Introducing Mahdi Ahouie
Mahdi Ahouie (Tehran, 1977) is Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue in Geneva.
He has obtained a PhD in International Relations at L’Institut de Hautes Études Internationales et du Développement (HEID, University of Geneva).
In the last part of a series of four interviews, Dr Ahouie discusses Iran’s relations with China, India and Russia. He explains what role economic, political and security considerations play in this regard, and discusses the mutual interests of these countries. He further elaborates on the importance of foreign direct investments, technological cooperation and trade. The other parts of this interview are:
How strong are the economic ties between Iran and China and what is their impact on China’s position regarding Iran’s nuclear program?
The key component of Iran-China relationship remains economic in nature, mainly on the basis of China’s increasing need for Iran’s oil and gas resources, and on Iran’s need for China’s technological support. Over the past thirty-five years, the volume of trade between Iran and China has grown about 3000%: From $5.9 million in 1971 to more than $17 billion in 2009. Iran is China’s primary crude oil supplier (on average, 80% of China’s import from Iran is crude oil).
In return, China has become a major foreign direct investor in Iran’s oil and gas industry, replacing Iran’s former Western partners. China has also developed cooperation with Iran in various economic and technological fields such as the building of Tehran’s metro system, railways, and construction sector. China has supported Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology, rejecting any military solution to the current crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.
However, it has also voted, together with other permanent members of the UN Security Council, in favor of three UN resolutions against Iran’s nuclear enrichment program over the past five years. China, thus, faces a difficult task in maintaining a balance between its large commercial ties with the United States and its economic links to Iran. Nevertheless, one should notice that China’s economic ties with the United States are much more tremendous than its economic interests in Iran – China-US annual trade volume exceeded $400 billion in 2008. So far, China has cleverly played in a way that it would not have to choose between Iran and the United States, seeking to develop economic ties with both sides simultaneously. Had this not been the case, one can imagine, China would have been unlikely to stand behind Iran on the nuclear issue solely because of its economic interests in that country and at the expense its huge commercial relations with the West.
What factors fostered the improvement of the relationship between Iran and India during the previous decade?
The expansion of relations between Iran and India throughout the past two decades has derived from various political, strategic, and economic reasons. During the 1990s, Tehran and New Delhi shared an opposition to the rise in Sunni Islamic extremism in the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as well as in Afghanistan. Since then, relations have continuously improved between the two countries. By establishing firm relations with a Muslim state as strong and as influential as Iran, India seeks to outmaneuver Pakistan and to satisfy India’s large Muslim population. Iran also seeks in this relationship an alternative to U.S. containment. On this basis, New Delhi’s and Tehran’s major interests in good bilateral relations can be summarized as follows.
In political and security fields, the following is important:
- common opposition to the spread of Islamic Sunni fundamentalism in Central Asia
- common interests in the stability and reconstruction of Afghanistan
- limited military cooperation
- Iran’s need for India’s political support in the international arena
- reinforcement of India’s legitimacy in the Muslim world, as well as counteracting Pakistan in Kashmir through a possible expansion of Iran’s influence over the Shi’ite population of that region
In economic terms, these factors play a key role:
- India’s need for Iran’s oil and gas (Iran is second largest oil supplier to India)
- Iran’s need to import refined oil from India for domestic consumption (more than 40%)
- the two countres’ interest in a rapid expansion of trade and economic links in recent years. For instance, Iran’s trade with India crossed US$13 billion in 2007, an 80% increase in trade volume within a year.
Which similarities do you see between Russia’s current policy considerations towards Iran and that of the Soviet Union after the Iranian Revolution in 1979?
Russia is currently facing the same dilemma in its relations with Iran as the Soviet Union did after the victory of the 1979 Islamic revolution. It was impossible for the Communist Soviets to absorb Iran into their camp, mainly because of the strong presence of religion in Iranian society. They also found it especially risky to weaken the new Iranian government, as there was a potential danger for an American invasion of the country. And finally, they did not wish to strengthen Iran, because a strong Islamic Iran would be a threat to Soviet security and interests by possibly influencing the Muslim people of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The only remaining substitute for Moscow was, therefore, to drag Iran towards cooperation and hope that it would become dependent in the long run.
The current Kremlin leaders have inherited the very same attitude towards the Islamic Republic, explaining Russia’s ambivalent role in the ongoing Western-Iranian tension over Tehran’s nuclear program. Russia hopes to win concessions from both sides. Although Russia supports Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, it shares with the United States a desire to prevent Iran from obtaining the complete nuclear fuel cycle, so that Iran will remain dependent on Russia for the needed fuel supplies for future nuclear reactors.