Moscow’s message on Iran has been cautious and almost neutral

Moscow’s message on Iran has been cautious and almost neutral

Moscow’s response to the massive anti-regime protests gripping Iran since Dec. 28 should have been predictable — a condemnation of another perceived “U.S.-led regime change.” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position with this topic after all is well known. This is how Moscow characterized anti-authoritarian protests from the color revolutions in the post-Soviet space to the Arab Spring and protests against Putin himself.

Yet Moscow’s message on Iran has been cautious, almost neutral.

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On Dec. 31 Russian senator and chairman of Federation Council’s foreign affairs committee Konstantin Kosachev said that the protests in Iran are a “symptom of certain internal political processes in the country.” To be sure, he did not dismiss “external influence” entirely, but said, “I would not ascribe too much influence on the Iranian processes to Washington — right now it [Washington] is not in the right ‘condition,’ and Iran is not so open for external influence.”

 

The next day, Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said tersely that the protests are an “internal issue” and added, “we express the hope that the situation won’t evolve along the scenario of violence and bloodshed.”  On Jan. 2 the Russian government’s newspaper of record Rossiyskaya Gazeta dutifully reported that Iran blames the U.S., U.K., and Saudi Arabia for the protests and noted that Washington supported the protests. Yet said nothing of Moscow’s own view on the matter. 

The publication noted in another article that Trump’s expressed support for the protestors is “interference” in “internal affairs of Iran,” but said nothing on the reasons why the protests began. Meanwhile, Russian Federal News agency quoted a Russian analyst who believed the key reason for unrest in Iran was related to internal issues inside the Islamic Republic.

To be sure, Moscow may be slowly returning to its more traditional rhetoric. Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova wrote sarcastically in her Facebook page about U.S. intent to call emergency UN Security Council meeting on Iran, “There’s no doubt that the U.S. delegation has something to tell the world. For example, [US representative] Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyRussia sanctions not on G7 agenda: report Joe Scarborough predicts Trump won't run in 2020 Bolton meets with Russian ambassador at White House MORE can share American experience of dispersing protests, tell in detail how, for example, there were mass arrests and suppression of the Occupy Wall Street movement or how Ferguson was ‘cleaned up.’”

But the overall lackluster response both from the government and traditional pro-Kremlin commentators is significant. The reasons may be related both to Moscow’s relationship with Tehran and Russia’s position in Syria.

The protests likely took the Kremlin by surprise. Moscow also likely understands their importance and may not want to rush to premature conclusions. In the Arab world Putin worked hard over the years to have friendly relations with almost everyone. Thus, although Moscow briefly lost influence after the Arab Spring protests, it was able to rebuild it fairly quickly. In Iran, Moscow’s only partner is the ruling regime, and should it fall, it would have been unwise to oppose those who toppled it.

Furthermore, the Islamic Republic is among Moscow’s few significant allies, one that shares its anti-Western aspirations, and its loss from a geo-strategic perspective would be immense. Without Iran, it is doubtful Moscow can keep Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in power, and thus the Kremlin would lose the claim to all its announced victories in Syria.

Russia’s longtime Middle East expert Alexander Shumilin writes in the liberal Echo Moskvy that from Moscow’s perspective, protests in Iran bode two possible negative consequences for the Kremlin: regime change in Iran, which would mean a quick fall for Assad, or protracted internal conflict in Iran that would require the regime to pull its resources from the region to protect itself, which would essentially mean a similar fate for Assad, albeit a protracted one.

“Thus, official bloggers in Moscow are silent,” concludes Shumilin." And thank God — it’s possible to hope they are beginning to draw lessons from Middle Eastern plot twists.”

Anna Borshchevskaya is the Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.