Russia and Iran: Uneasy Neighbors — Since the 16th Century

Posted January 23rd, 2012 at 6:03 am (UTC+0)

Countries without natural borders are like amoebas. Over centuries, they expand and contract, expand and contract.

A quiet time in Russian-Persian relations. Shah Suleiman I receives two envoys from Georgia at his court in Isfahan in 1670. Painting by Ali Qoli Jabbador. The Institute of Oriental Studies, St. Petersburg.

As the Western world wonders why Russia has such a nuanced policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, it is important to skip back over four centuries of history.

Under Ivan the Terrible, Russia defeated the Tatars and Russia started to expand east to Siberia and south to the Caspian Sea. There, it first encountered Persia, forerunner to modern Iran.

Persia’s first ambassador to Russia visited the Kremlin four centuries ago, in 1592. For the next century, wary coexistence ensued between the two empires, one Christian, the other Muslim.

Then, in 1722, Russia expanded south again, embarking on the first of four successful wars against Persia. Steadily, Russia gobbled up chunks of Persia’s Central Asian Empire. With the 1828 Treaty of Turkemnchay, the Caspian Sea became a Russian lake.

One author of that treaty was Russia’s new ambassador to Persia, Alexander Griboyedev, a witty and charming poet and playwright, recently arrived from the court in St. Petersburg.

Aleksander Griboyedov, beloved Russian poet, playwright and ambassador to Persia. His legendary wit and charm did not save him from the Persian mob that sacked Russia’s embassy in 1829. Sketch done in 1875 by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition

But Persian resentment of the treaty boiled over when an Armenian eunuch escaped from the Shah’s harem and two Armenian girls escaped from the harem of his son-in-law. Under terms of the new treaty, Armenians were allowed safe passage from Persia to Russian-controlled Armenia. Ambassador Griboyedev stood on principle, and protected his Armenian charges.

What happened next, made the Iranian seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979, or the sacking of the British embassy two months ago, look like tea parties.

A mob of thousands of rioting Persian overwhelmed the Russian Embassy’s Cossack guards and slaughtered everyone inside. A few days later, the remains of the eunuch were so disfigured that he was only recognized by a scar on his hand.

When Griboyedev’s 16-year-old bride, Nino, learned of her husband’s fate, she became so distraught that she miscarried, and lost their baby. For the rest of her life, she refused all suitors. Today, a larger than life Griboyedev statue in Moscow is a popular meeting point for young people. In St. Petersburg, Griboyedev Canal is a picturesque waterway in the heart of historic city.

Nino Chavchavadze, 16-year-old wife of Alexander Griboyedov. After his death, she refused all suitors. Painting by Emille Francois Desent

The embassy slaughter may live on in Russian’s popular image of Iran. But it did not deter the Kremlin, which retained control of Northern Iran through 1946.

In 1907, with the military rise of Germany, Russia and Britain decided to stop wasting their energy in their “Great Game” over the former Persian empire. That year, they signed in St. Petersburg, the Anglo-Russian Convention. Under this treaty, Persia was divided up between a northern Russian zone, a central neutral zone governed by a Shah, and a southern British zone. This allowed Britain to develop oil deposits in southern Iran and to build a refinery in Abadan. Founded in 1909, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company grew into what is known today as BP.

This division continued until August of 1941, when Britain and the Soviet Union conducted a joint, three-week military campaign and deposed the pro-German Shah, installed his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. For the next five years, the two foreign nations to oversaw what had now come to be called Iran.

Colonel Vladimir P Liakhov, commander of Persian Cossack Brigade, shelled Persia’s new parliament, the Majlis, and executed several constitutionalist leaders in 1908. Out of gratitude, Mohammad Ali Shah appointed him Military Governor of Teheran.

In early 1946, the British pulled out, but the Red Army stayed in Northern Iran well beyond an exit deadline stipulated in the Teheran Conference of 1943.

By early 1946, the Cold War was starting and Stalin tried to prolong control over northern Iran by setting up two puppet Soviet republics and signing a oil treaty with Teheran that gave the Soviet Union ownership of 51 percent of northern Iran’s oil deposits. But soon after Red Army troops withdrew from northern Iran, the puppet republics collapsed. In late 1947, Iran’s parliament refused to ratify the oil agreement.

With this history in mind, I could barely repress a smile Wednesday as I sat in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s comfortable new press auditorium building. Minister Sergei Lavrov, perhaps hoping that no one in the hall knew history, was sternly warning that interference in the internal affairs of Iran is “impermissible.”

Here, morality in diplomacy may be dictated by changing realities on the ground.

Six decades of oil earnings and a swelling young population have given Iran a powerful military machine. Now, it may be building a nuclear bomb.

In contrast, the Russian amoeba has retreated. With an aging and shrinking population, Kremlin power projection has dramatically ebbed from the Soviet era high water mark.

In the Caspian, post-Soviet Moscow’s control has receded to about 20 percent of the 7,000 km shoreline. And half of the Russia portion is in Dagestan, where currently the hottest insurgency is underway in Russia’s Islamic south. Instead of Moscow reaching across the Caspian to destabilize Northern Iran, Moscow now fears Iran reaching across the Caspian to destabilize southern Russia.

“The Russians at Isfahan” --sketch by Eugene Dambians printed in the Paris weekly, Le Petit Journal, April 23, 1916.

Last year’s Arab Spring, ended a series of Soviet legacy relationships. Russian influence in the Mediterranean receded to a toehold in Tarsus, a naval base on Syria’s coast. Now, Russia seeks to prop up Syria’s government, its last Arab ally in the Mediterranean. This month, Russia sent to Syria its last aircraft carrier and fresh supplies of bullets for Syria’s army. But a large question mark hangs over the future of Syria.

And the Russian public has little taste in overseas military entanglement, whether Syria or Iran.

In Central Asia, Russia talks loudly, but acts cautiously, In June 2010, Roza Otunbayeva, then president of Kyrgyzstan, publicly asked Moscow four times to send troops to end ethnic rioting in Osh. President Medvedev replied that he would study the matter.

Russia’s political system may be authoritarian. But the Kremlin keeps its ear close to the ground through an extensive public opinion polling system.

A weakened military, an aging population, and little popular support for military adventures – these were not the concerns of Ivan the Terrible, or of his modern day equivalent, Joseph Stalin.

So, today, as the Russian amoeba retracts, there is no indication that Russia’s leaders want to tangle with Teheran.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

11 responses to “Russia and Iran: Uneasy Neighbors — Since the 16th Century”

  1. […] Russia and Iran: Uneasy Neighbors — Since the 16th CenturyVoice of America (blog)As the Western world wonders why Russia has such a nuanced policy toward Iran's nuclear program, it is important to skip back over four centuries of history. Under Ivan the Terrible, Russia defeated the Tatars and Russia started to expand east to … […]

  2. Peter Lorrie says:

    Ignarance is bliss. While Muslim insurgency in Russia was Sunni based with help of Saudi money and weapons from Pakistan and a wink and nudge from Washington. Iran stayed out of Russia. It is one of the reasons that Russia is backing Iran.
    All Arab dictators overthrown so far, all were Western clients. Mubrak’s government received 2 billion dollars and weaponjs from US. Khadaffi signed billions in weapons and oil contacts with Tony Blair, Belusconi, and American senators. None of his billions were invested in Russia. And Tunisian dictator was deposed while dining with French foreign minister.
    Kyrgyzstan is now applying to join Eurasion Union of former Russian republics.

  3. Daniel Brett says:

    “Under this treaty, Persia was divided up between a northern Russian zone, a central neutral zone governed by a Shah, and a southern British zone. This allowed Britain to develop oil deposits in southern Iran and to build a refinery in Abadan. Founded in 1909, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company grew into what is known today as BP.”

    The southwest was not included in the British zone under the treaty but was part of the “neutral zone”. The British were required to negotiate with the local Arab leader, the Sheikh of Mohammerah, to secure land for the oil refinery in Abadan. Aside from oil, the Arab region – Arabistan – had been of interest to the British, serving as a trade route to India and had helped open up the rivers. When Reza Khan came to power, the British quickly abandoned the Sheikh, who was then appealing to the League of Nations for recognition of his sheikhdom as an emirate, and supported central rule from Tehran as a bulwark against Bolshevism in the Middle East. The British wanted a strong Iran, whereas the Russians later sought to establish Soviets in various areas, such as the Republic of Mahabad in Kurdistan. And oil and gas rich country itself, I doubt Russia has many designs on Iranian resources and ultimately it may want to contain Iranian rulers and their nuclear ambitions without giving Western powers an excuse to destabilise the regime.

  4. Daniel Brett says:

    Peter: All these Arab rulers were also prime markets for Russian defence contracts. The defence industry is just as important to Moscow and Beijing as it is to Washington. The main difference is that Russia has enough oil and gas for its own purposes so naturally will be disinterested in oil contracts. In contrast, investment in the oil, gas and petrochemicals sectors in the Gulf region and Egypt is serving the Chinese, Indian and other emerging Asian markets where demand is climbing fast. Qatar and Saudi are as much “client regimes” of Beijing as they are of anyone else – in fact, I’d say they have considerable leverage over the international community and such a description does not apply.

  5. Gennady says:

    1. I completely agree with Peter Lorrie that “Russia is backing Iran” as both countries are much “twins” by authoritarianism of their rulers and attitude to basic human rights.

    2. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian super-star of international relations knows history too well.
    In his public announcements he is greatly restraint by top secrecy of intergovernmental relations. Being friends with Israel and Iran, Russia should balance between Scylla and Charybdis.
    It sounds like a diplomatic cover-up his warning that interference in the internal affairs of Iran is “impermissible”.

  6. Tom says:

    This article mostly is wrong and based on the writer’s opinion!
    Persia (Iran) and Russia had mostly friendly relationship throught the years, go back to decades! The shameful treaty (Turkmanchay), signed by one the stupid kings ( Iran had some very smart, and some stupid kings in the past) for exchange for his travel and joy expenses!

    The very IMPORTANT issue here is, the writer of this article almost did not mention anything about the Abadan refinery’s fate after British forced to leave!

    By the contract, Iran agreed to give most of the profit to England (about %80) because British made the refinery. BUT, British never showed how much they made and they show no paper and documents and they just told Iranians, “well, we made this much this year!!” … British agreed to make new housing for the poor employees, but never did.
    Some believe that British kept more than %95 of the profit and gave only about %5 or less!
    Finally when British forced to leave, they (British) went to all the back doors to close all the contracts between Iran and any country for maintaning the refinery and shipping oil for a couple of years (Because they were not happy to lose such a BIG profit and free oil).
    How can a writer/author can ignore such a important issue in that time in his/her article??

    Back to Russia, Iran (Persia) and Russia mostly enjoyed a good relationship over the years, and mostly singed profitable treaties for both sides. They have had some conflict here and there, but compare to their friendly treaties, the conflicts are considered minor!
    …So this article is just the writer’s opinion and NOT FACT!

  7. […] Jamestown Foundation: The Political Economy of the Russian Revolution in the Making Russia Watch: Russia and Iran: Uneasy Neighbors — Since the 16th Century Open Democracy: The origins of the Russian revolution: a view from […]

  8. Allan Stuttie says:

    Brittan and Russia have had a relation based on different views of the middle east. Most of the artificial modern day borders of the middle east were drawn up by British civil servants to serve the interest of there imperial empire where they used this method to divide and rule after the Russian revolution Brittan had its greatest fear of Russian influencing and supporting independence movements.
    Hitler came to power Brittan was desperate to sow as much distrust between Germany and Russia to counter Russian influence in the middle east because they feared if Brittan went to war with Germany that would have devastated the British empire if Russia stayed neutral or even allied with Germany and they did every thing they could to sew as much misinformation between the to powers after the shock of the Molotov Ribbentrop non aggression pact .

  9. Tatiana says:

    James Brooke made a terrific research on Aleksander Griboyedov’s life, which I found refreshing, the rest must be examined! For a VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR, calling Russia names, such as “amoeba retracts” is tasteless. I’m sure Mr. Brooke enjoys Russian hospitality, leaving comfortably somewhere nearby his bureaux. Perusing his article, I couldn’t help but felt nagging hostility toward the country he now lives and writes about. True American!

  10. Allan stuttie says:

    History is written by the the winners for the benefit of the winners, Americas foreign policy towards Iran is dictated by Israel, the Iraq war was fort by America at the behest and on behalf of Israel they wanted rid if Saddam because he was helping the Palestinians.
    America has always converted access to Iraq oil wealth and by removing Saddam they killed two birds with one stone,with no thought of the consequences for what happened to the people of Iraq .
    Saddam was foolish enough to attack Iran in the eighties the with the full backing of America and who knows what promises he was made it would be very interesting to read the Wikileaks
    from that time if they ever existed If Iran gets a Nuclear weapon it is a game changer all round then no one can dictate terms any more in the middle east and all players know this especially Israel




James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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