Reuters issued a report on the meetings which focused particularly upon its economic aspect, and specifically on the support that each country appears to be giving the other in their talks with fellow oil exporting countries including Saudi Arabia and other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Russia is leading non-OPEC countries in the global implementation of a plan to cut oil output in order to stabilize prices that have been depressed by longstanding oversupply.
The oil cuts were a flash point in the escalating conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as the latter initially demanded Iranian participation while the Iranians insisted upon raising their own output until such time as their own output figures were deemed to be in line with the production levels that had been achieved prior to the imposition of nuclear-related sanctions. Those sanctions were lifted in January of last year, in line with the seven-party nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, of which Russia is a part.
The agreement seemed to quickly boost Iranian-Russian ties, as by giving Russia the legal basis to conclude the sale of an advanced missile defense system, which had been stalled years earlier as a result of international objections. There has been subsequent discussion of additional arms sales between the two countries. Although Iranian officials have declared an interest in purchasing tanks and fighter jets among other weapons, it is not clear which of these plans has been taken seriously by Moscow. Nonetheless, military cooperation was certainly a topic of conversation in the latest talks, and was probably not limited to discussion of strategies in Syria.
Al Monitor reported on Tuesday that Moscow and Tehran had signed 14 documents by the end of the two days – a development that seemingly solidifies their commitment to the preservation of an alliance that has been growing for years but that has also been treated as dubious by numerous global policy analysts. These skeptical analyses have tended to focus on such factors as Russia’s traditional cooperation with Israel, which Iran has sworn to destroy, as well as the imbalance between Russian and Iranian incentives to preserve Assad and remain present in Syria over the long term.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the possibility of Russia and Iran being essentially split apart over the Syria issue. And what’s more, this speculation had even gone so far as of last week that some analysts felt the Russian-Iranian alliance had already effectively been undermined by newfound collaboration between Russia and several adversaries of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This was the claim presented in an editorial that appeared in FrontPage Mag on Friday. The article drew on research from the Middle East Media Research Institute to argue that the assertive Iran policy being promoted by US President Donald Trump had already begun to take effect, in part by convincing Russia to contribute to a “comprehensive front” that is forming against Iran.
The editorial acknowledges that this is the most contentious part of the MEMRI report, whereas it is generally understood that the US, several Arab nations in the region, the state of Israel and even Turkey are showing increasing signs of cooperation in standing up against Iranian influence. FrontPage Mag cited “recent events in Syria” to suggest that MEMRI might be correct in seeing an emerging Russian role in that “comprehensive front.” It points out that Moscow has shown little opposition to Israeli airstrikes that are aimed at preventing Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah from gaining permanent footholds in Syria and especially the Golan Heights.
It remains to be seen how the MEMRI and FrontPage conclusions will be affected by the recent meetings between the Rouhani and Putin governments. But it is clear that some other analysts are prepared to interpret such things as evidence of the opposite trend, toward more Iranian-Russian cooperation and more confrontation of the other players in the supposedly comprehensive front.
It is certainly easy to argue that the mutual commitments expressed regarding the oil production agreement are signs that Russia is still planning to support Iran against at least some of its adversaries. The two nations indicated that they would continue to work together on that deal, and Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh also declared his expectation that the deal would be extended. Yet he refused to commit to Iranian participation in the ongoing output cuts, even though Iran has continued raising its own output and by some accounts had already surpassed pre-sanctions levels even before the agreement went into effect in December.
All of this suggests that Russia is continuing to defend Iran’s legal position in discussions with its OPEC partners, just as it has previously defended Iran’s positions against Western criticism regarding the JCPOA and the associated UN Security Council resolution calling upon the Islamic Republic to avoid testing of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles while the nuclear deal remains in effect.
That these criticisms are led by Western powers is arguably very significant, in light of the argument made by UPI in its analysis of Rouhani’s latest meeting with his Russian counterpart, the eighth such meeting in four years. The article suggests that the Russian-Iranian alliance will be more difficult to break than some other analysts have claimed, because the two countries have a mutual interest in supporting each other’s efforts to challenge Western influence over the Middle East.
Notably, this objective of fundamentally changing the balance of power in the region seemed to be prominent in Rouhani’s commentary upon the meeting. For instance, Al Monitor quoted him as saying, “The decline of the West’s dominance and the end of the monopoly on wealth is a historic opportunity to build a new world.”