President Putin’s visit to Tehran significantly strengthened Russian-Iranian cooperation in the military-political sphere and laid the foundation for future economic cooperation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Tehran, Iran, on Nov. 23, 2015. Photo: AP

Over the last two years there was much talk of Russian President Vladimir Putin paying a visit to Tehran — the natural consequence of the strategic dialogue between Russia and Iran, which was intended to lead to a strategic partnership. 

That somehow did not happen: Bilateral trade fell, there was no final compromise in the settlement of the Iranian nuclear crisis, and, above all, mistrust dominated the complex dynamics of Russia-Iran relations.

The situation changed only in mid-July this year, when the international community in the form of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council members plus Germany) and international mediators agreed on a mechanism to lift unilateral and international sanctions from Iran on the basis of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA). 

Russia played an important role in securing this agreement, which came into force at the end of October on the basis of Resolution 2231 of the UN Security Council dated July 20, 2015. 

Next, the joint Russian-Iranian military operation began in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian division of al-Qaeda), and other radical organizations. That virtually eliminated the prospect of overthrowing the legitimate government of President Bashar al-Assad with the help of radical Islamists, which in turn raised the hopes for peace in this troubled land.

 Also read: "Russia's military role in Syria: A byproduct of the Iran nuclear deal?" 

It also seemingly removed the last remaining barrier to the Russian leader’s long-awaited visit to Tehran, albeit not within the framework of an official visit, but as part of the third summit of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum. 

Whatever the circumstances, for the first time in eight years, President Putin held a meeting with spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, who essentially decides Iranian military-political and economic policy. After that, Putin and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani met for the third time this year.

The agenda of the talks between the two leaders was quite full. First up was the situation in Syria, where the government’s army is slowly but surely leading the offensive against the radical Islamists. This creates a favorable backdrop for the Vienna talks on the settlement of the Syrian crisis. The Vienna format includes Iran, whose position the West and the Arabian Gulf monarchies have long tried not to notice and even ignore. 

The involvement of the Iranians in the talks on Syria is a diplomatic victory for Moscow, which has already produced positive results. In October, 2015, the second multilateral meeting on Syria at the level of foreign ministers wrapped up in Vienna. 

As a result, the meeting participants agreed to commence immediate talks with Syrian opposition with the aim over the next six months of setting up a transitional government in Syria and starting the process of preparing a new constitution, with the prospect of parliamentary elections 18 months down the line. 

In practical terms this means launching a "comprehensive inter-Syrian political process" led not by the West or the Arabian Gulf monarchies, but by Russia and Iran, which is in the national interests of both countries.

 Recommended: Russia Direct's report "Russia's new strategy in the Middle East." 

By all appearances, the meeting discussed not only military-technical aspects of the Syria operation against radical Islamists or the principles of forming a transitional government, but also the issue of granting the Syrian Kurds broad autonomy. That is not likely to happen, especially in view of the risk of military confrontation with Turkey

Both Moscow and Tehran are well aware that this serves as the basis of any possible compromise with Ankara, which will have to agree to keep Assad in power, at least for the transitional period.

Second, the leaderships of Russia and Iran have agreed on ways to implement the JCPA. Tehran has already taken significant steps to that aim by dismantling 4,500 gas centrifuges at the uranium enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow and undertaking voluntary compliance with the requirements of the Supplementary Protocol (1997) and Modified Code 3.1 of the Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the Application of Safeguards. 

However, a number of important problems remain unsolved, such as reducing Iran’s existing stocks of low-enriched uranium (LEU); dismantling the active core and changing the design of the heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak; and converting the underground uranium enrichment plant at Fordow into a nuclear, physical and technological research center for the production of isotopes for medical purposes.

In view of the report being prepared by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, it is vital for Tehran to start work in these areas. Only if the UN Security Council delivers a positive assessment, can a decision be taken to start the process of lifting EU sanctions against Iran (and suspending U.S. sanctions). 

In that regard, Putin issued a set of decrees to allow the import of Iranian low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and supply Iran with the nuclear technology needed to convert the Fordow plant and alter the design of the heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak. 

As a result, Iran could now send more than 9 metric tons of LEU to the Angarsk International Uranium Enrichment Center (Irkutsk Region) in exchange for an agreed amount of natural uranium, and also set about converting the Fordow plant and redesigning the Arak reactor. That would effectively satisfy the IAEA’s priority demands in respect of Iran.

 Also read: "Russia joins the competition for post-sanctions Iran." 

Russia and Iran reached an agreement to simplify bilateral trips for individual categories of citizens, and also signed six other agreements related to economics and finance. In particular, Russian engineering company Tekhnopromexport is to build a 1.4 GW thermal power plant in Iran and a desalination plant with a capacity of 200,000 cubic meters of water per day near the city of Bandar Abbas (Hormozgan Province).

Russian Railways will electrify the Garmsar-Ince Burun railway. The stretch of railway from the town of Garmsar in central Iran (60 miles southeast of Tehran) to Ince Burun on the border with Turkmenistan will be approximately 300 miles long. Also, in accordance with a previously signed contract, Russian experts have begun work on the construction of the second and third power-generating units of the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

In addition, President Putin reiterated that Moscow would extend Tehran a government loan worth $5 billion to cover the implementation of 35 priority projects in the fields of energy, construction, seaports, railway electrification, and others. A further $2 billion in the form of export credits is due to be provided by Russia’s State Corporation Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs (Vnesheconombank).

Military-technical cooperation was discussed separately, in particular the matter of supplying Iran with several battalions of S300VM (Antey-2500) anti-aircraft missile systems. A contract to that effect was signed on Nov. 9, 2015, and, according to Tehran, implementation is already underway, including the training of personnel to operate the equipment. 

After the delivery of the first S300VM system, Tehran will likely withdraw the $4 billion lawsuit it filed with the International Arbitration Court in Geneva against Russian state-owned company Rosoboronexport for refusing to supply five S300PMU-1 battalions to Iran.

Hence, Putin’s visit to Tehran not only significantly strengthened Russian-Iranian cooperation in the military-political sphere, but also laid the foundation for economic cooperation, enabling Russia to seize the initiative and enter the Iranian market, even while sanctions are still in place, which will impart stability to bilateral relations. It is to be hoped that this in turn will lead to a strategic partnership between the two countries.