The Iranian regime’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, wrapped up his visit to Russia on January 20. It was supposed to mark a dramatic improvement in Iran-Russia relations, paving the way to historical agreements that would catapult the regime out of the current deadlock with the international community while defusing US sanctions. But instead, Raisi returned home deflated and empty-handed, and even state media mocked the visit.
The majority of Iran’s state-run media mocked Raisi’s visit to Russia and inquired about the so-called “revolutionary” slogan of “Neither the West nor the East,” engraved on the Foreign Ministry’s entrance.
Meanwhile, those publications affiliated with Raisi’s faction celebrated his visit to Russia, even before he got a chance to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A few months ago, the regime claimed it had become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Russian President Vladimir Putin reminded Raisi that Tehran only has an “observer” status.
Last September, official news agencies considered the regime’s membership at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as the Raisi government’s important achievement. “During Raisi’s visit to Russia, however, it became evident that the [regime] has been accepted as an observer state in SCO,” the state-run Dideban website wrote on January 20.
Raisi described his visit to Russia as a turning point. “We have common interests with Russia, and our collaboration and common interests could certainly promote security and combat unilateralism in the region,” he said.
In 2018, Raisi’s mentor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, spoke of the so-called “tilting toward the East” foreign policy. As a part of that policy, Raisi traveled to Russia, hoping he could secure Russia’s support as the prospect of a tougher Western stance regarding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions strengthened. The regime sought to exploit existing tensions between Russia and Western powers.
Mohammad Reza Sajadi, the regime’s former Ambassador to Russia, told the state-run Ofogh TV on January 19 that Putin’s chief of staff has explicitly told him, “If you obtain a nuclear weapon, our security will be endangered.”
The Iranian economy is currently in shambles. Every day, heart-wrenching videos circulating on social media, showing the grim face of poverty inside the country. This has prompted Iran’s state-run media to warn about the prospect of major uprisings.
According to the state-run Eghtesad News, Mohammad Hossein Sharifzadegan, the regime’s former Minister of Welfare, said on Thursday, “The government has announced that out of a population of 84 million, there are 33 million people who live below the absolute poverty line.”
The current unemployment rate, low production numbers, and rampant inflation stand in stark contrast with the regime’s claims of having “economic resilience” in the face of sanctions. Decades of systematic corruption, ineptitude, mismanagement, and now impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, have resulted in an unprecedented economic situation.
Iranians from all walks of life are airing out their grievances in the streets, indicating the explosive state of Iran’s society. These protests have sounded the alarm for the regime.
Contrary to Tehran’s expectations, the nuclear talks did not prove to be a walk in the park, and Western powers have not so far provided the regime with another windfall of cash or economic lifeline. Due to Tehran’s provocative demands and violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, the talks in Vienna do not bode well for the theocracy.
So, Khamenei and Raisi desperately tried to convince Russia to help them in the Vienna talks and to provide them with economic relief. But that expectation is an illusion.
Russia is under international sanctions itself and its economy is facing significant headwinds. It would not risk further damage to its current financial situation by helping the regime and evading U.S. sanctions that would be costly.
Russia’s delay in renewing a 20-year agreement with Tehran is a testament that it is unwilling to risk its global economic relations to help Iran’s ruling theocracy. Major uprisings in Iran in the last five years laid bare the regime’s domestic vulnerabilities and this has not been ignored by watchful eyes in Beijing and Moscow.
Even if Russia accepts to renew and finalize the 20-year agreement on strategic cooperation, neither side would stand to benefit significantly. Al-Monitor, which has ties to Tehran, reported that while “this agreement could revive Russian-Iranian trade and economic relations,” it only amounts to “$3.3 billion” and “should hardly be considered a great success. For comparison, trade between Russia and Turkey stands at about $22 billion to $25 billion annually.” Russia also has significant trading relations with the U.S. and the European Union.
Raisi’s visit to Russia had no tangible outcomes for the regime. On January 20, the state-run Arman-e Meli daily wrote: “Despite Iran’s decades of political and economic partnership with Russia, and Russia’s actions against our national interests, it seems that the 20-year agreement has made the government quite excited. The main reason for this excitement is that it intends to fake achievements instead of focusing on improving foreign relations.”
The official news agency IRNA quoted Raisi as saying: “As a first step, the two countries agreed to increase mutual trade to $ 10 billion a year,” while adding “We hope that this trip will be a turning point in improving relations with Russia’s friendly and neighboring country, and that our relations will help improve the level of security in the region and resolve regional and global crises”. In the end, however, Raisi failed to showcase any concrete treaty or agreement to support his optimism.
Terrified of a restive society, Khamenei chose to risk domestic objection and an increase in public hatred by selling out the nation’s wealth to foreign powers, hoping that he might be able to buy impunity and dodge further international pressure. Tehran is draining its resources and increasingly losing its ability to fund its oppressive forces inside Iran and across the Middle East. So, it continues to turn to Russia and China for a lifeline. But the fact remains that Tehran is at a strategic loss domestically.
The deteriorating socio-economic crises continue to trigger more protests. Another wave of uprisings is inevitable. Regardless of Tehran’s foreign policy gambles, when the streets are conquered by a spirit of popular anger and iron resolve to overthrow the theocracy, neither Russia nor China would be able to help.