The general perception in the west is that Russia and Iran lack subtlety and our broader understanding of the world. That they’re driven by aggression, or ancient angers, ideology or religion.
Coming to the realisation that this view is simply wrong has for me been a progressive journey over the last few decades. What I have to guard against now is falling into a sort of mirror image perception where their qualities are unduly lionised and ours dismissed. Given the frequent incoherence of western policies and pronouncements in recent years, guarding against that danger has from time to time been a near full-time job.
What prompted these brief reflections was the coincidence of two recent interviews, one with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the other with the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, both appearing on the same day.
Question: Will Russia and European countries be able to restore mutual trust in the foreseeable future?
Sergey Lavrov: Obviously, relations between Russia and the European Union are under severe strain. The destructive line our European partners have taken on the Ukrainian crisis – applying double standards to the situation in Ukraine, unjustifiably blaming the Ukrainian tragedy on us, attempting to exert pressure through sanctions – seriously undermines confidence in Europe.
However, I am convinced that our relations have not yet reached the point of no return. We hope that the safety net that has been created over the years will prove strong enough and will enable us not only to return to the status quo that existed before the conflict, but to move forward. To this end, it is necessary to abandon the faulty logic of sanctions and threats and begin a constructive and pragmatic search for solutions to the problems that have piled up. It is important that common sense and an awareness of the dead-end nature of the policy pursued with regard to our country prevail over hawkish sentiments.
We have consistently argued that there is no reasonable alternative to continued mutually beneficial and equitable cooperation between Russia and the EU, because there is too much that binds us geographically, economically, historically and in human terms.
Just words, of course. Still, I’ve been reading Lavrov’s words for a while and I can’t fault his consistency. Or, for that matter, his politesse.
Some, such as Alasdair Crooke, are convinced Russia has finally decided to turn away from the west, to abandon what it now sees as fruitless efforts to cooperate, and to instead focus on the east. On China, India, Pakistan and its many near neighbours. That’s entirely possible but I’m not yet convinced, as much as anything because of Lavrov’s obvious efforts to keep the door open. Mere prudence, perhaps, but it may also be substantive.
At any rate, if these matters are of any interest, read the whole interview. It’s worth the time.
Now, to Mr Zarif.
Jacob Heilbrunn: If you look at it from the Iranian perspective, is there a compelling reason not to have a nuclear bomb?
Mohammad Javad Zarif: Yes, there is every reason not to have a nuclear bomb. If you look at Iran’s security environment, in the immediate neighborhood—by the immediate neighborhood I mean the Persian Gulf—we are already, because of the size, geography, resources, human resources, military ability…we are the strongest. By far. Most stable country in the region. So we need to go out of our way to convince our neighbors that we don’t have anything against them. We are engaged in confidence-building measures with them. So, not only do we not need a bomb for our immediate neighborhood, a bomb, or even a perception that we have a bomb, will further deteriorate our position, because immediately, our neighbors will seek security assurances from outside. So what we consider to be a conventional superiority that Iran certainly has in the region, if we try for strategic superiority, we will even lose our conventional superiority.
In the larger security environment of Iran—that is, against the threat by Israel or the United States—Iran cannot imagine to engage in any type of deterrence, either directly or even through proxy, with these external threats, or extra-regional threats, through a nuclear device, because we cannot compete in that area.
Yes, it could just be a line. Given recent history, it would be unsurprising if a country in the west’s sights didn’t consider trying to get their hands on their own nuclear deterrent. It tends to work (see N Korea).
Still, his argument doesn’t lack subtlety or good sense and is as potentially convincing as its opposite. Perhaps even more so.
Nor does he lack wit. In a separate interview with NPR:
Asked if he thinks Obama ought to reach an accommodation with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Zarif replied: “President Obama needs to reach an accommodation with reality.”