Russia and Iran

Russia backed Iraq during its eight-year-long war with Iran (1980-1988). Iranian soldier during a chemical attack, undated.

The current downturn in Russian-Iranian relations has demonstrated the fragility of the relationship that has developed since the revolution and brought a profound mutual distrust into the open.

Several longstanding irritants — Iranian support for the Afghan insurgents as well as for Islamic dissidence in the USSR, Iranian suspicions of Soviet intentions and periodic repression of leftist elements, and unresolved economic differences — have flared up simultaneously in recent weeks.

In reaction, both countries have reduced their efforts to maintain the veneer of civility that had marked recent bilateral contacts. Russian objectives against Iran probably include the political and military domination of the entire country. Such domination will be required to ensure Soviet possession of the strategic routes from the USSR to the oil fields within the other countries of the Persian Gulf area, to the eastern and southern approaches to Turkey, and to the Cairo-Suez area.

There is little to suggest that the Soviets are considering military action in response to the current deterioration in relations. They have continued the gradual upgrading of their forces in the border region begun last December, and they clearly want to maintain the credibility of their military option both to deter the United States and pressure Iran.

Before this decline, each country saw some advantage in maintaining a semblance of good relations. The Iranians wanted Soviet support in countering Western economic sanctions. The Russians hoped that such support would foster a workable political and economic relations as well as a favourable climate for the strengthening of pro-Soviet elements within Iran.

The recent angry rhetoric on both sides suggests that these anticipated benefits are not currently compelling enough for them to contain their mutual antipathy.

The Russians, however, probably will try to prevent the deterioration in relations from going any further. They may suspect that Iranian Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh is seeking to provoke them, hoping that Soviet-Iranian tensions will, in turn, produce a resolution of the hostage crisis; such a suspicion would motivate the USSR to restrain its own reactions and continue their efforts to undermine Ghotbzadeh while courting Khomeini.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that Moscow believes relations can be significantly improved in the current context, and they may, therefore, be more willing to encourage and support anti-regime elements and policies within Iran. The Soviets officially have been making friendly gestures toward Iran and at the same time have been attempting to subvert the Kurdish tribes and have actively carried out other subversive efforts in Iran through the communist Tudeh Party.

The Russians’  apprehension and anger with Iran’s outspoken support for the Afghan insurgents, publicly muted in order to avoid antagonising the Khomeini regime, intensified with Iranian Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh’s flamboyant performance at the Islamic Conference in Islamabad in mid-May.

Soviet media criticism of Ghotbzadeh, who has long been strongly anti- Soviet, began in early June when a TASS report charged that if his threats to create a base in Iran for Afghan insurgents were implemented, the consequences would be “most dangerous.”

TASS and Pravda commentaries in late June and early July attacked Ghotbzadeh and “certain circles” in Iran for aiding counterrevolution in Afghanistan and charged that a “centre of armed provocation” had been established in the Iranian town of Mashhad, allowing the CIA to operate on Iranian territory.

Soviet concern about Iran’s interest in exporting the Islamic Revolution also surfaced in mid-June. Turkmenskaya Iskra of 15 June carried a speech by Turkmen First Secretary Gapurov in which he included Gorgan Radio Center and Mashhad Television in Iran among those “foreign anti-Soviet special services” directing disinformation and hostile propaganda at the population of the Turkmen Republic.

On 7 July, perhaps concerned by the high level of anti-Soviet rhetoric in the Iranian press, the Russian embassy informed the Iranian Foreign Ministry that elements hostile to the USSR were planning provocative actions against the embassy and demanded that Iran take measures to prevent this.

Ghotbzadeh’s recent, sharp attacks on the Soviet Union reflect both Iran’s concern about current Kremlin rhetoric and policy and a deeply rooted Iranian belief that the Soviets are using their personnel in Iran for subversive purposes.

While Iranian suspicions are not new, they were publicly demonstrated for the first time since the revolution by the arrest and expulsion of Soviet First Secretary Galvanov, reputedly a KGB officer, on charges of espionage in late June.

Ghotbzadeh, under personal attack by the Soviets, appears particularly to have latched onto the Galvanov issue as a means of playing to Khomeini’s opposition to Communism and his active mistrust of Soviet and Tudeh Party activities.

The success of Ghotbzadeh’s campaign to date is demonstrated by the fact that the organ of Iran’s right-wing Muslim party (controlled by Ayatollah Beheshti) joined the attack on the USSR on 1 July, asking rhetorically if the Soviet Embassy is “not also a nest of spies”?

In press conferences on 2 and 4 July, Ghotbzadeh went on the offensive. He accused the USSR of widespread espionage in Iran and said Iran plans to close its Leningrad consulate and open one in Dushanbe in the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, near Russia’s border with Afghanistan.

The Kremlin almost certainly would have preferred to avoid the current downturn in relations. Moscow has been seeking diligently to convert Iran’s dispute with the United States into an expansion of its own presence and influence in Iran, and probably believed that Iran was interested in the economic bait they were offering.

The current situation may prompt a reassessment in Moscow of its policy toward Iran. Some Soviets may argue that it is pointless to attempt to mollify the Khomeini regime, that the USSR is unlikely to make any progress with the elements currently dominating Iran’s political scene, and that Russia should now pursue a policy of intensified support for leftists and minorities within Iran with the goal of undermining the government.

Others are likely to urge caution, however, arguing that the left does not yet have sufficient strength to seize power and will not for some time, that increased Soviet support for the left will only lead to intensified repression of the leftists by the Islamic regime, and that the USSR’s most prudent course remains one of patience and continued courtship of the Khomeini regime.

The Soviets will certainly continue to pursue elements of both policy approaches but may believe that increased emphasis should be given to encouraging anti-regime tendencies. Nevertheless, Moscow hopes to hasten the day when the present regime can be successfully challenged.

Should Moscow increase its support for other destabilising elements within Iran, it will try to do so indirectly and circumspectly, recognising the dangers such support creates for the groups themselves and for Soviet relations with the Khomeini regime.

Adapted from CIA cables circa 1980 and 1953, courtesy of Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.