Identity is a Central Factor in Russia-Iran Relations
Political and economic considerations alone do not provide a complete picture of the bilateral relationship. A shared anti-Western agenda, a mutual desire to overcome international sanctions, and carefully balanced cultural and economic relations with rival states, make for a volatile but increasingly important relationship.
Five months after the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia President Vladimir Putin met with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi twice. In addition to meeting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on June 29 during the Sixth Caspian Summit in Ashgabat, Putin visited Tehran on July 19 for trilateral talks and a summit with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Raisi. Observers might question why visits of both leaders have occurred so frequently, and what is the central agenda for their cooperation?
The Russia-Ukraine war has further revealed the complexity of Moscow’s relationship with Iran, including the centrality of cultural identities to potential collaboration. Academics such as George Mason University’s Mark Katz remind us that the list of Iranian historical grievances against Russia is long, including: the loss of territory to the Russian empire in the early 19th century, Tsarist Russian military intervention against the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in the early twentieth century, Soviet support for secessionist movements in northwestern Iran at the end of both World Wars, the Soviet occupation of Iran during World War II, Moscow’s support for the Tudeh (the Iranian Communist Party), and Soviet support for Baghdad during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88).
Even where Russia and Iran have recently collaborated to further their regional interests, such as their military intervention to support the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria, policy differences between the two states remain. Despite this, Russia and Iran share significant interests—future cooperation against the United States is first among them. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has delayed the finalization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the Iran nuclear deal—as well. The Kremlin tried to exploit negotiations to revive the nuclear deal by demanding guarantees that any sanctions imposed on Iran would not inhibit its own security and trade relationship with Iran.
Nevertheless, close relations between Russia and Iran do exist, and in many cases can best be explained through the role of shared identities. This is especially relevant to current realities. For example, in her work “‘To be or not to be’ (like the West): Modernization in Russia and Iran,” Ghoncheh Tazmini argues that Iranian and Russian development has revealed the tension between their overlapping cultural-civilizational identities and the drive to “catch up with the West.” The author also reminds us of historic resistance in both Iran and Russia to the adoption of Western institutions. For example, she explains that Slavophiles believed that Russia was destined to preserve the purity of Christianity, to bring the various Christian churches together, and to usher in the thousand-year global kingdom of God. This special sense of destiny was based on the “Russian idea” that openly espoused the rejection of Western culture, political systems, and models of modernization. Tazmini concludes that the Russian idea, especially the notions of Russian uniqueness (samobytnost), statehood (gosudartvennost) and community (sobornost), form the basis of Putin’s discourse of the Russian state. She compares this Russian Slavophile position—which argues that Russia’s future depends on a return to native principles and “overcoming the Western disease”—with the emergence in the 1960s of Third World postcolonial narratives introduced by Iranian intellectuals, such as Jalal al-Ahmad, who suggested the popular Ghardzadegi or “West-toxification” of the areas they dominated through imperialism.
Challenging the Liberal Order
The similarity of native cultural markers in both Russia and Iran suggests common ground for cooperation during the current era of geopolitical tensions. The impact of these shared anti-Western identities may be seen at both the global and bilateral levels. Both Russia and Iran follow a broadly anti-Western agenda and pursue policies designed to undermine the liberal world order. Before the Ukraine conflict, Dominic Tierney, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, stressed that Iranian and Russian national identities do not prioritize the liberal creed, human rights, or democracy. Both states remain autocracies, despite severe international pressure.
Furthermore, both states regard one of the important pillars of liberalism, international organizations, with suspicion, Even during a cautious attempts to engage Iran with the West, such as May 2022 visit to Iran by a Polish foreign minister (the first such Western delegation to the Islamic Republic since 2014), President Ebrahim Raisi stated: “The Islamic Republic of Iran… declares its strong opposition to NATO’s expansionist policies.” This antipathy towards the most powerful and significant Western international security organization is of course shared with Moscow.
Perhaps the most striking efforts to oppose the liberal world order are those linked with severing economic connections with the West. For example, during Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak’s visit to Tehran in May, Russian and Iranian officials signed three memorandums of understanding to increase collaboration in the fields of banking and energy. They agreed to use their national currencies for energy and trade payments between the two countries. Russia has strategically deployed de-dollarization, or the movement away from using the United States Dollar as the primary medium for financial transactions, since 2014. It began when Russia and China formed what some experts have called a “financial alliance,” following Moscow’s estrangement from the West over its annexation of Crimea. Avoiding the use of the dollar in trade settlements became a tool to skirt U.S. sanctions.
Already, we can view the impact of collaboration between Russia and Iran—both of which face broad sanctions regimes. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, during his recent visit to Tehran, stated that in 2021 trade between Russia and Iran—grew by more than 80 percent, exceeding $4 billion, despite Western sanctions. As “the world’s most sanctioned states,” shared identities have the effect of pulling Russia and Iran together if they hope to weather international sanctions. In fact, there is a plan to integrate Iran’s Shetab and Russia’s MIR payment and banking systems for agreements on bilateral barter trade. The integration of the two systems will allow Moscow to import auto parts and gas turbines to prop up its ailing economy and war machine, and Iran will gain access to Russian steel. As well as these immediate benefits, this structure provides Moscow and Tehran with an arrangement that challenges the established financial system, and strikes a blow against economic interdependence with the West.
The Role of Muslim Identities
The Muslim identities that bind certain parts of Russia with Iran contribute to how these countries combat extremism. Similarly, the specter of terrorism continues to drive closer defense and security ties between the two states. However, it is important to stress how shared Muslim identities impact Russia-Iran cooperation in other areas.
At the bilateral level, Russia and Iran share Muslim identities, as Russia is home to 20-25 million Muslims. Due to its geographic proximity to the North Caucasus, Iran has demonstrated an increasing influence in this region, especially in the Republic of Dagestan. The majority of Russia’s Shia population live on the north-western shore of the Caspian Sea. It is estimated that the city of Derbent has the largest concentrated Shia community, and in the Kizlyar region there are two thousand Shia Muslims. This strong influence of Muslim identity was confirmed to the author during the fieldwork to Daghestan and discussions with local political elites. They confirmed that even in comparison to the GCC states, for example, Daghestan has closer relations with Iran. Moreover, during a visit to Derbent, the author also saw large banners displaying slogans about Imam Ali in many areas. Although arguably somewhat localized, these examples demonstrate close existing shared identities, operating below the national level. For example, Iran has long imported huge quantities of mutton from Daghestan; the import demand has become so large that prices rose by 80-100 percent in 2018 alone. Allegedly, Iran has begun re-exporting mutton to the Gulf countries. The trade comes with cultural influence in tow, and according to Ahmed Yarlykapov of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) several hundred former Daghestani Sunnis have converted to Shiism.
The impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is also illustrative. Due to the Western sanctions, the Republic of Tatarstan (another Muslim-populated region), for example, has been exploring options for Iran as a hub for entering different markets. Moreover, in March 2022 the head of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov met with the Ambassador of Iran in Russia, Kazem Jalali. They discussed the potential for collaborations in Islamic banking, halal industry, and Islamic education. Therefore, we should expect to see more collaboration in these sectors between Russian Muslim regions and Iran, but it will take some time before we see clear results.
While it is yet too early and complex to be able to define the role of shared and divergent identities in the transformation of Russia-Iran relations, it is a factor that will help shaping the relationship between Moscow and Tehran. Political and economic considerations alone do not provide a complete picture of the bilateral relationship. A shared anti-Western agenda, a mutual desire to overcome international sanctions, and carefully balanced cultural and economic relations with rival states, make for a volatile but increasingly important relationship. The multinational construction of the Russian state only adds to the complexity of Russia-Iran ties. Perhaps, as so often is the case, finance and energy will emerge as the biggest driving factors behind state behavior through the development of Islamic banking and finance takes hold in Russia while the political calculations around Europe’s energy crisis, Iran’s vast gas reserves, and the JCPOA continue.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.
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