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An Interview with John Parker on Russia – Iran Relations

February 10, 2009

Iran and Russia have entertained a long and complex relationship for centuries, and one which goes well beyond the current contentious issues. Coexisting in the same delicate regional environment, spanning from the Caucasus to Central Asia and reaching all the way into the Middle East, Moscow and Teheran share a history of mutual engagement and have always tried to strike a difficult balance between their sometime overlapping and sometime conflicting interests.

Persian Dreams, a book by John W. Parker, unleashes an impressive wealth of details to unveil this story, thanks to first-hand interviews as well as in-depth research on primary and secondary sources. A self-described old school Sovietologist, Parker is the chief of the Division for Caucasus and Central Asia in the Office for Russian and Eurasian Analysis at the bureau of Intelligence and Research within the U.S. Department of State. Parker is also the author of the two-volume work Kremlin in Transition (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1991.)

In 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Parker was assigned to follow the civil war that swept through the newly established Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan. It was then, for the first time, that Parker encountered the bilateral dealings between Russia and Iran and was surprised to discover that Moscow and Teheran were able to support opposing sides in the Tajik civil war while cooperating on a host of other issues, such as Afghanistan and arms trade.

Enticed by the complexities that characterized the Russia-Iran relationship, Parker decided to delve into its past, to the time of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and even further back to territorial disputes dating to the 1800s, before following the relation’s many twist and turns through the Islamic Revolution and well into the 21st Century, as the nuclear issue acquired increasing prominence in the post-9/11 world.

In this interview with Washington Prism, John W. Parker discusses some of the findings of his book and explains why Russia-Iran dealings deserve to be taken into more account.

Washington Prism (WP): From a reading of Persian Dreams, the Russia-Iran relation emerges as one of opposing tensions, mutual mistrust, and yet a continuous desire for engagement. Is that an accurate characterization?

John W. Parker (JP): Russia and Iran do have a long history with each other, dating back millennia. And there is a historical mistrust between them. But, at least from the Russian point of view, out of this mistrust the feeling is generated that they have to remain engaged with Iran, if only to keep Iran from doing more things that Moscow doesn’t like.

Additionally, there have been issues, particularly regional issues, where they have agreed and collaborated. Tajikistan after 1992 is an example of this. Prior to 1992, the Russians and the Iranians supported opposite sides in the civil war, and my reading is that the Iranians actually helped set the civil war in motion but then had to back down.

In any case, after the peace process started in Tajikistan, Moscow and Teheran worked together on it, in large part because of what was happening in Afghanistan. In fact, they both opposed the Taliban. Iran traditionally has felt it has a sphere of influence in Afghanistan’s western border regions, in places such as Herat.

Similarly, Russia would like the northern border regions to be fairly stable and friendly. The Taliban threatened both their interests causing Iran and Russia to support the United Front in Afghanistan in an effort to prevent the Taliban from taking over all of Afghanistan.

Another example of collaboration would be Chechnya. Despite Chechnya’s Muslim population, and in part precisely because of engagement with Russia over Afghanistan, Iran never really supported the Chechen Liberation Movement. When the first Chechen war broke out, Iran had already gambled and lost in Tajikistan and had a more realistic view of whether people inside the former Soviet Republics would support an Iranian-type of revolution. Then, by the time the second Chechen war began, the Taliban had taken over Kabul giving Iran even less of an incentive to make troubles for Russia in Chechnya, since even greater threats to Iran and Russia’s common interests were now posed by the Taliban.

This is a long way of saying that, historically, Russia and Iran have not trusted each other. However, there are issues that come along on which they have common interests and on which they work together despite their mistrust.

WP: How do you think Moscow and Teheran view their bilateral relation?

JP: I think they both look at it in a very utilitarian way.

Russia wants to continue being engaged and tries to dosage this engagement in the hope that, over the years, it will wind up with a better position that it has so far in post-Shah Iran. In my opinion this is the key to why Russia doesn’t do more on the nuclear issue: it hopes to do just enough to moderate Iran without angering it.

The Islamic Republic also seizes the engagement with Russia in a very utilitarian way. For example, when relations between Moscow and Teheran started warming up after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, during which bilateral dealings had been nearly frozen, Iran looked to Russia as a way to breaking out of what seemed to be encirclement by the rest of the world.

Basically, at all junctures both countries find a reason to deal with each other.

WP: Influence over Central Asia has been a key and always difficult aspect of the relation between Moscow and Teheran. Is influence in Central Asia somewhat settled for Moscow and Teheran, or what’s in store?

JP: My impression is that, for the short-term, Iran is not going to try contest with Russia in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In the long-run, however, I think Iran will always compete over those areas and Russia knows it.

It must be said that the Central Asians themselves play a fundamental role and not in favor of Iran, the intentions of which they never trust. There is a long history to this, going back the 19th Century and Sunni-Shi’a differences, even if people might not remember what were the religious origin of their dislike for Iranians.

In any case, Iranians have always been despised by the Sunni populations of Central Asia. You can see for yourself in the travel literature from the 19th Century. For example, one of my favorite is a book by Eugene Schuyler, the American Consul in St. Petersburg, who took a nine-month trip to Central Asia after Moscow conquered Tashkent and what is now known as Uzbekistan. In those decades, the 1860s and 1870s, the Turkmen’s attitude towards Iranians was that these were people to be captured and sold in the slave market.

Even in Tajikistan, although they basically speak Farsi, they are Sunni, not Shi’a. And in spite of the common cultural roots with Iranians, it didn’t take long for good feelings to wear off during the civil war of 1992-1993. In the Caucasus, the Azerbaijani are also very distrustful of Iran. Armenia, of course, has a modus vivendi with Iran and so does Georgia.

Basically they all have their unpleasant memories. For the time being, I think Iranians learned a bitter lesson in Tajikistan and they have sort of pulled back, as far as their revolutionary aspirations in Central Asia and the Caucasus are concerned. As we’ve seen, they refrained from repeating the Tajik experience in Chechnya.

In any case, this is not to say that Iran has given up. Teheran maintains a relatively long-term view of that part of the world, and it hopes to exert more influence there as Iran becomes stronger and as Russia becomes weaker.

Russians are aware of this, and some have openly commented about trend lines for Russia and Iran going into different directions from now on. They see the Russian population decreasing and the Iranian population increasing. They realize that Iran might be getting nuclear weapons and missiles, which would neutralize Russia’s trump card of nuclear weapons and missiles.

In the Middle East itself, Moscow sees Iranian influence degrading whatever strength Russia might have. Moreover, the Russians also remember that it wasn’t so long ago that they pushed Iran out of the Caucasus and Central Asia and a few ascribe to Iran ambitions to get back the “lost” territories. Indeed, on the Iranian side there is still heavy resentment over the Gulistan Treaty of 1813 (which confirmed inclusion of modern day Azerbaijan, Daghestan and Eastern Georgia into the Russian Empire,) and the Turkmenchay Treaty (signed by the Persian Empire after its defeat in the Russo-Persian War of 1826-1828, which recognized Russia’s control over the Erivan khanate, Nakhchivan khanate and the remainder of the Talysh khanate, today parts of Azerbaijan).

WP: The Caspian Sea and its energy resources have also represented a key point of confrontation between Russia and Iran. What is the road ahead, especially with regard to energy?

JP: In terms of Caspian delimitations and Caspian resources strictly speaking, things are at a standstill right now, but maybe not a standstill that Iran can’t live with.

Iran claims 20% of the Caspian Sea. By this current medium delimitation, Iran would only have 13 to 14%. During the Soviet period, Iran only worked south of the Astara/Hasanqoli line which gave it about 11%. In any case, wherever you draw the line, there isn’t that much gas in what would be Iranian waters. There isn’t much of it, it’s very deep, and it’s a lot harder and more expensive to get to it. So the question is, from an Iranian point of view, is this issue worth a war? Iran has been building a big deep sea drill, it was supposed to be a three-year project, but it hasn’t been deployed yet. However, whenever it is deployed, it could become a real challenge to what other countries believe is theirs portion of the Caspian. But, again, the question is whether Iran would really push it north of the Astara/Hasanqoli line and then, maybe, even outside of what would be the medium delimitations for boundaries. It could be sort of a shoe that falls on Iranian-Azerbaijani relations especially. So far the Iranians have chosen not to let it fall.

What will happen in the future I don’t know, but I believe the Iranians have come to realize how provocative would this action be.

As far as the Nabucco pipeline (a proposed natural gas pipeline to transport natural gas from Turkey to Europe, possibly originating in the Caucuses or Central Asia and bypassing Russia) I don’t think that you can rule out that Iran may sometime feed gas into it; who knows what’s going to happen in the next five to ten years. You have to build Nabucco first anyway. Even if they did, I don’t think it would be a cause of war with Russia or anything like that.

Nevertheless, Russian policy in terms of energy out of the Caspian Sea has been to do everything in its power to exclude Iran from the European market. If Iran began to feed into Nabucco, it would cut into the Russian market share in Europe.

Overall, whatever Iran does will be secondary to what Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan do anyway. Iran feeding into Nabucco would just be part of a larger challenge to Russian domination of the gas market. One should remember that Russia’s blue stream pipeline under the Black Sea was done as a response to Iranian plans to feed gas to Turkey. Russia just wanted to shut Iranian gas south and east and keep it from going to Europe and it has been fairly successful thus far.

WP: To remain in the energy sector, there have been talks about the creating of an OPEC-like consortium of natural gas producers, countries such as Russia, Iran and Qatar. Is this a reality?

JP: I think it’s kind of a scare crow, I’m not an expert in those matters but my impression is that it is unworkable and it is just something that people talk about. Iranians talk about when they want the West to believe that there is a lot more cooperation on energy matter with Russia than there is.

When the Iranians really push the issue hard, you start reading the Russian press and the Russians are saying that there is not much to work with. In any case, it wouldn’t be like OPEC or anything of that sort. As said, as far as the European energy market, Russia just doesn’t want Iran in there and will do everything that it can to cut it out.

WP: The nuclear issue, instead, seems to be one where Iran can play its cards in a very successful way. What might strike one as odd, for example, is that even when its relations with the United States peaked after September 11 2001, and while Russia partially conceded on the Iran nuclear issue, Moscow never gave up Iran and kept pushing ahead with the Bushehr project. Why do you think that is?

JP: I’d qualify what you said. Russia never gave up on Bushehr. It claimed, and it still claims, that Bushehr is a civilian nuclear power plant and doesn’t have anything to do with whatever Iran is doing on the enrichment front or about the nuclear weapons program.

Russia and Iran negotiated the contract to build Bushehr when Andrey Kozyrev was Foreign Minister in the early 1990s. It goes way back. So it’s true that Moscow hasn’t abandoned Bushehr.

But on other issues, and I have the details in the book, by then Russia was already much more cautious about what it was doing with Iran in terms of allowing proliferation of nuclear expertise and nuclear components. It began tightening up on its laws; on overseeing of exports; on Iran’s weapons shopping in Russia. This caution on the part of the Russians was immediately reflected in statements by Iranians leaders, including Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani. In 2002, he said that Russia just didn’t want a strong Iran and it was not going to sell to Iran the weapons that Iran really wanted. There was much bitterness on the arms-trade front from the Iranians toward the Russians. And even if the Russians have continued to sell weapons to the Iranians, it is never quite enough for Teheran.

WP: Do you think Iran ever looks to Russia when it thinks of developing nuclear weapons? Does Russia feel that it would be directly threatened?

JP: The reason why Iran started on his nuclear program certainly wasn’t the Soviet Union or Russia. It happened at the last stages of the Iran-Iraq war. You begin seeing then statements by people such as Rafsanjani, saying that Iran needed nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the Russians immediately recognized in 1998 the potential threat posed by an Iran with a Shahab-3 missile, which can reach the southern portions of Russia on either side of the Caspian. Those in Russia that want good relations with Iran emphasize that Iran never intends to fire these missiles in Russia’s direction. On the other hand, Putin made clear that the Russians knew how far those missiles could go and were very well aware of the danger. It is no coincidence that a real jolt hit security circles in Moscow right after Iran first tested the Shahab-3 in 1998, and that a lot came out in the press on how Iranians were circumventing all laws and stealing technology from the Russians. In short, nobody’s eyes are blind to this potential threat.

WP: What is the role of the U.S. in the Russia-Iran relation?

JP: In broad historical perspectives, the U.S. was dominant in Iran during the years of the Shah, and it has been absent from Iran in the last thirty-years. Russia has more of a relationship with Iran now than it had back at the time of the Shah and it would like to preserve it.

There is a kind of historical competition. I don’t think that Russia thinks that it can replace the U.S. in Iran but it certainly would like to improve its position there. At the same time it is fearful that there will be a deal between Iran and the U.S. and all of this effort Moscow has been putting in will be for nothing.

I think there is still a lingering memory in Moscow of the Iran-Contra episode. The Soviets realized then, all of a sudden, that there were people in the Islamic Republic willing to do a deal with Washington. As a result fears remain that in spite of Russia’s efforts to improve relations with Iran, in the end Iran prefers to deal with other countries over Russia.

WP: On a more personal level, as a U.S. Government official who has spent many years working on the USSR, Russia and Central Asia, what was the motivation behind your decision to write about Russia-Iran relations from the perspective of Moscow and Teheran, treating the U.S. only as an external player?

JP: The project simply began because, as a part of my briefing duties in the State Department, I kept running up against the issue of Moscow-Teheran relations and the charges that Russia was doing proliferation in Iran. The other part of it was that, in 1992, a great portion of my time was consumed with following what was going on in Tajikistan. I was watching Iranian interests and how Russia dealt with Iran and I found it so strange, as someone who didn’t know the deep history of the engagement between Russia and Iran, that they could be arming opposite sides in the Tajik civil war on one level yet simultaneously doing deals on Bushehr on another level. I wanted to try to get into the heads of decision makers on both sides to try to understand the relation better. That was the intellectual impetus for it. And I also think this is a different perspective on the matter of Russia-Iran relations that you would normally encounter in the U.S. Here we tend to look at them separately, wondering what we should do with Iran and how we should deal with Russia. In America there are certain assumptions and stereotypes as to how Russia and Iran are dealing with each other, but they are often very off.

WP: What was the most unexpected and important thing you learned about the Russia-Iran relation?

JP: That engagement above the table goes along with kicking each other under the table all the time. You have this tussling even while they are embraced. The fact is that they always deal with each other and they will always deal with each other. Because they are so close, they are never going to go away.

It’s not like a country in the Western Hemisphere dealing with a country in the Eastern Hemisphere where one can choose whether to deal with the other or not. Neither country has a choice in this case; they have to deal with each other.

Even now that they don’t have common borders, in their minds common borders remain and, actually, they do share the Caspian Sea. Russia and Iran have overlapping or conflicting interests in many areas: Central Asia, the Caucasus, South Asia, and the Middle East.

The other, more personal thing I had not really expected was that the title Persian Dreams attracted an audience that I hadn’t anticipated: the Iranian Diaspora and even people in Iran. This book was written by someone that had always studied Russia rather than Iran, but there’s probably less interest in the book from the Russian side than there has been from the Iranian side, at least so far.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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