NewsSpecial WireWill Russia ever learn its Iran lesson?

Will Russia ever learn its Iran lesson?

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Iran Focus – Opinion: London, Oct. 29 – From Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin, the history of Russo-Iranian relations can rightfully claim to be the world’s longest, if not the most heart-rending, tragedy; a painful, tortuous journey from icy domination to bitter estrangement, remarkably spanning over three centuries without a flickering moment of mutual love, let alone a lackluster honeymoon. Iran Focus

Opinion

London, Oct. 29 – From Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin, the history of Russo-Iranian relations can rightfully claim to be the world’s longest, if not the most heart-rending, tragedy; a painful, tortuous journey from icy domination to bitter estrangement, remarkably spanning over three centuries without a flickering moment of mutual love, let alone a lackluster honeymoon.

It all began with a dream – Iranians actually consider it a nightmare – one winter in Saint Petersburg at the dawn of the eighteenth century, when Peter the Great, looking through his bedroom window at the inhospitably frozen landscape of the Neva River, determined that Russia’s goal must be to reach the “warm waters” of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Four wars and countless dead Iranians later, Czarist Russia reached the limits of its southward expansion, the northern borders of modern Iran.

In the process, Russia signed two peace treaties with Iran, the Golestan Treaty in 1813 and the Torkmanchai Treaty in 1828, under which Iran lost some of its richest and most important provinces, including the present-day Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The impact that Iran’s defeat at the hands of Russia’s advancing armies had on the national psyche and memory of Iranians cannot be overemphasized. Even today, almost two centuries later, the words Golestan and Torkamanchai evoke a painful sense of humiliation among Iranians, regardless of their political affiliation and social background.

But Iranians in general are an easy-going and forgiving people, and their view of the big northern neighbor might have become less negative if the story ended there. It didn’t. The Russians continued to treat Iran as a vassal state, vying with the rival British Empire in a no-holds-barred battle for influence that Rudyard Kipling famously termed the Great Game.

As the twentieth century began, Russia vehemently opposed Iran’s constitutional revolution, which aimed to put an end to absolute monarchy. The Tsar’s soldiers under an infamous Colonel Lyakhov used artillery to bombard the country’s newly-established parliament in 1908. When Iran’s revolutionaries forced the despotic shah to flee, he took refuge in Odessa.

As always, Russia’s interests in Iran were not merely geopolitical; at the turn of the twentieth century, some 60 per cent of Iran’s foreign trade was with Tsarist Russia

The Bolshevik revolution that swept Russia in 1917 briefly raised some hope among Iranians living on the other side of the thousand-mile border that things might change. They did, momentarily. But as soon as internal strife in Russia was over, Iranians again found themselves victims of big power rivalry. Soviet policy on Iran was geared to counter British, and subsequently U.S. influence, and there was no room for the interests of the Iranian people in this geopolitical game. Iran’s Communist Tudeh Party, which in another life might have been an innocuous leftist party of sorts, was turned into the KGB’s local agency. The Tudeh Party’s systematic efforts to undermine the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq in the early 1950s perhaps form the most infamous chapters of the now defunct party’s history before the Islamic revolution in 1979.

All this brings us to Russia’s relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly since the demise of the Soviet Union. With Iraq and Afghanistan out of Russia’s sphere of influence, one can say with confidence that of all the states in the Middle East, none is more important to Russia than Iran. Iran’s strategic location on the Persian Gulf, its importance as a trading partner, and its ties and interests in Central Asia and Transcaucasia have all drawn Moscow’s close attention.

True, there have been some differences between Russia and the Islamic Republic. The Russians don’t hide, for example, their dislike of Iran spreading Islamic radicalism to their former Soviet republics. But the ayatollahs have been careful not to arouse the wrath of their northern neighbor. The Iranian theocracy, outspoken on the plight of Muslims from the Philippines to Bosnia, has kept mum on the fate of fellow Muslims in nearby Chechnya. Iran has been an important market for Russia, particularly for Moscow’s arms and nuclear reactors.

Most importantly, Russia has been the Islamic Republic’s principal ally on the international stage, helping, with China, to prevent Security Council action to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and effectively thwarting Western pressure on Tehran. The ruling hard-liners in Iran have gratefully responded by raising the volume of trade with Russia, and a smiling President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told President Putin, “A powerful Russia is the best friend of Iran”.

What Russia does with Iran in pursuit of its legitimate national and economic interests is, of course, Moscow’s business. And yet the tragic history of Russo-Iranian relations has one overwhelming message: that a Russia single-mindedly in pursuit of its short-term interests in Iran has alienated ordinary Iranians. The Kremlin has enough ears in Iran to hear the deep rumble of discontent among Iranians. This gives President Putin an opportunity to reach out to the Iranian people by taking a healthy distance from their theocratic rulers. It’s never too late to stop a tragedy; not even one that is 300 years old.

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