By Aram Mirzaei for The Saker Blog
This article is partially written in response to The Saker’s analysis on the IRGC’s arrest of Russian journalist Iulia Iuzik. In his analysis, the Saker theorizes that the Ruasian journalist’s arrest could be due to one of two possible reasons:
– The Israeli visa stamp on her passport really infuriated somebody at the IRGC and that person acted impulsively
– This is the result of internal infighting in Iran
It would most likely be fair to say that it could be a combination of both. I know for a fact that Iranians view Russia very differently depending on who you’re asking. Even among the IRGC there are different factions that either view Moscow as a friendly country, who can help achieve Iran’s goals of kicking Washington out of West Asia, or they view Russia with suspicion and bitter memories of past grievances.
To understand these stances one must delve deep into the history of these countries and their relations over the past three centuries. Iran and Russia have a long history of animosity and differences, stretching back to the Caspian expeditions of the Rus. The most important conflicts were the ones between the Qajar dynasty and the Romanovs of Russia. Already during the southwards expansions of Pyotr I were Iran and Russia known to have sour relations. Pyotr’s forces quickly captured large parts of northern Iran and the entire Caucasus region as the crumbling Safavid Empire was quickly subdued. All the territory lost was later recaptured by Nader Shah, founder of the Afsharid Dynasty, one of the successor states to the fallen Safavid Empire. Following the advent of the Qajar dynasty, Western powers and Russia had begun a colonial race as the Qajar government was unable to confront these threats after the death of its founder Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, who stabilized the nation and re-established Iranian suzerainty in the Caucasus. While the Portuguese, British, and Dutch competed for the south and southeast of Persia in the Persian Gulf, the Russian Empire largely was left unchallenged in the north as it plunged southward to establish dominance in Persia’s northern territories.
Iranians, even today bitterly remember the treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchay. A weakened and bankrupted Qajar royal court, under Fath Ali Shah, was forced to sign the notorious Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 following the outcome of the Russo-Persian War (1804-1813), forcing Iran into ceding what is modern-day Dagestan, Georgia, and large parts of Azerbaijan. The Treaty of Turkmenchay (1828) was the outcome of the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828), which resulted in the loss of modern-day Armenia and the remainder of Azerbaijan, and granted Russia several highly beneficial capitulatory rights, after efforts and initial success by Abbas Mirza failed to ultimately secure Iran’s northern front. By these two treaties, Iran lost swaths of its integral territories that had made part of Iran for centuries. The area to the north of the Aras River, the land of fire, Azarpadegan, a land so closely connected to Iranian history was now forever lost.
Anti-Russian sentiment was so high in Iran during that time that uprisings in numerous cities were formed. With the Russian Empire advancing south in the course of two wars against Iran, and the subsequent signing of the aforementioned treaties, Iran lost its crucial foothold in central Asia and the Caucasus. By the end of the 19th century, the Russian Empire’s dominance became so obvious, that Tabriz, Qazvin, and a host of other cities were occupied by Russia, and the central government in Tehran was left with no power to even select its own ministers without the approval of the Anglo-Russian consulates. These, and a series of climaxing events such as the Russian shelling of Mashad’s Goharshad Mosque in 1911, and the shelling of the Iranian National Assembly by the Russian Colonel V. Liakhov, led to a surge in widespread anti-Russian sentiments across the nation.
By the time of the Russian revolution in 1917, with the formation of the Soviet Union, Russian involvement continued with the establishment of the short-lived Persian Socialist Soviet Republic in 1920, supported by Azeri and Caucasian Bolshevik leaders. After the fall of this republic, in late 1921, political and economic relations were renewed. During the 1920s, trade between the Soviet Union and Iran reached important levels. In 1921, Britain and the new Bolshevik government entered into an agreement that reversed the division of Iran made in 1907. The Bolsheviks returned all the territory back to Iran, and Iran once more had secured navigation rights on the Caspian Sea. This agreement to evacuate from Iran was made in the Russo-Persian Treaty of Friendship (1921), but the regaining of Iranian territory did not protect the Qajar Dynasty from a sudden coup d’état led by Colonel Reza Pahlavi.
The treaty of friendship wouldn’t last during Reza Shah Pahlavi as the Second World War started and the Soviet Union together with the United Kingdom launched an undeclared joint invasion of Iran, ignoring its plea of neutrality. After the end of the war, the Soviets supported two newly formed in Iran, the Azerbaijan People’s Government and the Republic of Mahabad, but both collapsed in the Iran crisis of 1946. This postwar confrontation brought the United States fully into Iran’s political arena and, with Cold War starting, the US quickly moved to convert Iran into an anti-communist ally.
After the fall of the monarchy, the Soviet Union was the first state to recognize the Islamic Republic of Iran, in February 1979. However, during the Iran–Iraq War, the Soviets supplied Saddam Hussein with large amounts of conventional arms. After the war, especially with the fall of the USSR, Tehran–Moscow relations experienced a sudden increase in diplomatic and commercial relations, and Iran soon even began purchasing weapons from Russia.
Yet despite the improved relations, Moscow partook in the UN sanctions on Iran with regards to Tehran’s Nuclear program. As late as 2010 Moscow voted for UNSC resolution 1929, Banned Iran from participating in any activities related to ballistic missiles, tightened the arms embargo, travel bans on individuals involved with the program, froze the funds and assets of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, and recommended that states inspect Iranian cargo, prohibit the servicing of Iranian vessels involved in prohibited activities, prevent the provision of financial services used for sensitive nuclear activities, closely watch Iranian individuals and entities when dealing with them, prohibit the opening of Iranian banks on their territory and prevent Iranian banks from entering into relationship with their banks if it might contribute to the nuclear program, and prevent financial institutions operating in their territory from opening offices and accounts in Iran.
This long history of animosity has only recently seen major improvements as Moscow and Tehran find themselves in similar situations in the face of Washington’s aggressive policies. After Moscow’s entry into the Syrian war, Tehran-Moscow relations deepened considerably as both countries coordinated and cooperated on the battlefield, with the shared goal of saving Syria.
Despite this, unfavorable views on Russia remain among some factions of the IRGC and the Iranian population on general. The faction among the IRGC mostly recognized as anti-Russian consists of mainly veterans from the war with Iraq. They have not forgotten the Soviet weapons used against them by Saddam’s forces.
This faction can be found among the Iranian Principalists (known as hardliners in the West), who stand in opposition to the Reformist Rouhani government. It was this faction that voiced protests against Moscow’s use of Iran’s Hamedan airbase, in 2017, as part of Moscow’s anti-ISIS operation in Syria. They argued that Moscow’s use of the airbase was in violation of Iran’s constitution which states that no foreign bases are allowed in Iran. The government countered with the argument that Moscow was only temporarily using the airbase, due to its shorter distance to Syria, but that control over the airbase remained in Iranian hands. It is believed that this faction among the IRGC is linked to Ahmadinejad’s political faction among the Principalist bloc. It would make sense since Ahmadinejad’s presidency coincided with a worsening in Tehran-Moscow relations as it was during his presidency that Iran was denied the purchase of the S-300 system by Moscow.
They believe that Russia cannot be trusted, and that Moscow is pursuing its own agenda in Syria. Moscow stands an Israeli ally who will side with the Zionists if and when the war with the Israeli regime breaks out. Moscow’s growing influence in the Syrian war is something that rather worries them instead of relieving them, as many of them believe that the Syrian war would eventually have been won without Russian interference, a view opposed by powerful figures such as Khamenei and the famous General Qassem Soleimani who favor a more pragmatic approach towards Moscow.
Due to the improved relations after 2015, Moscow and Tehran’s relations have expanded substantially to cover fields other than Syria. Moscow played an instrumental role in the negotiations of the JCPOA. Moscow has also stood by Iran on many occasions against US aggression. Moscow has grown especially popular among other IRGC factions, such as the Quds forces, led by General Qassem Soleimani. They have first-hand experience cooperating with Moscow in Syria. In general, many Iranians have also gained a favorable view of Russia. According to a December 2018 survey by IranPoll, 63.8% of Iranians have a favorable view of Russia, with 34.5% expressing an unfavorable view.
With regards to this, one can imagine that in the case of the Russian journalist, a sensitive thing such as an Israeli visa stamp on a passport can immediately give cause for suspicion of a Russian-Israeli plot among some circles in the IRGC. The Tehran-Moscow alliance is a fragile and a new one, and for the past few years, the nature of the relations between these two countries has only given us a glimpse of what the future of West Asia holds, only time will tell if the sceptics will be vindicated.