It was the first time Putin visited a country outside of Central Asia since launching the invasion of Ukraine. The aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a significant attempt by the West to economically and politically isolate Russia; therefore, the visit by Putin to Iran, a country similarly isolated, can secure a much-needed ally.
The timing of the visit also became a subject of controversy as just a few days earlier President Biden made a trip to the Middle East and visited Israel and Saudi Arabia, two staunch adversaries of Iran. After landing in Tehran on the 19th of July, Putin met with the President and the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The two discussed bilateral cooperation and economic development alongside the pressing political issues faced by the two countries. The overview of the discussion can be simply divided into economic and political concerns.
The theme of the meeting was set by acknowledging the necessity to deepen Iran and Russia’s economic ties under these perilous circumstances. According to the official transcript, Khamenei emphasised the various deals between the two countries, specifically in the oil and gas sectors. Before Putin had landed in Iran, the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom had signed a $40 billion memorandum of understanding (a preliminary written agreement) with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC).
Under the global energy crisis, this deal is much more significant to help economic development in Iran which holds the second largest gas reserves. Gazprom would help the NIOC develop offshore gas projects and complete LNG and gas pipeline projects while developing additional six oil fields.
The United States’ sanctions on Iran had hindered its ability to access extraction technology, thus this deal with Russia provides the country with a crucial economic victory. Although experts have questioned if this deal would work out, given that Russia and Iran are competing rivals in the energy sector.
Rasht-Astara Railway Line
Furthermore, President Putin also stressed the importance of establishing the Rasht-Astara railway line. The railway line is set to link the Caucasus with Russia. The Rasht-Astara railway would become a part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which connects India, Iran, and Russia.
The railway line is estimated to reduce the trade route time from the usual Suez Canal route which takes an average of more than 6 weeks to just 3 weeks through the INSTC. If completed, the railway link becoming a part of the INSTC could move the centre of global trade away from Europe and cause a major shift in the concentration of economic power.
Putin’s enthusiasm for the project has also increased as a result of the sanctions imposed on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, suggesting that the leader is considering evading the sanctions by shifting the global trade route away from the West. However, Putin is not the only one trying to break his country free from Western economic hegemony, Ayatollah also proposed adopting ambitious economic policies.
The most significant of which was the replacement of the dollar in trade with national currencies such as the Iranian Rial and Russian Ruble. His desire to replace the dollar is increased due to additional sanctions imposed on Iran. He berated the US for acting as an economic bully that takes advantage of the dollar and imposes sanctions on countries.
The extent of Khamenei’s desire to start the process of de-dollarization can be noticed by the fact that the transcript of the meeting on his official website is titled ‘Dollar must be removed from global transactions.’ Fortunately, for Khamenei, Putin shares his ambition for de-dollarization. Russia has already started accepting Ruble payments from gas buyers, meanwhile, India may have already paid the trade settlements to Russia in the Indian Rupee.
Hence, it is not surprising that in his meeting with Putin, Khamenei expressed the desire to do the same. This economic policy holds considerable consequences allowing countries to strengthen their national currencies at the expense of the dollar, dealing a huge blow to US economic and political dominance.
United in Solving Mutual Political Issues
The political side of the dialogue was based purely on consensus and empathy. Khamenei officially accepted the Russian rationale behind the invasion of Ukraine by lambasting NATO as a ‘dangerous entity’ responsible for provoking Russia. He asserted support for Russia’s quest to preserve its independence under threat from the ‘aggressive and deceitful’ Americans who were also partially responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Putin reciprocated this political empathy by condemning the United States’ murder of General Soleimani, labelling it as an example of ‘America’s villainy’. However, the highlight of the conversation was the Syrian concern that the two countries shared. Khamenei brought up the occupation of Syrian territory by the US-backed rebels and called for US troops to be immediately expelled from Syria.
In complete agreement with his views, Putin also expressed support for Syria’s territorial integrity and the Syrian military forces. Both were also united in their opposition to any military attack on Syria. Although the rumours of buying Iranian drones were generated shortly after Putin landed in Tehran, they cannot be assured with certainty as true or false.
A week before visiting Iran, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, in a press conference, told reporters that Putin was aiming to purchase several hundred weapons-capable UAVs. Sullivan could not confirm if such drones had been delivered to Russia, labelling the matter as ‘unclear’. If true, these drones will likely be used by Russia in its war against Ukraine, causing serious concern among Western allies.
However, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov denies Putin initiating any dialogue regarding the purchase of drones to the President or Supreme Leader of Iran. Overall, the dialogue was based on strong sentiments of anti-imperialism exacerbated by the crippling sanctions and isolation imposed on the countries. Both showed strong enthusiasm for strengthening their ties to combat US-led Western control.
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend
To analyse the possible outcome of this meeting, we need to first understand the complex relationship between the two countries, especially their ideological differences. Russia and Iran are not ideologically consistent. While Iran is a theocratic state with elements of neo-socialism, Russia is a corporatocracy with soaring socioeconomic inequality.
However, what unites the two countries is a strong sense of resentment against the imperialist suppression inflicted on them. Iran, which has sustained more than 40 years of sanctions, is not oblivious to the violence of imperial aggression. Therefore, when Russia today suffers from the same, it is not surprising that it has turned to Iran as an ally.
The hostility against the United States and its Western allies exuded throughout their conversation. Hence, in the spirit of their mutual anti-US emotions, both leaders were able to conclude their dialogue with an overall consensus. However, their conversation, exhibiting fervent anti-imperialist rhetoric raises concerns such as how alarmed should the West be at the threat posed by the two allies determined to diminish Western hegemony.
Confronting Western Hegemony
Their dialogue cannot be categorised as just a rant expressing frustrations on the Western monopoly over economic and political power, they had ambitious schemes to confront it as well. From embarking on a crusade of de-dollarization to shifting the global trade route away from the West, the two leaders seemed eager to resist Western dominance.
However, the vital question remains: how effective will it be? In his book, The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the architect of the US proxy war in Afghanistan and National Security Advisor to President Carter, warned of a dangerous alliance to ‘American primacy’. In his words, “Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an ‘antihegemonic’ coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances”.
Hence today, as Putin, in his meeting with Khamenei, suggests conducting military manoeuvres and trilateral cooperation alongside China, Brzezinski’s warning can be seen coming true. Iran’s eagerness to join the BRICS group also suggests a dynamic bloc emerging to confront Western hegemony. On his visit to Iran, Putin also met with President Erdoğan, making it the first time the leader has met a NATO member since launching the invasion of Ukraine.
Although his country is a member state of NATO, Erdoğan is often criticised for still being on the fence on fully siding with either the West or Russia. Therefore, Erdoğan’s visit to Iran at the same time as Putin has raised the idea that the leader might be looking toward the East for stronger allies. If true, Erdoğan would not be the only leader recognising the eroding Western power, as Khamenei in his dialogue with Putin also suggested the US and West have become much ‘weaker’.
The two recognized the sanctions working against the West after the US practically forced Europe to commit economic suicide on the Ukraine issue. Moreover, despite the sanctions, the Russian Ruble has reached a 7-year high. Hence, under such circumstances, the two leaders with allies such as China seem to possess the ability to challenge Western hegemony.
The overall view of the dialogue between Khamenei and Putin can be seen as overwhelmingly positive. Both were able to achieve their objectives by expressing mutual sympathy in dealing with the imposed isolation and aggression. Russia dealing with its new sanctions and seclusion is naturally receptive to similar allies. Khamenei also conveyed the desire to deepen ties in his suggestion to Putin saying, “…cooperation between the two countries should reach a peak in this period.”
On the issue of tackling Western dominance, the two leaders had ardent economic and political ideas that would help them do so. Therefore, Russia’s partnership with Iran and China can be a lethal alliance for Western hegemony. However, there is doubt on how far the Russia-Iran partnership would go before it can reach such a point. Some journalists claim that the partnership is limited to Syria only and would likely not go farther than that. Nevertheless, the Russia-Iran ties continue to distress the West.
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