Iranian protesters confronted by basij militias on the streets of Tehran
Over at Discovery Blog, Ambassador Bruce Chapman is writing about the current upheaval of popular discontent against the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. Nearly three years ago, Discovery Institute hosted Amir Abbas Fakhravar at its Seattle offices. Mr. Fakhravar is a former head of the Iran Student Confederation who was previously jailed and tortured for his opposition to the Islamic Republic regime. You can read Mr. Fakhravar's blog here.
So far, Russian diplomats have maintained a firm "no comment" policy concerning the ongoing power struggle inside Iran. [UPDATE: The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement concerning the post-election revolt today, not over the weekend when this story was written]. But since Russia has already been mentioned in passing in some analysis of the crisis inside Iran, it's worth looking at the facts surrounding the complicated relationship between Tehran and Moscow.
"Winds of Change" by The Scorpions. Will protests against the regime in Iran end like in the former Eastern Bloc in 1989-91...or will there be another Tiananmen Square?
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won an election last week that various opposition groups both inside and outside the country believe was rigged, was scheduled to appear at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on Monday in the Urals city of Yekaterinberg. Ahmadenijad first delayed his appearance to deal with the unrest back home, then showed up to issue a defiant anti-U.S. statement, then promptly returned to Iran. A Reuters account of Ahmadenejad's meeting with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev quoted a Kremlin spokeswoman saying that the two leaders "did not even sit down." after their photo-op. Anyone Googling media accounts of the summit this past weekend could come away quite confused about the whereabouts of the Iranian leader.
Shanghai'd in Yekaterinberg
At Yekaterinberg, Russian and Chinese leaders issued statements about the need for emerging economies to accumulate alternative currencies to the U.S. dollar -- as Washington goes on printing more money ($160 billion in the latest U.S. government bond auction). Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao also called for more diplomacy to prevent the nuclearization of North Korea and a new arms race between the world's great powers in outer space. Russia's economic ministries dutifully announced that China had become the number one trading partner for Russian firms, surpassing European Union leader Germany, the same week Putin and Hu hailed a "breakthrough" in Sino-Russia relations.
Does Russia Have Any Actual Influence in Iran?
When it comes to Iran, however, it appears that the crystal balls/tea leaves in Moscow and Beijing are just as clouded as in Washington. All the talk of direct talks between the Obama Administration and the Iranian government (whoever that may be at the moment) will pivot on the outcome in the streets and smoke filled rooms of Tehran.
Regardless of how warmly welcomed Israel's Ambassador was to Moscow in recent weeks, or how much Washington's handful of realists yearn for grand U.S.-Russia bargains on Iran and Afghanistan, it remains unclear exactly how much influence Moscow has with Iran. Russia's repeated waffling on plans to sell S-300 surface to air missiles to Iran, and accusing the Islamic Republic regime of failing to pay debts on time to fund construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor on the Persian Gulf, may be isolated incidents, or evidence of a general falling out between the Kremlin and Tehran. Few know the real answer, and those who do (parties to the deals) aren't talking.
The Overhyped Politics of Iranian Energy
Some hardcore Russophobes in Washington claim that Russia wants Iran to remain unstable in order to keep a potential competitor for European gas markets down. With Azerbaijan and Turkey both eager to ship Iranian gas to Europe if the financing existed for such a huge pipeline project, Moscow probably couldn't prevent such competition from emerging even if it tried.
At any rate, gas demand in Europe has been falling just like it has in the U.S. in the last few months, as the global economic crisis crushes industrial demand for gas around the world. This is a major reason why Ukraine recently found itself saddled with debt to Russia's Gazprom for natural gas that had been used to make Ukrainian steel that today is no longer in demand.
Iran May Actually Need Nuclear Power, But Not Nuclear Weapons
Iran's oil and gas production has actually been in decline for several years, despite record prices in 2008, which may indicate that the Iranians have a legitimate interest in peaceful nuclear energy, provided that the fuel is not diverted for making a nuclear bomb. The late Shah of Iran, in an advertisement that has been circulating around the Internet for several years, was once touted as a client of the U.S. nuclear power industry, back in America's pre-Three Mile Island days. If Iran's oil and gas fields are revived, most of the new production will flow to India and China, rather than to the West. So 21st century analogies to the 19th century "Great Game" between Russia and Great Britain over influence in Iran and Afghanistan are largely useless and ought to be labelled what they are -- geopolitical fantasies for policy wonks.
Russia and Iran: More Freedom Won't Necessarily Equal Complete Agreement with the West
At this point, Russian influence over Iran, much like the prospects for direct talks between Washington and a stable Iranian government, largely remain figments of policy makers imaginations. Let's hope the Iranian people can change their own regime and usher in a new era of prosperity and freedom for an ancient nation.
However, let's also remember that an Iran more liberated from the mullahs won't necessarily be a pushover for what America or Europe want in the Middle East, just as post-Soviet Russia has been reasserting itself in recent years. Yet if you ask any present or former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, they will tell you that the Russian Federation is still far more free and cooperative with the West than the late Soviet Union ever was. Now that NATO expansion is effectively frozen by the economic crisis and the results last summer's war between Russia and Georgia, the prospects for direct military confrontation between Washington and Moscow are almost non-existent. If the U.S. could say the same about Iran ten years from now, that would be an achievement for both sides.
What America Can Hope For: An End to a Thirty Year Cold War
Even if a more liberal Iran proves to be reassertive of historic rights, it likely won't fund terrorist organizations like Hezbollah or Hamas or call for the annihilation of Israel (indeed, the regime of the late Shah was an ally of the Jewish State, and similar mutual interests might lead to at least quiet Israeli-Iranian talks in the future). Indeed, if reports from the demonstrators are correct, at least some of the Hezbollah thugs (who don't speak a word of Farsi), fresh from their stinging defeat in the Lebanese elections, have been flown in by the regime to brutalize students and other opposition members in Iranian cities. Such groups are unlikely to continue to receive largesse in the event of regime change.
As Russian President Dmitry Medvedev observed, "freedom is better than non-freedom". What was true for Russia will also hold true for Iran. Hopefully the Iranian people will learn from Russia's painful experiences during the Nineties when making their own transition to a market economy and a more free political system in the years to come. For all the criticism that President Obama has taken for not criticizing the mullahs crackdown more harshly earlier, at least he recognized that the protests are not about outside powers, but about the people of Iran.
Charles Ganske is the editor of Russia Blog. The views expressed here are his own.