Exclusive interview with Ambassador to Moscow

Exclusive interview with  Ambassador to Moscow
ID : N-299 Date : 2017/09/12 - 13:30

It’s not beyond reasonable to say that Iran and Russia are currently standing at the peak in the history of their bilateral ties. This status has been reached due to the two sides’ shared understanding of the complicated and perilous security conditions in Western Asia and Russia’s precise assessment of Iran’s growing influence as a key regional power, together with President Vladimir Putin’s strategic prudence. The two countries are not only at the pinnacle of their trade, industrial, and military ties but are also closely cooperating in a battle against blood-soaked terrorism in Iraq and Syria.

To gain more insight into the breadth of current Iran–Russia ties, Persia Digest held an exclusive interview with Iran’s Ambassador to Moscow, Dr. Mehdi Sanaee, who was a Member of Parliament before his mission to Russia and is regarded as a prominent expert on Eurasian politics and culture.


Persia digest:  How do you analyze the ties between the two countries and why have they determined to promote their relationship to this level?

Mehdi Sanaee: The current level of ties is unprecedented in the history of the two countries. A fresh phase was also introduced after President Rouhani took office in 2013. The presidents of the two sides have met nine times in three and a half years, not to mention their several phone conversations on different issues. I would say it is both the political will of the leaders plus the commonality of their strategies and approaches to regional and international developments that have bound the two sides close together. Russia and Iran are two powerful neighbors in a region that faces many challenges. Thus, close cooperation between the two in establishing peace and stability would equally serve both sides. Indeed, they share common interests and face common threats. For instance, stability in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus is a goal which keeps both Russia and Iran on the same side. Elsewhere, the Western–Arab axis, which holds an instrumental view on terrorism, dividing it into good and bad, has unleashed crises in the Middle East, while on the same issue, Iran and Russia have clearly defined their common goal as fighting all terrorist groups with no discrimination. Moreover, Syria has now turned into a symbol of the Russian–Iranian alliance in the war on terrorism.

As a general assessment, one could say that President Rouhani’s administration has managed to maintain a balanced moderate foreign policy, in which neither an Eastern nor a Western affiliation has overshadowed his strategy. The president has, in other words, expressed a readiness to expand ties with different world powers based on mutual interests. In Iran–Russia ties, I have to add also that the two sides have been trying to reduce the negative impacts of third parties.

PD: Which arenas do Iran and Russia’s common interests lie in?

MS: The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation share a variety of common interests as well as common challenges. A shared foreign policy concern for both sides is tackling terror and creating stability in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. A key problem in such regions as the Middle East is the fact that Western powers have weakened some targeted states to allow for the growth of terrorist groups and grant them the opportunity to keep rising and operating. In fact, the power vacuum in those countries caused by the weakening of the governments has created a breeding ground for non-state actors, the result of which is instability. The approach pursued by Iran and Russia in the face of such a situation is helping the sitting governments fight terror and restore security. The Western weakening of those states has worsened other problems, such as the production and smuggling of narcotics, something that both Iran and Russia have been seriously harmed by.

Other grounds of cooperation between Moscow and Tehran are focused on the fields of energy, including the formation of the Gas OPEC, stabilizing oil prices, transit activities, and strengthening the north–south corridor, as well as other areas of cooperation within regional and global organizations.

PD: Given the history of the ties between Iran and Russia, particularly during Iran’s Qajar era and even following the Islamic Revolution up until President Putin took office, many reformists within Iran argue that Moscow is not a trustworthy ally, as experience has proven that Russians care only for their own interests and at any moment may drop ties with Tehran in exchange for deals with the U.S. and Europe. Do you hold such a stance, and if not, please explain why?

MS: The truth of the matter is that the world is going through fast-paced changes. Today’s Iran is not the Qajar-era country, nor is Russia the country it used to be during the Czarist or the Soviet periods. It is true that one has to always bear in mind the lessons of history. However, we should not issue definite verdicts out of our negative memories and history and base our foreign policy approaches on them. There is no doubt that every country sets its own interests first and no country in the world would sacrifice its interests for the sake of another. Here it is the art of diplomacy that detects the existing capacities of the two sides and helps them secure their mutual interests. If it is proven that there is potential for the common interests of Iran and Russia, then should we have to ignore it because there has been a reference to a negative past? The best policy in mutual ties is for the two sides to hold an open view and seek the best of their interest in their interactions using wise and calculated approaches. To maintain the best relations, one has to hold a correct and updated assessment of the other side. When the chance is there to replace a pessimistic image with friendship, exchange, and cooperation, then why not? Two sides which share common interests and face common threats should have no worries about expanding their ties. Indeed, creating a distance between Moscow and Tehran is a goal sought by third-party players, who have always tried to damage ties between the two countries. For instance, U.S. President Donald Trump has not hidden his intention to create rifts between Iran and Russia. This is a reason strong enough to emphasize the necessity of expanding ties between the two governments. Common interests currently play a key role in the Iran–Russia ties and the two sides’ strategies with regard to a host of regional and international issues are well-aligned.

PD: What are the concrete and significant achievements gained during the late March visit by President Rouhani to Moscow? Rouhani referred to the ties as strategic, what does he exactly mean by this description?

MS: Dr. Rouhani and his administration as a whole consider Iran–Russia ties to be important and emphasize strengthening them in all economic, scientific, and cultural arenas. The statistics on the volume of interaction and visits between the two sides in the past three years is a sign of just that. Moreover, several high-level delegation trips, as well as President Putin’s visit to Tehran, his meetings with the Supreme Leader and his own counterpart plus trips by President Rouhani to Moscow are all indications of the two governments’ resolve for expanding ties. The latest visit by our president to Russia was a key step toward better dynamic relations. It took place on March 27 and 28, when Iran and Russia signed 14 memoranda of understanding, among them an agreement on collective tourist visa-free trips, transfer of convicts and the Garmsar–Incheh Borun Railway Line Electrification project, as well as several more economic and legal protocols. The two leaders also issued a joint statement, in which great emphasis was laid on the need for expanding bilateral, political, and economic ties in regional and international issues as well as the continuation of the ongoing efforts toward strategic cooperation. We believe that what matters most in our ties with Moscow is dynamism and strength, helping the two sides can serve their national interests. What we term the relation is not of utmost importance. In some areas of course, these ties could be called a “strategic partnership.” But at the end of the day, what counts is that the ties have such a firm basis that third parties are incapable of harming them. The latest visit by President Rouhani was, in fact, a recap of three and a half years of political and economic cooperation on regional and global matters. In recent years, positive and significant developments have been there in the Iran–Russia bilateral relations, a pattern which the two presidents also assessed as satisfactory.

PD: Do you believe that Russia under President Putin will continue supporting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to the end and for any price?

MS: Well, an answer to such a question would verge on prediction, something which is impossible in international relations. Still, one can have analytic guesses, based on which it seems that Russia will persist in its position and remain serious. It’s something one can witness in Moscow’s firm stance with regard to Damascus.

PD: What do you think would be a Russian response to a possible ground incursion into Syria by the U.S. and its allies?

MS: The answer to that question has to come from Russian officials, but signs show that such an incursion is unlikely. Given the fact that Russia is involved in a fight against foreign-backed terrorists in Syria, a full-scale war by the U.S. and its allies on Damascus will definitely lead to an escalation. There is no doubt that a U.S.-led ground attack would be a breach of international laws and regarded as an act of aggression with clear consequences for the invaders.

PD: To what extent has Iran managed to use Russia to fill in for the lack of its own ties with the West?

MS: Well, that’s not the way we look at our ties with Russia. We do not consider Moscow as a replacement or alternative to ties with the West. That’s not what this relation is supposed to mean. The Iran–Russia ties are being shaped based on mutual interest and will expand in accordance with the level of homogeneity of the approaches the two sides take in bilateral, regional and international matters. The idea that Tehran and Moscow might each be taking advantage of the other in their dealings with the West is an outdated Cold War era notion. Iran and Russia are neighbors and maintaining good neighborly ties is a wise and reasonable necessity, which should not be linked to relations with the West. In other words, we are no longer living in a bipolar world order, where proximity to one side would signify distance from the other. The world is at a stage of transition into the post-globalization period in which countries are increasingly inclined toward more regional cooperation and a new wave of that is just on the way. In such circumstances, the logical approach would be to strengthen ties with one’s neighbors. In the case of Moscow and Tehran, there were claims that the Russian-made nuclear power plant in Iran will never be completed, but the project finally became operational. As for the JCPOA [nuclear deal], the two acted in full coordination and harmony and are now pushing for full implementation. Both countries are resisting the pressures for the Westernization of their social values and instead are heading toward an international order, in which the U.S. is unable to impose its unipolar system. In fact, coordination between such allies as Russia and Iran in the current transitional era can play a significant part in the shaping of the new world order. At the same time, however, Iran’s growing ties with European countries and its policy of de-escalation with the West and in the region are not only no hurdle to the Tehran–Moscow relation but can even help it expand further.

PD: Do you think the bitterness of the ties between Iran and the West is pleasing to Russia?

MS: As I mentioned earlier, the two countries have come to the conclusion that their ties should be built in a way that remain unchanged in the face of negative measures by third parties. This also means that an expansion of ties between Iran and the West or Russia and the West should leave no impact on Iran–Russia relations. The assumption that closeness between the two sides would necessarily worsen relations with the West or vice versa, is basically rooted in a bipolar mindset, which does not conform to the realities of modern international relations. Well, some might be of that attitude inside Russia, but it’s neither the overwhelming view nor the official line there.

PD: What is the current volume of the trade between Iran and Russia? What plans are there to boost it and to what length is it expected to go?

MS: At the moment, we are witnessing a growth in economic and trade ties. In scientific, technological, and cultural fields as well, the two sides have set up a new structure for regular interactions. As for defense technology, there have been developments, such as the delivery of the S-300 missile defense system to Iran, something which is unprecedented.

The nuclear deal, furthermore, helped the two countries develop their relations and lifted many hurdles on the path of bilateral ties. Many agreements have been signed over the past three years. Even some which had remained suspended for a long time were back on the table. The volume of bilateral trade in 2016 topped 2.23 billion dollars (excluding defense projects). Although this figure shows a 70% jump over 2015, there is still has a long way to match the great capacity existing in the two countries. That is a fact which the presidents of the two countries have realized and they have the shared opinion that with the existing plans, the figure could stand at 20 billion dollars in the midterm.

In contradiction of some claims, the nuclear deal did not sideline the ties between Tehran and Moscow and it even paved the way for fresh grounds of cooperation. Officials from both sides made efforts to take strides in bilateral cooperation by seizing the opportunities emerging from the deal, which lifted economic and banking restrictions. In other words, the JCPOA was a gigantic step in opening our foreign policy and international trade horizons, the benefits of which were witnessed in ties with Russia as well. Currently, the two sides are shaping a new pattern in their mutual relation, as part of which negotiations have kicked off on cooperation between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union in the form of free trade and preferred deals.

PD: In 2016 words spread that Russia had agreed to a visa-free regime for Iranians. But no concrete steps have apparently been taken so far. Is the advantage exclusive for a specific type of passports? If not, when is it expected to be implemented?

MS: The agreement only covers tourist groups, and it was signed during President Rouhani’s late March visit to Moscow. According to the terms of the deal, groups of at least 5 to 50 members organized by travel and tourist agencies can travel to Russia without having to receive visas. The deal will start to go into effect after passing domestic and administrative paperwork in both Russia and Iran.

PD: Is Russia still using Iranian airbases to launch attacks on terrorist positions in Syria?

MS: The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation are engaged in mutual cooperation in the fight against terrorism, as part of which the two sides make use of the other’s capacities to achieve their common goals. This is something common in such relations. Tehran–Moscow cooperation on tackling terror in Syria is strategic. Therefore, we have and will continue to have an exchange of capacities and equipment for this.

PD: Do Iran and Russia also launch joint strikes against terrorists in Syria?

MS: Sharing a close view toward the Syria conflict, Iran and Russia have entered cooperation to defend the legitimate government and fight terrorists there, with the greater goal being purging the region of terror as a whole. The cooperation is within a pattern of division of labor, each side taking up defined duties in which they are more efficient and can bring more advantages.

PD: Why is Russia’s involvement in Iraq less than it is in Syria?

MS: Well, that’s something decided by the Russian government. Still, Iran, Russia, and Iraq have conducted and still conduct joint efforts to fight Daesh. In fact, the anti-terrorism HQ in Baghdad is operating under the supervision of Iran, Russia, Iraq, and Syria within the same framework.

PD: How do Iran–Russia ties help with peace and stability in the Middle East?

MS: We believe close relations between the two sides can bring peace and stability to the Middle East, because the two are powerful regional players, which have set as their agenda a serious and genuine fight against terrorism. They have decided to continue their cooperation until terrorism is completely uprooted. Terrorism is a threat to all countries in the Middle East as well as post-Soviet era states. It should not be allowed to spill over and be exported to Central Asia, the Caucasus and Afghanistan in a post-ISIS era. To that end, strengthening the central governments in those countries must remain a serious goal, so that they can independently prevent the growth and spread of terrorism. This approach can lead to stability in those countries and the entire region as a whole.

PD: To what extent is Russia interested in expanding and investing on cultural ties with Iran? Tell us about any ongoing and future efforts to develop cultural relations?

MS: Currently, an overarching pattern of Iran–Russia cooperation in the fields of science, academic research and technology is forming. In 2014 and 2015, after an agreement to ease visa issuance, we witnessed a significant 90% growth in the number of Iranian tourists visiting Russia and a 30% increase in Russian trips to Iran. Meanwhile, academic cooperation has been stepped up in the form of the Iran–Russia Top Universities Summit, which has been held twice already. During the second event, which opened in Tehran, the two sides signed over 30 memoranda of understanding. The third session is scheduled to be held in Moscow in the coming months. Along the same line of scientific and educational cooperation, another important step was taken in April, with the opening of an office of Russia’s Russkiy Mir Foundation at Tehran University.

Also worthy of note is the re-launch of Homa flights and the regular Mahan Airlines trips to Russia as well as the extension of weekly flights to 16 hours, while plans are being reviewed for Russia’s S7 Airlines to add 14 flights to the cities of Tehran, Mashhad and Isfahan. Those projects may produce a remarkable impact upon touristic ties between the two countries.

PD: How do you imagine Iran–Russia ties going in the next five years?

MS: Relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation are growing in various fields. According to statistics released by Russian outlets, the volume of Iran–Russia trade exchanged in 2016 enjoyed a 70% hike year over year. And this happened in hard times, when the value of the Russian currency underwent a 50% collapse, due to the country’s economic crisis, which made exports to Russia more costly and thus reduced the volume of its imports. Still, with the current pattern in place, we expect a considerable rise in bilateral economic ties. It is also important to note that the Iran–Russia economic relations are not only about trade, which are considered private sector ties, but also a cooperation in the field of industrial technology that covers a wide variety of joint projects.

PD: The European sanctions imposed on Moscow gave Iran a chance to find a bigger of the Russian markets. Did Iran grab the opportunity? If not, why?

MS; Presence in a foreign market is not something to be achieved overnight. It requires various mechanisms, including transport infrastructure, identifying the target market, creating capacity for export, and establishing contacts between importers and exporters. Now, a clear answer to the question whether there were enough opportunities for Iran to take over Russian markets immediately after the European sanctions went into effect, requires specialized research. One question is whether we can call non-sustained surpluses of some export commodities export power or not? One aspect is for certain that financial, transporting, packaging, and preserving infrastructure for high-quality products is a prerequisite to sustainable exports and thus dominates the target market.

Still, great steps have been taken in this regard. Among them were a multitude of trade fairs in Russia, including a specialized expo attended by 36 Iranian exporters, a food fair displaying products offered by 400 Iranian firms, the largest joint summit for Iran–Russia Trade at Tehran’s Olympic Hotel, plus several more such events that have all been broadly welcomed by Iranian traders, who are enjoying the new friendly atmosphere in Iran–Russia business ties.       

Meanwhile, there have been more detailed developments: Russia has lifted a ban on imports from the Iranian Pegah Dairy Company, which is currently exporting 20 tons of milk powder to Russian markets. Permits have also been issued in 2015 for the exports of fish products to one Iranian firm, conserved canned fish to two other Iranian importers for the first time, exports of 200 tons of Iranian shrimps to Russia, as well as the opening of the production line of the Iranian-developed anti-MS medicine Fingolimod for MS treatment in the city of Saint Petersburg.  

Moreover, financial loans as well as discounts in customs office tariffs have been offered to traders. For instance, in the case of such products as pistachios and dates, the tariff has been reduced to zero, for cabbages and raisins, to 5%, and the figure for seafood products has been granted by the Secretariat of the Eurasian Economic Union an up to 20% reduction, standing between 4–7%. Russia has also offered big loans, up to five billion dollars, for the implementation of several projects in Iran. Among those projects are four thermal power plants in the city of Bandar Abbas and the Garmsar–Incheh Borun Railway Line Electrification project. Russians have also issued permits for three industrial projects dedicated to the packaging of dairy, meat, and seafood products.

PD: Please tell us about the type of commodities exported and imported, the volume, their total value, and the trade balance between the two countries in 2015 and 2016.

MS: The products which Iran imports from Russia are mainly electric machinery and equipment, grains, iron, steel, and road vehicles. Iranian exports to Russia consist of fruits, nuts, cucurbits, non-organic chemical products, scarce metals, processed food, and pharmaceutical commodities.

In the past few years many provisions have been offered to facilitate mutual trade. But to make the best use of them, our companies need to be developed further, our export capacities should improve and the competitiveness of our products in Russian markets be enhanced.       

PD: Why hasn’t Iran yet been able to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization? Don’t you think serious Russian backing could help with that? 

MS: Russia supports Iran’s entry into the organization. At any rate, membership in any international body requires that a request go through official mechanisms, regulations, and paperwork. There is no doubt that Iran’s membership in regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will strengthen those bodies and boosts regional cooperation.

PD: And now for the last question, are you happy with the current volume and level of ties between Iran’s private sector and Russian businesses?

MS: During a political meeting between officials from the two sides, Russians have acknowledged that an increase in the level of negotiations has enhanced both the quality and quantity of bilateral cooperation and that ties have never been this strong. This is due to the fact that mutual trust has built up and the impact of negative third-party interference has been thwarted by the two countries. 

Currently, constructive dialog between the two countries’ presidents has reshaped ties and paved the way for new measures and follow-up steps aimed at facilitating cooperation and removing obstacles on the path, by making the best use of the newly created positive atmosphere. There is also a need for Iran–Russia ties to go beyond the government and include more and more NGOs and private firms involved in economic, cultural, scientific, and academic activities. Well, at the moment, the tourist sector has been activated and could serve as a model for more interaction between other Iranian non-governmental entities and their Russian partners. 

PD: Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for your time with Persia Digest.

MS: My pleasure. And I hope the level and volume of bilateral ties between Iran with Russia and other important countries will enjoy massive growth during President Rouhani’s second term.


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