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Iran's Russia Quandary

11/06/2014 15:25 BST | Updated 10/08/2014 10:59 BST

As world powers meet in Geneva this week to hammer out a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme, Iran faces a quandary over its policy on Ukraine. The troubled Eastern European state is well away from Iran's borders and trade between the two states is not significant. But Tehran's actions with respect to Ukraine need to finely balance its often contradictory domestic and foreign interests.

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Source: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres, Austria

The dilemma, set against the backdrop of the ongoing nuclear talks, results from the regime's internal conflict between pragmatism and revolutionary idealism. On the one hand, Iran's government feels obliged to stand by its ally Russia against "Western imperialism" - an enemy they share - in order to sustain its powerful regional role in the Middle East as well as maintain the support of Moscow in the P5+1 talks. The talks, which come to a head this week, have seen Russia act in concert with Western powers to bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme.

Conversely, any recognition Iran gives to Russian annexation or secessionism by pro-Russian militants could scupper rapprochement with the EU and the trade and investment opportunities it promises.

Iran's aversion to separatism

More crucially for Iran, which is facing its own separatist challenges, such recognition could set a precedent that could imperil its own territorial integrity. Sanctions relief and territorial integrity are arguably more crucial to Iran's interests than the Great Power rivalries in Europe and the fundamentalist tendency that lies behind the "Death to America" refrain.

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Like Ukraine, Iran has ethnic groups that straddle its borders

Iran is a multi-national country formed from the last vestiges of a dying Persian empire and frozen in half retreat. Its periphery hosts restive non-Persian national groups that are increasingly looking over the borders to neighbouring countries: Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Balochis and Arabs. With football stadia now resounding to the sounds of defiant separatist slogans during matches, particularly in Iranian Azerbaijan and Ahwaz, and armed uprisings in the Kurdish, Balochi and Arab regions, the regime is sensitive to the possibility that it too could face a similar fate as Ukraine or, worse still, Yugoslavia.

Mindful of the precedent that the nature of Ukraine's break-up could set for Iran's future, in February Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati told a meeting with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tehran: "Today ...separatism is a [serious] threat against Ukraine and the security of the Caucasus region is very important and must receive special attention."

Active neutrality or internal irresolution?

The Islamic Republic has chosen a policy of "active neutrality" on Ukraine. In reality, it is a fence-sitting posture that exposes the indecision at the heart of the Iranian regime. However, it is a position that is increasingly difficult to maintain amid the Great Power rivalry in Eastern Europe and the possible impact on the P5+1 nuclear talks.

President Hassan Rouhani seeks to keep the nuclear talks going, realising that dialogue with Europe offers opportunities for improved trade and investment. The collapse of P5+1 could create uncertainties and risks outside Iran's control and Tehran is nervous over Russia's conflict with the West over Ukraine. In March, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that Moscow could take "retaliatory measures" on its Iran policy if pressured by the West over Ukraine.

Iran also wants to show that it is an independent player in the Middle East, not subservient to Russia, which has played an intrusive and disruptive role in Iranian history. Iranians have not forgotten the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention that divided Iran into zones of influence, nor the USSR's support for Kurdish and Azerbaijani break-away Soviets. Some Iranians see Putin's aggression in Ukraine as a corollary of Russian domination and old imperial efforts to create puppet satrapies through separatism. The innate distrust of Russia is as strong, if not as frequently and violently expressed, as shown towards the Americans and British.

Hard-liners push Moscow's line

An agreement at P5+1 will require a triumph of pragmatism over idealism. However, this will be fiercely resisted by regime hardliners who view the world only in terms of religious absolutes and are insistent Iran gives no ground. The Revolutionary Guards, beholden to the Supreme Leader, base their existence on exporting the Islamic revolution. They and the clergy's Principalist faction will have the sympathy of Moscow, which seeks to ensure Iran remains divorced from the West and within its orbit.

While Iran is likely to stop short of recognising the break-away states such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, some within the regime are reverting to type with attacks on the West's approach to Ukraine while refusing to criticise Russia's more blatant and aggressive intervention. Many leading figures are putting allegiances with Russia ahead of concerns over territory integrity, heedful of a joint strategic interest in containing Western influence in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. They also believe Russian support will be crucial to shoring up Iran's bargaining power in the P5+1 talks, while regarding Iran's own domestic separatist movements as inspired by foreign enemies or traitorous counter-revolutionaries. Some share Russia's expansionist drive and seek to rebuild past glories by reabsorbing the lands of past Persian empires, starting with Bahrain.

In apparent disregard for President Hassan Rouhani's policy of "active neutrality", the prominent Traditional-Principalist Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani criticized the West for not accepting the results of the Crimean referendum. Member of Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Mohammad Esmail Kowsari, a powerful Conservative, was even more forthright about where he placed the blame for the Ukraine crisis, saying "Americans and Westerners will definitely achieve nothing in Ukraine because whenever people enter the scene to decide their own fate, they fail to achieve their objectives. The bullying and meddling efforts by Western states know no boundaries and they say all places must be under their dominance."

Expediency Council Member Saeed Jalili, a Neo-Principalist, also told EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton that "the support extended by those powers which claim to be advocates of democracy to the anti-democracy behaviours shown in Ukraine, Egypt and Bahrain is worrying."

P5+1: Success will cool Tehran-Moscow relations

Should Iran be satisfied with the concessions it extracts from Western powers in P5+1 and confident that its puppet Assad regime remains in Damascus, relations with Russia may quickly cool and Moscow could lose the vocal support it had in Tehran for its Eastern European incursions.

If Russia scuppers P5+1 in retaliation for NATO policy in Ukraine, polarised divisions within the Iranian regime emerge and the pragmatist President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who have staked much on a successful outcome, could be forced to come off the fence.

Depending on the domestic support Rouhani can build, Iran may be inclined towards a more critical stance on Putin's territorial expansionism for the sake of rebuilding relations with the EU states and preventing Ukraine's break-up from setting a precedent for Iran's own ethnic problems.