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Russian Elite Image of Iran: From the Late Soviet Era to the Present

Authored by Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh. | September 2009

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Summary

The evolution of the Russian elite's view of Iran is traced over the past 20 years of post-Soviet history. The major thesis and outcome are as follows.

1. During most of the late Soviet and post-Soviet period, two major trends in the approach to Iran have dominated the Russian elite. The first emphasizes the strategic importance of Russia's rapprochement with Iran and is mostly supported by Russian Imperial Nationalists, notably those defined as “Eurasianists.” For these groups, an Iran-Russia rapprochement would not be a temporary use of Iran as a bargaining chip in dealing with the West, but a permanent alliance.

The second group believes that Russia should use Iran as a bargaining chip in dealing with the United States and as a useful trade partner, but not a permanent ally. Supporters of this view usually see Russia either as a self-contained country or as close to the West, mostly Europe.

2. Eurasianism and similar brands of Russian nationalism became popular starting in the early Soviet era, reaching a peak by the beginning of the Vladimir Putin era. By then, elements of Eurasianism had been integrated into the ideology of the upper echelon of the elite, including Putin. Thoughts about a possible, at least loose, strategic alliance with Iran were also becoming popular. Yet soon after the beginning of Putin's tenure, an opposite trend started to develop, and skepticism toward Iran and its relationship with Russia grew. This trend has dominated the Russian elite's approach to Iran to the present, regardless of the vacillation in Russian foreign policy. One might assume this would dominate the elite's view at least for the near future.

3. The changes in the Russian elite's approach to Iran--from the assumption that Iran should be a strategic ally to a more guarded view--are due not so much to changes in the international situation as to internal changes in Russia. The more guarded approach to Iran reflects increasing internal tension between ethnic Russians, still the majority of the Russian elite, and the Russian Islamic community. The persistence and likely increase of this tension is one of the most important reasons why a RussianIranian relationship would be guarded and pragmatic, barring some unforeseeable turns of events.

This monograph focuses on the Russian elite's perception of Iran and its geostrategic posture. It deals with the actual implementation of policies only insofar as this helps elucidate the images of Iran and the ideological aspect of the RussianIranian relationship. The Russian elite are divided into two major groups.

1. The first level makes decisions or plays a considerable role in making decisions. It includes the president, his advisors, influential think tanks, and intellectuals who basically shape the ideology of the government.

2. The second level could be defined as the legitimate opposition. These people criticize the upper ruling echelon, yet they share some of the premises of the ruling elite's ideology or at least believe that policy can be changed in the future. The ruling elite tolerates them and to some extent provides them a way of influencing public opinion and thus influencing the ruling elite's decisions. These people have been allowed to occupy positions in governing bodies such as the Duma and the Russian parliament; appear on TV; and publish newspapers with comparatively wide circulation. The influence of this second layer of the elite is also enhanced by the wide circulation of their books and the frequency with which their ideas are discussed in cyberspace.

The monograph considers the dynamics of the Russian view of the elite and the role of both external and internal variables in the changes of images. The role of both sets of variables makes it possible to gauge the sustainability of this or that trend and make predictions about the future.

Introduction

The Goal of the Project.

The goal of this project is to trace the evolution of the Russian elite's view of Iran over the past 20 years of post-Soviet history. This knowledge will help characterize the elite's present vision of Iran in the context of Russia's geopolitical posture. The major thesis and outcome are as follows.

During most of the late Soviet and post-Soviet period, two major trends in the approach to Iran have dominated the Russian elite. The first emphasizes the strategic importance of Russia's rapprochement with Iran. This view is mostly supported by Russian Imperial Nationalists, notably those defined as “Eurasianists.” For these groups, an Iran-Russia rapprochement should not be a temporary use of Iran as a bargaining chip in dealing with the West, but a permanent alliance.

The second group believes that Russia should use Iran as a bargaining chip in dealing with the United States and as a useful trade partner, but not a permanent ally. Supporters of this view usually see Russia either as a self-contained country or as close to the West, mostly Europe.

Eurasianism and similar brands of Russian nationalism became popular starting in the early Soviet era, reaching a peak by the beginning of the Vladimir Putin era. By then, elements of Eurasianism had been integrated into the ideology of the upper echelon of the elite, including Putin. Thoughts about a possible, at least loose, strategic alliance with Iran were also becoming popular. Yet soon after the beginning of Putin's tenure, an opposite trend started to develop, and skepticism toward Iran and its relationship with Russia grew. This trend has dominated the Russian elite's approach to Iran to the present, regardless of the vacillation in Russian foreign policy. One might assume this would dominate the elite's view at least for the near future.

The changes in the Russian elite's approach to Iran--from the assumption that Iran should be a strategic ally to a more guarded view--are due not so much to changes in the international situation as to internal changes in Russia. The more guarded approach to Iran reflects increasing internal tension between ethnic Russians, still the majority of the Russian elite, and the Russian Islamic community. The persistence and likely increase of this tension is one of the most important reasons why a RussianIranian relationship would be guarded and pragmatic, barring some unforeseeable turns of events.

Conclusion

The image of Iran has been incorporated into the Russian elite's vision of the Muslim world. The positive image of Iran was mostly included in a few ideological paradigms; for ethnic Russians, who should still be seen as the dominant force in the Russian Federation, Eurasianism that should be seen here as the most important.

The proponents of Eurasianism regard unity alliance between ethnic Russians and Muslim peoples of the Russian Federation as the very essence of Russian civilization. In the late Sovietearly post-Soviet Russia, Eurasianists focused on the relationship between ethnic Russians and Muslims within the USSR and former USSR. Later, their interests became increasingly global, and Iran emerged as the most important potential Russian ally, not just as a counterbalance to the United States and the West in general, but as a way to make Russia once again a great power. In the early years of its existence, members of this group were strongly anti-American. Still, their views were marginal in the beginning of the post-Soviet era. However, with increasing disenchantment with post-Soviet arrangements and the steady evolution of the Yeltsin regime along authoritarian lines, pro-Iranian views became increasingly popular, even around general pro-western segments of the population, and by the beginning of Putin's tenure seem to have become the essential foreign policy element in restoring Russia's imperial might and prestige.

Yet, even at the height of their popularity at the beginning of Putin's tenure, these imperial and implicitly pro-Iranian views were not consistent, and the translation of even the strongest pro-Iranian statements into real action was quite limited. And, as time progressed, these views became increasingly challenged. There were many reasons for this. One was certainly the very composition of the Russian elite, who were mostly Western-oriented by lifestyle and economic interests and would hardly engage in actions that could endanger them. But there was another reason, the most important for our monograph.

The vision of Iran as the most important Russian ally implies a good relationship with the Muslim community, especially inside the Russian Federation. By approximately the middle of Putin's presidency, there were growing signs of tension, increased by the smoldering conflict in the Caucasus. As a result of this, the elite's approach to Iran became more irrational and controversial. Furthermore, the image of Iran as a potentially dangerous power was increasingly disseminated by the end of the Putin presidency. A positive image of Israel, a sworn enemy of Iran, and growing RussianIsraeli contacts were some of the salient manifestations of this trend. This flirtation with Israel also related to ambivalent feelings toward the Islamic world and a general sense of insecurity, which increased as the result of an economic crisis and the rise of the Taliban. In this case, Iran emerged not so much as a mighty empire with which Russia could challenge the United States but as a more moderate state, at least in comparison to Muslim extremism. Taking a 20-25 year trend in toto, one can see the peak of the idea of ethnic Russians, Russian Muslims, and Iranian rapprochement standing together against the United States in 1999-2001, with a steady subsequent decline regardless of all the zigzags on the way. A reversal of this trend seems unlikely.

Another related finding is the multilayer nature of the ideological array. The evolution of a new outlook does not lead to the removal of old ideological layers. The old ones are not doomed to complete extinction and could exist with the new one, which could create the impression of a contradictory ideological picture and complicate identifying a dominant trend. Yet this trend exists and can be defined.

What are the practical implications of these trends, in particular the RussianIranian relationship, for U.S. foreign policy Such questions should be placed in the context of more general questions in regard to Russia's general foreign policy posture. With increasing oil prices and general stability of the regime--at least in comparison to that of the Yeltsin era--increasing numbers of Western pundits assert that Russia is in the process of resuming the long history of imperial build-up. The Georgia war seems to have supported this assumption. The recent Russian attempt to create problems for the United States in Central Asia seems to provide additional arguments for Russia's imperial aspirations. But this assumption should be taken with a grain of salt.

Russia's instability and cool relationship with the Muslim world both inside and outside the former USSR--the relationship with moderate and usually pro-American regimes such as the Gulf states and the Saudis is the only exception--parallels Russia's continuing strained relationship with the West. Russia found little rapprochement in the past with the United States, despite Putin's good personal relationship with Bush, nor with WestCentral Europe, despite the Russian elite's close economic and personal ties with this part of the world.

At the same time, Russia continues to be deeply alienated and often openly hostile to Eastern Europe. Russia's position inside the former USSR is also unstable, and the war with Georgia did not help Russia's influence in this part of the world. Russia was not able to intimidate the former Soviet republics enough to compel them to submit to Russia's will. It is also unlikely that it could be rich enough to buy their good will, as it did with Kyrgizistan, and even here Russia was not successful; indeed Makas continued to be used by the United States. Furthermore, the war practically destroyed the last remnant of good will and memories about Russia as a core of the common state to which all of the republics belonged in the not so distant past. The war was not supported by anyone, and led to a sharp deterioration in Russia's relationship with some of its neighbors, such as Ukraine.

In general, the cool relationship between Russia and other former republics of the USSR does not exclude occasional cooperation, for example, the creation of a joint military force to fend off a possible threat from the Taliban. Such a relationship is quite pragmatic and, by its very nature, fleeting. With not many friends either in the West or in the East, including the Muslim world, Russia, more than at any other time in its modern history, is increasingly inward-looking and isolated. The major preoccupation of the present Russian elite is not building influence or direct expansion, but a search for stability, regardless of assertive rhetoric.

Stability has become even more important in the current economic crisis, which has affected Russia's perception of Iran. While the proponents of the Eurasian paradigm saw Russia and Iran as friendly powers who were ready to support each other even at the risk of major war, the current Russian elite approach is quite different. They court Iran for pragmatic and often fleeting commercial interests. Russia's flirtation with Iran could also be intended to send signals to the United States that Russia is displeased with certain American actions--condemnation of Russia's war with Georgia or plans to install American missiles in East Europe. The same pragmatism could well be the case with the Iranians, who, one might surmise, would hardly take Russian interests much to heart in planning their own geopolitical posture.

Russia has been against the United States striking against Iran, though even here it has not always been consistent. The major concern for Russia was not so much the increased American imperial presence in the Middle East as that the war could lead to a sharp rise of instability that would finally be transmitted to Russia's backyard. Consequently, easing an Iranian U.S. standoff would be approached positively, even with tongue in cheek. Russia might be suspicious that an U.S.Iran alliance could occur at Russia's expense. But easing the tension would be much appreciated if Russia were seen as a part of the solution, and Russia's interests, such as a monopoly on supplying gas to Europe, would not suffer. Russia would also be pleased with a U.S. rapprochement with Iran in connection with Afghanistan. Here, Russia sees Iran as a positive force because it is a moderate state, at least in comparison to the Taliban--a force that could help in dealing with the Afghanistan quagmire. At the same time, U.S. cooperation with both Russia and Iran could be in the U.S. best interests. Indeed, contending with global chaos in which terrorists and crime flourish might be one of the most important problems with which the United States will need to deal in the future.