is loath to see Saudi-influenced Sunni fundamentalism on its borders, a sentiment shared by the Russian Federation; similarly, both countries seek to limit America’s extension of its influence into the region.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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