The Third Russia-Iran Dialogue: Pondering a Common Future
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall (Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia)
List of speakers

On June 26, the Valdai Discussion Club hosted the 3rd Russian-Iranian Dialogue, during which Russian and Iranian experts discussed bilateral cooperation and global politics, as well as ways to promote human relations.

“The bulk of human behavior is based on conception. We formulate a concept of the world and our future, which cannot arise of their own free will but need our assistance to come to life,” Andrei Bystritsky, Chairman of the Foundation for the Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, said in his opening address. The Russia-Iran dialogue is focused on the conception of the world, or at least part of it that includes a number of bilateral and global issues of concern to the international community. Discussions included the developments in Russia and Iran, as well as the countries that can influence their relations, such as Syria, the United States, Israel, Turkey and Egypt.

Zamir Kabulov, Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Second Asian Department, pointed out the conflict between Iran and the United States. “It is a hardline and high-risk bluff,” the Russian diplomat said. “They [the United States – Ed.] love games of chance. They are playing a poker game with an unpredictable outcome. Anything can happen in a hardline game; the player may lose control,” Kabulov noted, adding that if this conflict entered the hot phase, Iran, unlike the United States, was likely to respond to the attack so as to protect its independence even if this entailed losses. One way or another, the situation was fraught with regional and oil crises that would have a negative impact on the global economy. “The main thing is that we know Iran will endure in any battle, and it will not be alone fighting it,” Zamir Kabulov said.

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Expert Opinions

Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajadpour, President of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), supported Kabulov’s opinion. He mentioned the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and attempts to dominate the world. “Iran is ready for confrontation. It is part of our culture,” he said. “Confrontation is a global phenomenon, but we can use dialogue with Russia to find new ways to improve the situation and our relations.” The Iranian expert named the three goals of the bilateral dialogue: to exchange methods and analyses of regional and global developments, to develop a human relationship, and to boost bilateral relations, which “have a solid backbone” and are benefiting the region and the international community as a whole.

Mehdi Sanaei, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Russia, mentioned the regular summit meetings, the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and efforts to offset the influence of third factors that had affected bilateral relations. He also highlighted the problems of Afghanistan, drugs, terrorism and extremism, as well as the positive example of cooperation in the media and the internet. “We have not yet signed any documents, but in point of fact we are engaged in strategic cooperation and partnership,” the Iranian ambassador said. “However, these relations are so far developing at the state level. What we need is to launch an opinion exchange between NGOs.”

The first meeting of the 3rd Russia-Iran Dialogue was devoted to the analysis of the international situation as seen by Moscow and Tehran, which have very similar views, as it turned out at the meeting.

The participants supported the above mentioned speakers and also spoke out against the provocative US policy toward Iran and the Middle East as a whole. One of the speakers said the US was testing Iran’s patience and trying to provoke an irresponsible reaction from Tehran. An open conflict broke out between the two countries back in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq, and Washington will continue with its pressure and provocations. Iran’s close ties with other powers can help it pursue a reasonable policy. Europe can hardly help Tehran in this case, but China can. China is a global actor that is formulating a long-term strategy of winning a new position on the global stage.

Another speaker noted that discussions on international developments usually highlighted countries, but interstate relations also include the human and symbolic components, namely the power of image and impression as well as the interpretation of events. The United States is trying to force its interpretation on everyone, and hence the other actors must promote the plurality of views and uphold their right to hold independent views on events, he said.

Yet another expert countered that the point is not only words and images but also reality: all the attempts to overhaul the post-WWII international institutions to suit the hegemonic aspirations of one particular actor have failed, and there are no neutral actors left because everyone has been assigned a role. That speaker added that Trump’s team is the most peaceful US administration since the end of the Cold War: it has not launched a single war and is unlikely to do so before the end of Trump’s second term. Its goal is to disrupt stability, to which other powers, including Russia, Iran and China, can respond by bolstering cooperation.

The second meeting of the 3rd Russia-Iran Dialogue focused on the Middle East, including Syria, of course. One of the speakers outlined the main problems that should be tackled after the war, such as a final political settlement, the return of refugees and the post-war rehabilitation of the country. The biggest challenge in this context is the seemingly mundane nature of these problems: discussions on constitutional development have been going on for ages, and the efforts of Russia, Iran and Turkey in the international format are looked down on as routine. A new path should be chartered to get out of the stalemate. It could be a combination of the Astana format and a small group of nations that may include the United States as a new member, or the prompt resolution of the problems of Idlib and Turkish occupation.

Another speaker said he had a different view on the matter. The biggest problem is not Idlib but the situation in the northeast of Syria, he noted. US and Turkish troops, as well as the Kurds, must pull out of the country, which will help restore peace and create conditions for strategic cooperation between Russia, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even the United States, considering that the meeting between US President Donald Trump and President of Russia Vladimir Putin planned at the G20 summit was likely to focus on Syria and Iran. The speaker believes that after the restoration of peace in Syria the main task is to carry on with the cooperation launched during the crisis. Such cooperation can include policy toward the Caucasus, INSTC, the Greater Eurasia project and Iran’s possible membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The third, and final, meeting of the 3rd Russia-Iran Dialogue was devoted to relations between Moscow and Tehran. Although these relations have a long and diverse history, all the participating experts agreed that the past few years were noted for mutual understanding and growing trust between them in many spheres, including foreign policy, counterterrorism, the Syrian settlement and the Eurasian policy.

Russia-Iran relations have got a boost from the sanctions imposed against the two countries. However, one of the experts pointed out the negative factor of Iran’s inflated expectations of Russia. He said that dialogue must be bilateral and partner-like in the true meaning of this word. Bilateral relations must include trust and efforts to resolve differences when they arise, for example, differences regarding Israel or the Caucasus.

What should be done to strengthen bilateral relations? Which topics must be put on the agenda? Some experts believe that Russia and Iran should institutionalize their relations, create sea and automobile transportation infrastructure and accelerate mutual trade. They should also promote people-to-people ties within the framework of civil societies, as well as work together in finance and energy to their mutual advantage, rather than as rivals.

The experts who spoke at the final news conference agreed that the third meeting was a success. Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajadpour noted that they had discussed three levels of relations – global, regional and bilateral ones – and that these relations were stable at all the three levels. Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director of the Foundation for the Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, pointed out that the differences in political culture and interests in Russia and Iran did not rule out cooperation. “Strategic partnership does not mean there are no problems between the partners, but that they can identify and resolve them,” he said. “Tension is possible at all levels, but there is not a shadow of a doubt in the importance of partnership on both sides,” Lukyanov said.

The participants decided that it was not their last meeting, although the format may be changed so as to invite Chinese partners.