Russia has frequently attempted to invade Iran, with much success, over the last two centuries. Dominating Iran, in one form or another, has been, and still is, the pivotal doctrine of Russia’s geopolitical strategy. While there have been a few strategic setbacks, Russia continues to regroup and try again. Russia is formed on ice and is too big to survive without access to warm waters. This geographical necessity is not going to change over time.
Russia has seceded rich territories of Iran in the last couple of centuries and has downgraded the Persian Safivid Empire to a tribal cluster, and consequently, a non-existent nation, in less than a century. By the beginning of the 20th century, Qajar Shahs’ fell under the influence of their czarist neighbor. As a result, the Russian hegemony in Persia was almost complete. It was the United States that pushed the Russians back. Domination of Iran by Russians was not in the interest of the West then or now.
After the 7th Century decimation of the Persian Empire by the Arabs from the south, the Russian invasion from the north was extremely devastating; it also had the same endgame outcome. Arabs dubbed invasion of Persia as the “Conquest of Persian.” And Russians call their crimes the “Conquest of Caucasia”.
Russian’s latest invasion occurred during the late 1940s and dragged on into the early 1950s. That was despite the Agreement reached by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin during the Tehran Conference. The Russians used their cronies in Iran to remove South Azerbaijan, Gillan, Mazandaran and nearly every province north and northwest of the Teheran Province. Russians are currently using this same textbook strategy in Ukraine.
Anglo-Russian Invasion of 1907
Iran would be off the world map and erased from the history books if the 1907 Agreement was not followed by WWI a few years later. The 1907 Agreement divided Iran into two “spheres of influence”. For the Russians, that meant “annexation;” for the British, it meant “colonization.” However, as history shows, Iran would finally and entirely be under Russian’s control shortly afterwards. After all, Britain’s primary interest was protecting the Indian colonies and the Russian dream of accessing warm waters was not in conflict with their colonies. The Agreement would, at least for a while, keep Russians busy and away from India, the jewel of her colonies. Russia would agree to a two-layer buffer zone only to keep Britain convinced that they had no ulterior motives on India.
Signed on August 31, 1907, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 brought shaky British-Russian relations to the forefront by solidifying the boundaries that identified their respective control in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. This agreement seemingly ended a long-standing struggle for power that had gone on at the expense of the less-developed regions throughout Central and South Asia. As a consequence of the Anglo-Russian agreement, Russia crushed any chance of Persian autonomy.
From the start to the finish, Persia was never consulted in these negotiations, as there was no one to consult. Both Mohammad Ali Shah and Sultan Ahmad Shah had no real power beyond the Golestan Palace. Persia was, for both of the powers, simply a tract of territory.
Consequently, neither of them remembered that Persia was a nation. The Agreement partitioned the country into three sectors. The Russian sector in the North covered more than half of Persia, and included the whole of its more fertile and populous area, including its three great towns: Teheran, Tabriz, and Isfahan. The British sector was a small area in the South-West; it was arid and thinly populated. It was only a buffer between India and Russia. Between the two, stretched a great neutral area composed mainly of deserts and mountains, and the torrid region of the Gulf coast.
WWI saves Iran
Iranians got lucky. WWI broke out and the United States emerged as the new superpower, with her own dominating geopolitical interests. That included an independent Iran out of Russian influence. In the 1920s, Russia was trying to survive the aftermath of a world war, a revolution and an entanglement with the internal fighting between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks for a decade or two. Russia didn’t have the resources, or even the interest, to oppose the new plan. The 1907 Convention was out of the window for now, until Stalin got a hold of it. “Stalin’s Curse” refers to the same Imperialistic Objectives that Peter the Great had. It is also similar to the expansionist tactic of Putin today. Geopolitics has always been far more important for Russians than ideology.
Haji Hossein-Gholi Khan was the first Iranian Ambassador to the United States. Known as Haji Washington, he was instrumental in creating support and developing an understanding of mutual interest within the American political and commercial circles. The United States understood that the new Iran would be far more in the interest of the United States (US) than partitioned smaller countries under the influence of emerging communism. Haji Washington was followed by Mirza Ali Kuli Khan, the second Iranian Ambassador to the U.S.
Russia didn’t give up its dreams and tried invading Iran a few decades later, during and after WWII (World War II), despite the Tehran Agreement. And again, it was Americans who pushed Russians away in the late 1940s. The fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1979 became a golden opportunity for Russians to occupy Iran. However, this time around, they were far more covert and concealed.
The Constitutional Monarchy and the Rebirth of Iran
During the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century, because of its anti-colonial history, the US was seen as a respectful state, unlike Russia, who was engaged in a dirty scenario with Britain called the Great Game. Russia has openly stated its plans to reach the Persian Gulf since 1813; that included colonizing or the outright annexation of Iran, one province at a time. Persia and the Caucasus regions have endured Russian aggression and oppression for at least 150 years. Iranians supporting the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, that included Reza Khan, viewed the US and Germany as balancing forces in their struggle to put a stop to Russians cutting off Iran piece by piece and being annexed to Russia. Furthermore, US industrial and business leaders were supportive in modernizing the Iranian economic and administrative infrastructure.
Reza Khan became the Shah of the Iranian Constitutional Monarchy in 1925. Consequently, the territorial integrity and the independence of Iran were preserved. Reza Shah began creating a new country from the ruins of what was left from a century of disintegration by the Russians. Keeping Iran out of the hands of Russia was possibly the best decision the US ever made; it was also the foremost task of Reza Khan. The implementation of the 1907 plan would have made Russia in control of Middle Eastern oil, the primary commodity that fueled the American economy in the 20th Century.
Reza Khan and the formation of a new country
By the early 20th Century, Iran was irrelevant. Russians handled Tehran, Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan the same. Local semi-autonomous regions were formed all across Iran, claiming their own independence with no opposition from the non-existent central power.
Reza Shah never intended to create a dynasty. All he wanted was a constitutional monarchy out of the hands of Russians. He understood international geopolitics and realized that two centuries of Russian motives against the Iranian integrity will not stop without a balanced foreign policy. Iran didn’t have the resources and or the support to create a military matching that of the Russians. Hence, Iran needed a serious foreign support that was not in the position of occupying Iran. He was seeking new allies. Iran had the support of the US, but America was looking inward in the 1920s, which were followed by the Great Depression. Germany was the only other option. Despite Russian propaganda, Reza Shah has no intention of supporting Nazi Germany. He purely needed a supporting power to hold back the Russians. Russian attacks on Iran under the false pretence of supporting a Caucasus front simply enforced Reza Shah’s decision to seek German help.
Stalin solidified his powers by the 1930s and began to look outward again. Abandoning the 1907 Agreement didn’t set well with Stalin. Russian sympathizers were behind the numerous assassinations and Stalin used his new powers to undermine the cooperation between Iran and the west to much success. Russia was looking for another opportunity to invade Iran and regain the lost 1907 territories. They got that opportunity close to the end of WWII and invaded the northern part of the country once again.
During WWII, Russians were being slaughtered in Stalingrad. Over 6 Million Russians were killed in defending it, yet Russia moved a considerable portion of their army to invade Iran. Immediately after WWII, Russians wanted the abdication of Reza Shah and the return of the Qajar Dynasty. Reza Shah had put Iranian-American relations in limbo, because of one speeding ticket that the Iranian Ambassador got in Washington DC circa 1936. Western powers agreed with the abdication, but not with the return of the Qajar Dynasty. For the second time in less than half a century, it was the US that pushed Russians back and supported Iranian territorial integrity.
Numerous events shaped Iran in the following 25 years. Mistakes and miscalculations were made, but regardless, Iran succeeded as a growing nation in many fields. Did the Shah move too fast or was he not strong enough as Ataturk did? The modernization of the country created some level of discontent, as was to be expected. Russians seized the opportunity to topple Iran. They hoped that they would have much more influence over whatever came next. They did.
Russians were never comfortable with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. His departure was a dream come true for them. During his administration, Russia used a wide range of cronies to hinder the modernization of Iran, including any possible heinous crimes that would fit their objectives. They used the same tactics that they use in Ukraine today.
With the Pahlavi Dynasty gone, Russia fostered a constant conflict between Iran and the West during the next three decades, blocking possibility of any cooperation between Iran and the west. Friendships between Iran and the US were not in the interest of Russia at all. Russians worked hard for centuries to get to this point; they are going to protect the status quo at any price. Today, Russia is supporter of a nuclear Iran, only to sustain the hostility between Iran and the west. Russia has no intentions of allowing Iranians access to atomic arms, except if they are in full control of it.
Conflict of Interest
An independent, prosperous and strong Iran has never been in the interest of Russia, and it never will be. Russia was unnerved by Reza Shah’s rebuilding of the Iranian Army and demanded his abdication. He didn’t hide his euphoria when Pahlavi II left. They continued undercutting the efforts of both the Pahlavi Kings in modernizing Iran and repeatedly tried to destabilize their governments.
Russia and Iran produce the same commodities: oil and gas. Oil and gas supplies are the prime sources of income for both countries.
That places Iran and Russia in a direct conflict of interest. Without Iran, Russia will have a hard time controlling anti-American terrorist proxies in the region and elsewhere. Connecting the dots, most of the anti-west terrorist groups are linked to Russia via Iran. It is only a matter of time before Iran stops acting as Russia’s middleman proxy of terrorism.
And, last but not least, Europe would not need to tolerate Russia’s bullying of Eastern Europe if they had greater access to Iranian fossil fuel.
Russia’s Final Blunder
There is a new factor in Russia’s Great Game. The Russian economy is in omnishambles, even though Putin is actively isolating the country’s banking and economic systems from the international sector. The Russian economy plummeted after 2008, and it is expected to take another plunge this year. The Russian Ruble is consistently dropping against the U.S. dollar, and Russia’s economic growth forecast for 2014 is a mere 0.2%. In contrast, mature economies are averaging 2% growth, while emerging markets are at 6%. The Russian Federation is on the verge of collapse, and Putin knows it. Expansionism is Putin’s way of creating a geopolitical shield to protect Russia. He is trying to cover his past blunders with a new mega-blunder. In the process, the country’s limited resources are wearing too thin.
Russian endeavors into Ukraine seem to be far more catastrophic than its blunder in Georgia in 2008.
Both Russian and international investors have lost trust in the economy. More than $75 billion has left Russia in the first six months of 2014, and that was before the Ukrainian conflict.
Russian economic crises have heightened the country’s dependency on oil and gas exports and its desperate need to limit Iranian gas exports, because that’s one of the viable options on the table. Iran’s ability – or, conversely, its inability – to export gas is a matter of life or death for Russia today. Russia exports 24% of European Union gas and 30% of its oil. Imagine what would happen to Russia if Iran began exporting oil and gas to Europe. Europe wants it, Iran wants it, and Russia hates the idea. Isn’t that good enough reason for Russia to push against resolving the nuclear issue?
A recent Russian energy agreement with China has reduced China’s need for Iranian gas. China is the largest importer of Iranian gas, and without it, the Iranian economy will be hit hard. This is especially true as long as Iran is unable to sell petroleum and gas to the West and most of the emerging markets due the hindering of the nuclear negotiations by Russia. To further damage the Iranian economy for the benefit of Russians, Russia has “agreed” to build another 8 to 10 nuclear reactors in Iran. Iran will pay with underpriced gas and petroleum, and Russia will sell these same commodities on the international markets. These shenanigans in their entirety eliminate Iran’s main source of income.
The Tehran Times reported on July 11, 2014, of an extensive agreement pertaining to Russian “investment” in the Iranian gas sector. Russia receives Iranian natural gas, and in turn builds useless, exorbitantly costly eight nuclear facilities.
Adding to numerous other compacts on energy, military, transportation and so forth, this recent agreement puts Russia in full control of Iranian exports, energy production and, finally, the economy as a whole for decades to come, if not for the entire 21st century. Russia has colonized Iran at last.
Iran’s dual army is equipped with substandard, lower grade Russian equipment. Such equipment is sufficient to quell internal unrest, but in no way could it fend off a major foreign invasion from the north. While the United States armed Iran with the latest and most advanced warfare during our golden friendship days, Russia has purposely refused to upgrade the Iranian Air Force. The Iranian Army still uses hundreds of U.S.-made fighter jets, including close to 120 F14s, as its primary air force fleet, while Russia has given Iran only 21 Mig Fighters from the 1970s! The Pasdaran Army, the better half of the Iranian Army, is plainly a subdivision of the Russian Army. No serious bases are located in Gilan and Mazandaran Provinces. For all practical purposes, the Northern Corridor has been left open. The old pro-Moscow leftist cronies are dormant but have not been fully eliminated.
On more than one occasion, the Russians have warned the West that any invasion by Americans from the South would be confronted by Russians from the North. It feels like 1907 all over again. This certainly seems an implausible idea, as was the invasion of Iran on numerous occasions a farfetched idea, as farfetched as the invasion of North Georgia, Chechnya and Ossetia in 2008, and as farfetched as the invasion of Crimea only a few months ago. Russia has to invade Iran; Putin believes he must. Putin’s mismanagement of the Russian strategic economy and his obsessive adherence to ancient tsarist ideals has brought Russia to its knees.
Putin believes his invasion of Iran, or at least full control of the county, can provide him with some surviving points. He is mistaken; his involvement in Iran is too pricey, far more costly than Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s. That resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union, yet another farfetched and unthinkable idea at that time.
This is not a farfetched concept; no one should be surprised. Russia has not abandoned its centuries- old ways; it can’t. Putin has been taking steps identical to the Russian Tsars and Politburo Chiefs, and equivalent results should be expected. This is not a farfetched and unbelievable concept; Irano-Russian history begs to differ. Current events in Ukraine beg to differ. 1945 was not terribly long ago, followed by Afghanistan in the 1970s, Georgia in 2008, and finally, Crimea in 2014. What is a bit surprising is that many of our western leaders have publicly expressed shock. The Moskovsky Vodolazs are still breathing and are too old to unlearn their tendency to bite.
It is in the interest of Russia to cut the losses and count its blessings before it is too late. However, it is President Putin we are talking about; he has most likely passed the point of no return.
Iran must free itself from Russian domination and stop being a mere a middleman for Russia’s anti-western terrorist network. There is no common interest between Iran and Russia; there are only conflicts of interest. While all of our neighbors have benefitted from outrageously high oil prices, Iran is falling behind every day. Iran’s close relationship with Russia has resulted in irreversible damage to Iran’s economy, society and international reputation.
It is far better for Iran to ease foreign trade and prevent Russian cronies’ propaganda in support of a nuclear Iran, which has created unnecessary political conflict with the west that only benefits Russia. This conflict has proven to be too expensive for Iran. Continuing the status quo requires further and more severe clampdowns on internal social and financial freedoms. The situation is not sustainable. It is not only the regime that is in danger. The entire country could fall apart. Here is the irony: global geopolitical events today bear an eerie resemblance to the early 20th century. Iran is not the exception. Russia was in full control of Iran during the early 20th century, as it is now. Iran would have unfortunately ended and rarely been mentioned in history books if Russia’s plans had succeeded. World War I saved Iran. We just got lucky. We can’t count on pure luck this time around again.
The Great Rapprochement has been placed on table by a few from both the Iranian and the American sides. The original Great Rapprochement and ending of Anglophobia – between the U.S. and Britain – was not based on pure mutual interest only. The liberalization of a governing system in Britain and the transfer of power from the elite to the common man was the catalyst for common interest and Rapprochement. There is no question that the Iranian and American people share a considerable level of common interest, but that is not enough.
Iran must consider its own interests prior to appeasing Russia’s misplaced rivalry against the west. Iran has been the pioneer of human rights for millennia, which is the true Persian Culture; Iran needs to return to its ancient roots. There was a time when Iran was the land of refuge for masses who yearned to be free from religious and ethnic persecution. What has altered that innate psyche? The Christians, Jews and others are being slaughtered in the region today; there was a time when Iran would have opened its doors for them with welcoming arms. Why not now? Iran needs to revive its true ancient identity. The country must advance a free market economy. Iran needs to regain its independence from Russian shenanigans and extend a hand of friendship to its true historic allies and friends. These are the perquisites for the next Great Rapprochement, if there is going to be one.
The status quo is the other option. Iran was just an irrelevant name on the world map in the early 1900s; the next map didn’t even include Iran. However, Iran got lucky; the U.S. found interest in an independent Iran, the new regime in Russia didn’t adhere to the Tsars’ policies, and Reza Khan rose to the occasion.
We can’t count on luck again.