On 20 January, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi traveled to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow, with the express purpose of advancing bilateral ties between both countries at the highest level.
Among the talking points of the two leaders were their shared regional and international issues, the Vienna negotiations for Iran’s nuclear program, and regional cooperation in Eurasia.
Contrary to expectations and to the positive statements made before the meeting, the visit did not end with the announcement of a grand strategic agreement, such as the one that took place between China and Iran a year ago.
Nevertheless, the visit did push negotiations between both parties to a higher level, and facilitated Iran’s economic integration into the Russian-Chinese Eurasian architecture.
Great expectations, not grand declarations
In recent years, both the improvement of relations between Tehran and Moscow, and a focus on a strategic partnership have become particularly important tasks for Iran.
Besides working to boost trade and economic ties – a priority for sanction-laden Iran – an additional impetus may be given to the development of military-political interaction in the future.
In October 2021, quoting Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Interfax announced that Tehran was ready to forge a strategic partnership with Moscow, and that both parties are expected to sign agreement documents in the coming months.
According to the TASS agency, both sides were close to completing work on a document on comprehensive cooperation for a period of 20 years.
The timing is important for both countries. As the chairman of the Iranian parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, Mojtaba Zulnur, told the Mehr News Agency that in order to overcome US sanctions, Iran seeks a partnership agreement with Russia, one that would be analogous to the agreement between Tehran and Beijing.
However, contrary to expectations and to some statements prior to the Iranian leader’s trip to Russia, President Raisi’s visit has, at least for the time being, failed to achieve a major breakthrough on that front. According to sources, this process may take some time and may, at least for Moscow, be linked to the outcome of Iran’s nuclear negotiations.
However, two recent events involving Russia and Iran had significant resonance: the joint naval exercises between Russia, China, and Iran in the Indian Ocean, and Iran’s relations with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) alongside the materialization of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).
Will Iran be joining the EAEU anytime soon?
Iranian political analyst and former Fars News Agency (English) chief editor Mostafa Khoshcheshm says, instead, that Russia looks to be pushing for Iran’s entry into the EAEU. “Negotiations,” he reveals, “are already underway.”
In 2019, the preferential trade agreement (PTA), signed between Iran and the EAEU in 2018, entered into force.
The agreement offered lower tariffs on 862 commodity types, of which 502 were Iranian exports to the EAEU. As a result, in the period between October 2019 and October 2020, trade volume increased by more than 84 percent.
According to Vali Kaleji, the Iranian expert on Central Asia and Caucasian Studies, this volume of trade was achieved at a time when the US, under former president Donald Trump, withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 and was following the policy of ‘maximum pressure’ against Iran.
In October 2021, Iran and EAEU started negotiating an upgrade of the PTA into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). If achieved, this will set off a massive increase in the volume of trade between Iran and the EAEU, also known as the Union.
Both Moscow and Tehran have reasons to push for the further integration of Iran in the Union.
For Iran, this opportunity will provide improved access to Eurasian and European markets. It will also provide EAEU member states with increased access to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea. For this reason, Moscow may be thinking a step ahead.
Moscow views the signing of an FTA agreement with Iran as a crucial step for Iran’s entry into the Union.
Russia has concerns that if Iran reaches an agreement with the US over its nuclear issue, there may be positive Iranian policy shifts towards the west, and this may not serve Russia’s interests in West Asia, especially in Syria.
For Russia, a nuclear Iran is preferable to a pro-western one. For this reason, Russia would be glad to see the acceleration of Iran’s integration into Eurasian regional institutions.
Opening gateways, prudently
Iran’s accession to the nine-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) should be viewed from this perspective. Moreover, with Tehran joining the EAEU, neighboring and friendly countries, such as Iraq and Syria may follow.
Russia would then have a direct railway and highway connection via Iran to its Syrian coastal military base in Tartous. This would serve its military goals on a logistic and operational level in case a crisis occurs in the Black Sea and Russia’s navy faces challenges.
On 27 December 2021, Iran and Iraq agreed to build a railway connecting both countries. The 30km railway would be strategically important for Iran, linking the country to the Mediterranean Sea via Iraq and Syria’s railways.
This would be a win-win situation for both China and Russia; one where China through its Belt and Road Initiative, and Russia through its International North-South Transport Corridor, would have direct railway access to the Mediterranean Sea.
This route also would compete with India’s Arab-Mediterranean Corridor connecting India to the Israeli port of Haifa through the various railways of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.
So, for China and Russia, consolidating Iran’s geopolitical and geo-economic position in the region is an important step. From a Russian perspective, having a direct land route through the Levant to the Mediterranean will bolster its power base in Syria and extend its soft power through trade and energy deals within neighboring countries.
It was for this reason that Iran acted prudently against the recent Azerbaijani provocations on the Armenian border. Tehran’s concern was that Turkey would have direct access to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia through a possible ‘corridor’ passing from southern Armenia.
This is known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route Middle Corridor, connecting Europe to Central Asia through Turkey.
For Iran, this would be equivalent to NATO’s expansion in the Caspian Sea and further towards China. Hence, the west-east trade route would pose a serious threat to Iran and Russia and isolate them in Eurasia.
For the Iranians, this route would not only bypass Iran and Russia but would also impose a serious challenge to the north-south trade route initiated by the Iranians, Russians, and other Asian countries.
According to Khoshcheshm, “animosities by the western block have driven Iran and Eurasia closer to each other and this has given strong motivation for the Russians and Chinese to speed up Iran’s accession to the Eurasian block to hammer joint cooperation in economic and geopolitical areas and prevent US penetration into the region.”
Iran’s entry into the EAEU is therefore a win-win situation for both Moscow and Tehran. Russia would consolidate its geo-economic and geopolitical position in the Middle East, and Iran would have a railway connection to Russia and Europe and further expand Moscow’s influence in the region.
However, this ultimate objective may still need time, and will face challenges from the US and its allies in the region.
Confidence amid uncertainty
Iran’s possible accession to the EAEU would attract investments from neighboring countries to the underdeveloped rail communication between Iran and Russia in the Caucasus region.
The opening of communication channels between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as part of the 9 November trilateral statement, would facilitate trade and cargo transportation in the region as part of the North-South Transport corridor.
In such circumstances, the railway network is very important as the volume of goods transported by rail is far greater and faster than land and truck routes. However, the implementation of these projects is not yet a certainty.
The state-owned Russian Railways ceased implementation of its projects in Iran in April 2020 due to fears over US sanctions. Such a decision would affect other programs within the framework of the Russian-Iranian initiative in creating the North-South Transport Corridor.
Both sides would have to wait to overcome US sanctions, as economic routes are always a win-win situation.
By joining the EAEU and integrating into Eurasian regional organizations, Iran would consolidate its geo-economic position into a regional transport hub, opening the West Asian gate for Moscow’s railway access to the eastern Mediterranean.