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Behind President Putin’s visit to Iran

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Iran (July 19, 2022), will be his second visit overseas after his visit to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in June 2022.

It is significant for a number of reasons.

First, Iran has been moving closer to China and Russia after the US withdrawal from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran nuclear agreement in 2018. Tehran signed a 25 year agreement for cooperation with China, referred to as ‘strategic cooperation pact’ in March 2021, and is in the midst of signing a 20 year old agreement, along similar lines, with Moscow (a draft of the same was presented by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, to the Russians, during his visit to Moscow in January 2022). Ever since the downward slope in Iran-US ties, Tehran has reiterated the need to reduce its dependence on the West, and to focus more on the ‘East’ – this has been referred to as Iran’s ‘Pivot to the East’ policy (this approach first gained traction during the term of Former President Mahmoud Ahmadijenad). Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei while commenting on the need for Iran to look eastwards remarked last year:

“We must look to the East; Looking to the West and Europe has no effect on us except procrastination and trouble. There are countries in the East that can help us, we can interact with them on an equal footing. We help them, they help us too.”

Both Moscow and Tehran have been seeking to expand economic ties after the Russia-Ukraine war. In July 2022, Central Bank of Iran (CBI) Governor Ali Saleh-Abadi travelled to Moscow. During his trip, Ali Saleh Abadi met with senior Russian officials including; Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, the country’s Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov and the governor of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. Issues related to joint investment, enhancing monetary and banking cooperation and removal of barriers were the main focus areas of the trip. In June 2022, both countries had a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on road transportation at the end of the two countries’ Road Transportation Joint Committee meeting in Moscow in June.  Mohammad Reza Pour Ebrahimi, Chairman of Iran parliament’s Economic Commission while commenting on Putin’s visit said that it will give a boost to economic cooperation between both countries. Said Mohammad Reza Pour Ebrahimi:

“Planning for the development of economic cooperation between Iran and Russia will be the priority of the consultations between the presidents of the two countries,”

The Iranian law maker also said that sanctions imposed by Europe and the US on Russia had made cooperation between Russia and Iran more imperative.

Second, Iran seems to be skeptical about the revival of Iran Nuclear deal 2015/ JCPOA, given the differences on a number of issues as well as US President Joe Biden’s diminishing political capital. During his Middle East visit, Biden took a tough stance vis-à-vis Iran. In an interview, with an Israeli tv channel (Channel 12) the US President made some important points regarding Iran; first, he would not remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps IRGC (this is one of the key demands of Iran) from the terrorist list and second, if Iran went nuclear he would not shy away from using force. While speaking at a joint news conference – after his meeting with Israeli PM Yair Lapid – the US President said that the US was keen for a revival of the Iran nuclear deal, but the former could not wait ‘forever’.

It would also be pertinent to point out, that during Biden’s Middle East trip, the thrust was on getting Saudi-US ties back on track, and also to facilitate improvement in Israel-Saudi ties underscores the point that Biden’s approach towards the Middle East has witnessed a significant change.

In such a situation, Iran needs to explore options and focus on what has been called its ‘Pivot to East’ policy.

Third, Iran according to the US has agreed to supply drones to Russia. US National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan while commenting on this said:

“Our information indicates that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs on an expedited timeline,”

Iran on its part said that it had defence ties with Iran, but  denied the US claim about Iran supplying drones to Russia.

In conclusion, Biden’s visit to the Middle East as well as Putin’s upcoming visit to Iran indicate the fact that while the US and Iran may attempt to revive the nuclear deal, the prospects are slim unless both Washington and Tehran show flexibility. If the US adopts an aggressive posture with Iran, the latter is likely to move closer to Russia.