The following are excerpts from a recently published report by Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, on Iran’s foreign and defense policies.
Iran appears to attach increasing weight to its relations with Russia, which is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the member of the P5+1 that was perhaps the most accepting of Iran’s positions in the JCPOA negotiations, and a key ally in backing the Asad regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Iran on November 23, 2015, to attend a conference of major international natural gas producers, and also held talks with Supreme Leader Khamene’i and President Rouhani. Putin and Iranian leaders reiterated their opposition to U.S. insistence that Asad be barred from participating in the political transition process agreed by the Vienna process.
Since late 2015, Iran has significantly increased its direct military cooperation with Russia in Syria. Russian strikes in Syria began on September 30, 2015, and they reportedly target not only the Islamic State but also other opponents of Asad, as part of an apparent effort to keep Asad, or at least much of his government, in power. In February 2016, subsequent to Russia’s intervention in Syria, Secretary of State Kerry testified that Iran had reduced its force levels in Syria somewhat,suggesting Iran might have been using the Russian intervention to reduce its risks there. In August 2016, Iran briefly allowed Russia to state bombing runs in Syria from a base in western Iran, near the city of Hamadan. The staging appeared to run counter to Iran’s constitution, which bans foreign use of Iran’s military facilities, and Iran said it had revoked permission to use the base because Russia had publicized the access.
At the same time, the two countries’ interests do not align precisely in Syria. Iranian leaders express far greater concern about protecting Hezbollah in any post-Asad regime than do leaders of Russia, whose interests appear to center on Russia’s overall presence in the Middle East and retention of naval and other bases in Syria.
U.S. and European approaches on Iran have converged since 2002, when Iran was found to be developing a uranium enrichment capability. Previously, European countries appeared somewhat less concerned than the United States about Iranian policies and were reluctant to sanction Iran. After the passage of Resolution 1929 in June 2010, European Union (EU) sanctions on Iran became nearly as extensive as those of the United States. In 2012, the EU banned imports of Iranian crude oil and natural gas. The EU is a party to the JCPOA and has lifted nearly all of its sanctions on Iran. Numerous European business and diplomatic delegations have visited Iran since JCPOA was finalized, seeking to resume business relationships mostly severed since 2010.
Iran has always maintained full diplomatic relations with the EU countries, although relations have sometimes been disrupted as part of EU country reactions to Iranian assassinations of dissidents in Europe or attacks by Iranian militants on EU country diplomatic property in Iran. There are regular scheduled flights from several European countries to Iran, and many Iranian students attend European universities. Relations were not broken even after the Hezbollah attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in 2012 (see Table 1 above) and the July 2013 EU designation of the military wing of Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. After the JCPOA was finalized in July 2015, then-British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond visited Iran and reopened Britain’s embassy there, closed since the 2011 attack on it by pro-government protesters.
China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a P5+1 party to the JCPOA. It is Iran’s largest oil customer, and it has supplied Iran with advanced conventional arms, including cruise missile-armed fast patrol boats that the IRGC Navy operates in the Persian Gulf; anti-ship missiles; ballistic missile guidance systems; and other WMD-related technology.136 During U.N. Security Council deliberations on Iran during 2006-2013, China tended to argue for less stringent sanctions than did the United States, France, Britain, and Germany. China faces a potential threat from Sunni Muslim extremists in western China and appears to see Shiite Iran as a potential ally against Sunni radicals. China also adopts a position similar to Iran and Russia on the Asad regime in Syria, appearing to view Asad as a preferable alternative to the Islamic State and other Islamist rebel organizations.
Japan and South Korea
Iran’s primary interest in Japan and South Korea has been to expand commercial relations and evade U.S. sanctions—neither Japan nor South Korea has been heavily involved in security and strategic issues in the Middle East. However, both countries are close allies of the United States and their firms were unwilling to risk their positions in the U.S. market by violating any U.S. sanctions on Iran. Economic relations between Iran and South Korea and Japan, particularly oil purchases, are rebounding now that international sanctions have been lifted. 138 South Korea’s President Geun-hye Park visited Tehran in May for the first tour of Iran by a South Korean president to Iran since 1962, accompanied by representatives of 236 South Korean companies and organizations. The two sides signed a number of agreements in the fields of oil and gas, railroads, tourism, and technology, and agreed to re-establish direct flights between Tehran and Seoul. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly had planned to visit Iran in late August 2016, but he postponed the visit until some time in November. If the visit goes forward, he would be the first leader of Japan to visit Iran since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979.
Iran and North Korea have generally been allies, in part because both have been considered by the United States and its allies as “rogue states” subjected to wide-ranging international sanctions. North Korea is one of the few countries with which Iran has formal military-to-military relations, and the two countries have cooperated on a wide range of military and WMD-related ventures, particularly the development of ballistic missile technology. In the past, Iran reportedly funded and assisted in the re-transfer of missile and possibly nuclear technology from North Korea to Syria. North Korea also supplied—and might still be supplying—Iran with small submarines. The Defense Department report for fiscal year 2015 on Iran’s military power, referenced earlier, says that Iran is fielding, among other weaponry, “small but capable submarines.”
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