Elena Viktorovna, on January 19, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu visited Tehran. How would you assess the state of Russian-Iranian relations in the sphere of military-technical cooperation?
Elena Dunaeva: Recently contacts between Moscow and Tehran have intensified. Within the last year alone, the presidents of the two countries have held four rounds of talks, as have the heads of various ministries and departments. The visit by Defense Minister Shoigu is merely a confirmation of the fact that Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are aiming to bring bilateral relations to a new, higher level.
Military-technical cooperation has always been a significant component of our economic ties. It was the spark for the restoration of relations between the USSR and Iran following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since then Moscow and Tehran have successfully realized several major contracts.
At the same time we have so far refused to supply Iran with our most advanced anti-aircraft missile systems.
Elena Dunaeva: Yes, 2010 was a year of the sharp decline in bilateral relations. By joining the international sanctions of the UN Security Council against Iran's nuclear program, Russia decided to refuse to provide the country with the S-300 PMU-1 anti-aircraft missile systems, despite agreeing to supply them in a contract signed in 2007. And, although foreign and Russian experts have conclusively proven that these SAM systems are not offensive weapons referred to under Resolution 1929, the problem is yet to be resolved.
Unfortunately, this decision on the part of Moscow has cast doubts on Iran's confidence in Russia, and resulted in its appeal to the international courts. Russia returned the advance payment to Iran, and offered to resolve the conflict by providing the country with other, similar systems. Today the resolution of the problem is the subject of diplomatic negotiations. It is possible that it was one of the issues discussed by Shoigu in Tehran. It must be kept in mind that Russian-Iranian military-technical cooperation is limited by the conditions of sanctions against Iran.
The visit of the Russian Defense Minister also doubtlessly had a political motivation. In the context of a possible growth of radicalism in Afghanistan, which borders Central Asia, Russia cannot afford to ignore the situation in the region, especially considering the presence of Russian forces in Tajikistan and the membership of some of the Central Asian states in the Shanghai Treaty Organization. On these issues it has been necessary for the two countries' military ministries to carry out consultations and to exchange information. Moreover, Russia and Iran have repeatedly expressed an interest in conducting joint military exercises, in the region of the Caspian Sea in particular. This had been a topic for discussion at the recent summit of the presidents of the Caspian states in Astrakhan.
It is worth recalling that during the visit of Russian Air Forces Commander Victor Bondarev to Iran in 2013, Teheran had presented Russia with an Iranian copy of its [captured] American drone. The question of the possible cooperation of the two states in the production of similar UAVs was discussed, along with the carrying out of military training courses. The Iranians have noted their readiness to invite Russian military pilots and specialists in radar surveillance to the coast of the Persian Gulf. The question of the entrance of [Russian] naval vessels to ports along the Caspian Sea and in the Persian Gulf has also been discussed.
Moreover, it is worth keeping in mind that the Iranian Air Force has parties of Soviet MiG fighters, and that this is another area of our interactions –in the maintenance and modernization of the combat aircraft. We also have projects in the fields of the construction of military helicopters, technical intelligence and even the proposals to take military-technical cooperation among the two countries to the level of research and development work.
Hence the areas of our cooperation are wide-ranging, and depend first and foremost on the political will of the two countries. The last year has shown that Russia and Iran are interested in the implementation of many projects; the agreement on military cooperation signed in the course of Minister Shoigu's visit demonstrates this fact.
Moscow and Tehran are mutually concerned about the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, which threatens both countries. Reports on the appearance of militants from this organization in Afghanistan bring about anxiety and concern in both Russia and Iran, portending the possible destabilization of the situation in Central Asia. How is the evolving situation being assessed in Iran, and what measures are being taken in response?
Elena Dunaeva: Iran has been at the forefront in the fight against religious extremism, which acts under the banner of Islam. Iranian leaders have repeatedly warned from the platforms of major international forums on the dangers of extremism and the aggressive plans of radical terrorist groups, especially in connection to the situation in the Middle East. What is happening in the Middle East in Syria and Iraq has been a subject of tremendous concern for Iran because it has threatened to compromise the country's integrity and the very existence of the regime.
Tehran has repeatedly offered to join forces in order to block the flow of finances to religious extremist organizations, to introduce an official ban on the purchase of oil or the sale of weapons to such organizations. Iran has offered neighboring Iraq its active support in the fight against terrorist groups. This includes the supply of arms, ammunition, and aircraft for the purpose of hitting Islamic States targets in air strikes. Iran has declared that it considers a thirty-kilometer border area in Iraq to be its "red line", and that it is prepared to send its troops into these territories if necessary to prevent the Islamic State from entering its territory.
In addition, Iran has been actively cooperating with Iraqi Kurds, despite the fact that the Kurdish issue is a sore point for Iran, given that the establishment of Iraqi Kurdish autonomy does not serve its interests. Iranian military advisors among Kurdish military units assist in coordinating the fight against radicals. They also assist Iraq's armed forces. Many people [in Iran] know the name of General Qassem Soleimani, a special forces commander of the Revolutionary Guards, considered to be a national hero who is saving the country from the threat of Islamic radicalism.
Both the Iranian government and the Shiite clergy are actively working to create a coalition against terrorism. To counter Islamic radicalism, with the support of religious leaders in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, Iranian Shiite theologians have established contact with Sunni religious leaders of Arab countries and other countries in the region. Iran recently held an Islamic Unity Conference, with the participation of the country's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
[Iranian] Shiite leaders aim to instill the fact that religious extremism has nothing to do with genuine Islam, and that terrorist leaders are trying to hide behind Islam, which, according to the Quran, is a religion of peace and justice.
In what ways precisely is Tehran fighting terrorism inside the country?
Elena Dunaeva: In the past seven years, terrorist organizations' activity in Iran has intensified, especially in the provinces of Khuzestan and Sistan o Baluchistan, home for the most part to non-Shiite populations. Groups in the latter, funded from abroad, declare their support for the separation of Sistan o Baluchistan from Iran and for the creation of a Baluchi state. The main targets of terrorist attacks have been not only Iranian military servicemen, but also representatives of the local population who actively cooperate with Iranian authorities. Very recently in Sistan o Baluchistan one such group was liquidated following attacks which killed school teachers teaching Persian to the local population.
Teheran is tightening its security measures, policing and its border guard. In Sistan o Baluchistan, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, a two-meter fence along with watch towers and moats has been constructed. Such measures, originally taken in order to stop the flow of drugs and contraband, are now being used to prevent the infiltration of terrorist groups.
Shortly after coming to power, the government of Hassan Rouhani has openly admitted that the main problem in these areas is their economic backwardness. At present the authorities are developing plans for economic development in Sistan o Baluchistan, its residents being provided with additional social assistance, while the president and senior officials make regular visits. The task at hand is to involve the Sunni population and its cultural and political elite of these areas into the Iranian political system. Ali Younes, the Assistant to the President on National and Religious Minorities, notes that the question of establishing an advisory board of Sunnis in Iran has been considered at the highest level. This step will aim at attracting Sunni political activists and the cultural elite in order to solve the fundamental issues of governance. Most of the work is being carried out by a former presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezai, Secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, and a native of the Bakhtiari tribes. He was among the initiators of the plan for the administrative and economic regionalization of the country, which is to transfer a part of the central government's functions to the regions.
Another important measure aimed at stabilizing the situation in the border areas is the plan to teach national languages and literature in schools. The right to the use of national languages is enshrined in the country's constitution, but never in the past 35 years has the question of their teaching been officially raised. Presently the issue is again being discussed. However, conservatives say that Persian is the consolidating language of the Iranian nation, and that teaching other languages may cause damage to the state's cultural tenets.