Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Kremlin for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Kremlin for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 28, 2017. The two countries retain strong ties, but Moscow has other interests in the Middle East as well. Photo: Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin

As Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Moscow this week, the two sides pledged to develop cooperation on Syria, as well as bilateral economic ties. Putin hailed the trilateral Russian-Iranian-Turkish axis on Syria.

Russia’s and Iran’s participation in talks on Syria in the Kazakh capital Astana in February alongside Turkey as the guarantor of the ceasefire was a major contribution to a political settlement in Syria, Putin said. Moscow’s and Tehran’s joint efforts were instrumental in sustaining the ceasefire, he told Rouhani.

Russia and Iran remain allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but both have refrained from confrontational rhetoric against Assad’s opponents. Bilateral cooperation between Russia and Iran has “never been and will never be against any third country,” Rouhani said ahead of his visit to Moscow on March 27-28.

However, earlier this month cooperation between Moscow and Tehran in Syria was complicated by a diplomatic exchange between Russia and Israel. On March 16, Israeli jets hit targets in Syria associated with Iran’s ally Hezbollah, and Assad’s forces launched air-defense missiles.

Shortly afterward, the Israeli ambassador to Moscow was summoned by the Russian government over the incident. Therefore, Moscow’s partnership with the Islamic Republic, Assad and Hezbollah started adversely affecting Russia’s relationship with Israel.

Ahead of the talks between Putin and Rouhani, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that Russia would be able to use Iranian military bases for air strikes in Syria on a “case-by-case basis.” Russia used Hamadan Airbase in Iran to launch attacks last year against militants in Syria. Iranian officials have argued that the Russian presence at the Hamadan base was temporary.

Incidentally, Iran this month tested an advanced S-300 air-defense system supplied by Russia. The S-300 is capable of tracking and taking out multiple targets at a range of up to 200 kilometers. Russia and Iran signed an US$800 million contract to supply the S-300 system in 2007, but Russia suspended the delivery in 2010 after strong opposition from the US and Israel. The delivery was completed after the lifting of sanctions against Iran under the 2015 nuclear deal.

Despite Western concerns, Moscow has long insisted it would sell weapons to any country that had not violated international regulations, including Iran. It has been reported that Tehran was interested in acquiring air-defense missiles, ground-to-ground missiles, fighter jets and armored infantry vehicles. It is also reportedly keen to buy anti-ship missile systems in order to control crucial sea routes in the Persian Gulf.

Rouhani’s trip to Moscow this week had an economic dimension as well. He and Putin agreed to continue cooperation in limiting oil output with the aim of stabilizing the global crude-oil market.

Russia and Iran clinched 14 deals, mainly memoranda of understanding, including memorandums of understanding on oil and gas cooperation, as well as transportation of nuclear materials, railways, trade, and electricity. The MOUs on gas cooperation was signed by Russia’s Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company.

Putin noted Russian loans totaling €2.2 billion (US$2.38 billion) to finance Iran’s thermopower and railway projects. He also mentioned the stable operation of the first block of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. Russia’s leader and Rouhani also discussed the construction of the second and third blocks of the plant.

Signed in January 1995, the US$1 billion Bushehr contract involved Russia’s supply of one VVER-1000 reactor, training of Iranian specialists and delivering nuclear fuel for the reactor.

In recent years, Iranian officials have suggested that Russia could become a partner in projects to build up to 20 nuclear power stations in Iran with a total capacity of 20,000 megawatts. However, these statements have been  slow to materialize.

Moscow and Tehran also discussed matters of regional concern. Putin and Rouhani advocated an agreement on the division of the Caspian Sea among the littoral states ahead of the fifth Caspian summit, due in Astana later this year. Therefore, although cooperation on Syria appeared to remain a priority in ties between Russia and Iran, there were numerous other matters of important bilateral concern.

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