The role of Russia in leading the Iran nuclear negotiations—the Vienna talks—is undeniable. Russia, the main political ally of Iran’s Islamic regime, projects the image of a country that looks out for the interests of its counterpart. Despite this façade, the reality is substantially different when considering their relations. A meticulous look over Russia’s actions proves the unreliable and scheming nature of Vladimir Putin’s Russia toward Iran and the Iranians.
Only a little over a month ago, Russia made last-minute demands during the Vienna talks. The Kremlin demanded to be exempt from sanctions in its trade with Iran, particularly from sanctions by the European Union and United States for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Critics correctly noted that these last-minute demands are an attempt to obstruct the negotiations. The goal for the Kremlin is to receive more sanction relief by using Iran’s nuclear weapons program as leverage. Furthermore, Russia’s economy depends on oil exports, and the Russia-Ukraine War has raised oil prices. But if Iran and the West reach an agreement, the oil market would see a flow of Iranian oil, which would lower global oil prices and in turn hurt Russia.
Moreover, Russia appears to be using Iranian-made missiles in Ukraine. The Islamic Republic and its terrorist proxies—such as Hashad al-Shaabi—smuggled the weaponry to Russia. At a time when Iran is in an extremely fragile and sensitive stage internationally, showing solidarity with and support for the Russian aggression against Ukraine is a disastrous mistake.
A look at the history of Iran-Russia relations demonstrates the same pattern of Russian regimes exploiting Iranian resources. Most evidently, tsarist Russia obstructed the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906–07, and the Soviet Union attempted to create a satellite state in the Azerbaijan province of Iran.
In the first case, during the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, Russia supported the reactionary Shiite clergy and the Qajar king, Mohammad Ali Shah. The progressives, known as the Constitutionalists, were executed, imprisoned, or forced into exile through a joint effort by the Russian embassy, Shiite clergy, and Russophile-Iranians in Mohammad Ali Shah’s circle. Though the Constitutionalists prevailed in the end and reinstituted the constitutional monarchy (a model based on the ancient Iranian empires and Western constitutionalism), Russia invaded the country over Iran’s use of an American consultant.
The use of American and European consultants was part of the Constitutionalists’ attempts to diversify Iranian resources and combat Russian and British influence. The Pahlavi Dynasty followed the diversification policy more thoroughly and comprehensively, and Iran became a close ally of the United States. It used consultants from countries that did not have a history of exploiting Iran, and this policy helped Iran advance modernity and reform its institutions.
Notably, religious minorities such as Zoroastrians, Christians, and adherents of the Baháʼí faith were devout Constitutionalists. The Russian troops and Iranian-Russophiles commonly persecuted them. Through the clergy, they declared the Constitutionalists and religious minorities to be blasphemous and heretical because of their progressive ideals and faith. One such Constitutionalist ideal was to support absolute equal rights for religious minorities, arguing that anyone who is Iranianmust be equal under the law regardless of their faith. Hasan Taqizadeh, a Constitutionalist and scholar, was one of the highly regarded and outspoken parliamentary members who staunchly argued for and defended the protection of liberal rights, particularly for religious minorities in Iran. The clergy declared Taqizadeh an infidel and forced him to leave Iran.
Four decades later, Russia—as the Soviet Union—further demonstrated its unreliable and scheming nature by attempting to annex the historical Azerbaijan province of Iran, aiming to create a satellite state. This event is commonly known as the Azerbaijan Crisis of 1946. Although the Soviet Union ultimately failed, Moscow provided its puppet government in Azerbaijan with heavy military and financial support. Credit for the Iranian success in keeping its historical land is given to the shah for firmly standing his ground that Azerbaijan is Iranian land and would not secede; the Iranian army for its unity and patriotism; and the benevolent alliance of the United States as a potent force that protects liberal norms and the interests of its allies.
How good of an ally is Russia, and why does the Islamic regime in Iran continue its dependency on Moscow, despite the continuous pattern of Russia’s neglect of the interests of Iran? The ideological nature of Tehran impedes any politically motivated maneuver. More significantly, those in high-ranking positions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are closely linked to Russia. In other words, they are the new generation of Iranian-Russophiles, arguably even more dogmatically faithful to Russia than the previous generation of Iranian-Russophiles.
The sentiment in the Iranian diaspora and the Iranians living inside Iran is vastly different. Iranian elites and the populace have historically held a pessimist view toward Russian regimes. The pessimistic view Iranians hold toward Russia provides an invaluable opportunity to the West: if they support the patriotic Iranian diaspora—the Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi and his circle—they can successfully systemize and breathe a new vitality into the new generation of Iranian Constitutionalists. As long as the new Constitutionalists have the official support of the West, they will be able to systematically channel their efforts, both outside and inside of Iran. The new generation of Iranian Constitutionalists—who mostly identify as classical liberals—advocate for democracy and liberalism, religious freedoms, and a peaceful and collaborative relationship with Israel (similar to the Pahlavi-era when Iran and Israel undertook projects together and had intelligence collaborations). What is to be seen is whether the West will use the opportunity to officially support the secular and liberal Iranian opposition—the new generation of Constitutionalists—or will it insist on negotiating with Iran under the outdated and inadequate terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran Deal), which will only create a more audacious and presumptuous Islamic regime, leading to even less Western influence in the Middle East. The subsequent result of such disastrous policymaking at the highest levels of the White House is harsher living conditions for Iranians, economically and politically.