TBILISI, Georgia, Jul 21 (IPS) – Iran is not interested in a very powerful Russia that could block Iranian ambitions in the South Caucasus and the Middle East. At the same time, too weak a Russia would be a dangerous development, paving the way for greater Western influence along Iran’s northern border and possibly even leading to the reversal of Moscow’s dependence on Tehran.
When a mutiny led by Evgeny Prigozhin, a former ally of Vladimir Putin and leader of the Wagner Group, began on June 24, 2023, Iranian officials were worried. 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 various ways. The Hard-line Fars news agency published numerous articles on the course of events and explain the reasons for the mutiny, essentially repeating information provided by the Russian media.
Far too critical The Western media gives double standards for its apparent endorsement of a revolt led by someone as if not more brutal than Putin.
The Nour agency was more explicit in accusing the West of deliberately fomenting Putin’s downfall. The same agency, however, also released more restricted information versions like the one noting that threats to the West would multiply if Prigozhin was able to gain control of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
The Tasnim agency published a series of articles as well as analyzes who also blamed the West for exacerbating Russia’s difficult position. hard line Kayhan log predictably accused the West from direct involvement in Russian internal affairs.
Other analysts were more nuanced and many blamed the mutiny on Moscow’s failure to achieve its military goals in Ukraine. Former head of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign relations committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, argued that Putin emerged weaker from the mutiny.
Officially, Iran has openly supported its northern neighbor. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson spoke of the rule of law, while Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian expressed hope that Russia would prevail. President Ebrahim Raisi called Putin two days after the end of the revolt to express 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 seemingly cautious handling of the crisis, uncertainty about Russia’s geopolitical power and, crucially, Putin’s ability to control the situation persists for Iran.
The stakes are high. The two have been lukewarm partners despite a surge of activity since Russia invaded 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 with the previous era. Under pressure from the West, Russia is openly turning towards Asia and the Islamic Republic. Developing trade through the North-South Corridor as well as growing military cooperation have raised the stakes for Iran as to how Russia is faring both in Ukraine and domestically.
In many ways, the current roster is exceptional; such cooperation has not been seen since the late 16th century, when Russia and Persia feared the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.
A Goldilocks approach: Russia must be neither too strong nor too weak
Yet modern Iran is not interested in a very powerful Russia that could block Iranian ambitions in the South Caucasus and the Middle East. At the same time, a weak Russia would be a dangerous development, paving the way for greater Western influence along Iran’s northern border and possibly even leading to the reversal of Moscow’s dependence on Tehran.
Russia’s internal destabilization would also reflect badly on Iran since the latter has seen its share of internal turmoil since the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini in 2022.
Wagner’s success would have shaken the very foundation on which Eurasian states built a new order: a strong security apparatus that uses modern technologies to control dissent.
Until recently, the Eurasian powers had seemed to show that they had mastered modernity and that the concept was no longer solely associated with the West. Wagner’s mutiny, however, revealed 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 his goals, whatever they may be, presents an ideal scenario for Iran. Russia is weakened, but not too much, and the longer this state of affairs persists, the better it is for Iran.
Indeed, Moscow serves as a pivot in the Islamic Republic’s efforts to divert Western attention from the Middle East and gain new momentum in terms of regional influence and its nuclear program. Given the likelihood that Russia will continue the war in Ukraine, this trend could strengthen further in the years to come.
The mutiny and subsequent purge in the military ranks exposed cracks in the Russian elite, but also presented opportunities for the Islamic Republic to advance its position in bilateral relations.
Putin cannot afford to lose friends, which means greater opportunities for Iran to act. Tehran could be more emboldened in the South Caucasus, where it has seized on a burgeoning vacuum following Moscow’s distraction and pushed for closer ties with Armenia, Russia’s longtime ally.
Another area is nuclear negotiations where Russia might even lend additional support to Iran for failing to reach a consensus with the West. In Syria, Russia could be more virulent against Israeli strikes against Iranian positions.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity for Iran lies in space and military cooperation. In other exchanges, Iran could reach a preferential agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union by the end of this year. Another area of growth could be Russian investments in Iran.
Under a recent sign agreement, Moscow agreed to finance a rail link for a new transport corridor. This could be a precursor for investments in other sectors of Iran’s beleaguered economy.
Longer term, Iranian elites recognize that Russia is unlikely to win the war against Ukraine, at least not decisively enough, and that the current standoff is the best the Kremlin can expect. This dire picture for Russia means its push into Asia will only grow, fueling Iran’s own “Look East” agenda, which has recently met with some setback following failed attempts to attract investment from China, India and other Asian players.
Emile Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at the European University of Tbilisi, Georgia, and a specialist in the Silk Roads.
Source: Stimson Center, Washington D.C.
IPS United Nations Office
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