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Persian Dreams: Moscow and Tehran since the Fall of the Shah

Persian Dreams: Moscow and Tehran since the Fall of the Shah by John W. Parker. Potomac Books, 2008, 438 pp.

As the world heads toward a possible collision course regarding Iran’s nuclear program, John Parker presents a very timely, in-depth, and insightful book on that country’s relations with Russia since the Islamic Revolution. The author’s current high-level position in the US State Department gave him access to many of the major actors in this historical account, including Aleksandr Yakovlev and Nikolay Kozyrev, who did four diplomatic tours in Tehran from 1959 to 1983. This, above all else, separates Persian Dreams from other books on the topic. Parker exquisitely incorporates information from interviews and other primary sources with the overall history. One cannot finish reading any part of this book without being mindful of the present situation. As international diplomacy deteriorates and a potential Israeli and/or US military attack on Iran looms along the horizon, Parker gives us all the necessary information on whether or not Iran can be dealt with peacefully and what exactly Russia can do to alter the equation. He has made a fascinating and valuable contribution to the literature and to current affairs.

Persian Dreams is anything but a dream. From the very concise and informative history of Russo-Iranian relations since the early nineteenth century, readers learn that Russia has always had a practical and often tumultuous history with Iran. Declaring that those two countries, particularly the losing side (Iran), still remember much of the past very well, Parker adroitly describes historical developments leading up to the fall of the Shah, including Russia’s attempt to reduce British and then US influence in Iran. A very notable historical piece based on the author’s research and interviews with former top Russian policy makers suggests that Russia invaded Afghanistan primarily to prevent the United States from moving in to establish a major military base after its humiliating loss of Iran (pp. 24–25). At the time, that explanation may have seemed like propaganda and a revision of history, but considering the situation today, it has more credibility and indicates that Russia takes very seriously any major-power threat based permanently to its south. Currently, we may be seeing the emergence of the Great Game, part 2.

Persian Dreams offers a very good understanding of how Russia has approached Iran with a realistic view of its own limitations and objectives. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Russia has tried to neutralize any potential Iranian attempts to destabilize the Caucasus and Central Asia, now the former Soviet republics; moreover, it supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War to contain revolutionary Iran. Not until the end of this war (1988) and Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan (1989) did relations improve significantly. Russia moved quickly and advantageously to replenish a then-outcast Iran’s military stock, greatly depleted by war’s end, and to keep its own arms industry alive and well, making billions of dollars’ worth of sales since the 1990s. (One should also note that the Persian Gulf War closed off the Iraq market for Russia after 1991.) Russia has built upon these mutually beneficial and comprehensive arms deals, which increased its influence in Iran, leading up to the most recent sales of advanced air defense systems, including S-300 missiles.

The account of Russia’s role in Iran’s nuclear program, one of the most fascinating portions of the book, reveals an intricate web of diplomacy, intrigue, economics, and regional power politics. On the one hand, Russia sees its nuclear exports to Iran as an effort to keep its own nuclear program going and its employees from losing their jobs. On the other hand, it uses nuclear exports as an opportunity to insert power and influence into the region as well as preempt other countries (especially Western) from getting the nuclear deals themselves. Although the United States and Western countries had negotiated nuclear deals with Iran before the Shah fell, Russia took advantage of the situation, preempting those nations from eventually returning to their old transactions.

Russia made significant inroads with Iran after the Bushehr nuclear power plant deal in 1995 (worth approximately $800 million), but it was undermined by Iran’s public and surreptitious attempts to pursue multiple sources of nuclear assistance. Russia does not want a nuclear-armed Iran along its southern border, although it is not willing to assume that a peaceful nuclear energy program will lead automatically to a nuclear weapons program. In fact, it has provided Iran nuclear technology in an effort not only to make billions of dollars but also to control and slow down the Iranian nuclear program, keeping it peaceful. This suggests that Russia actually assisted the United States and the West in undermining the Iranian nuclear program since the 1990s. Unfortunately, Iran did not fall for this little trick and sought out alternative sources for its program, mainly North Korea and Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan. Thus, Iran went full speed ahead with its nuclear program, all the while leading Russia and the West to believe that it was only minimally developed or progressing unsteadily. In fact, Iran aggressively pursued its nuclear and regional ambitions without allowing one source to tie it down. Moreover, Iran may have understood that since 2003 it has had a unique opportunity to take full advantage of its nuclear program and the collapse of Iraq in order to regain a dominant position in the region, which it has not enjoyed for nearly two millennia. Clearly, two millennia and two decades are not really that far apart when it comes to Iran’s view of itself and the surrounding environment.

Overall, Persian Dreams tells us that Iran is willing to do anything to become a major regional power and that it is a diplomatic expert at playing countries against one another. In the absence of an international consensus on preventing Iran from developing a full nuclear program, we must conclude that it will do so. Any chance the world had at stopping such a program peacefully in the 1990s went out the door by the twenty-first century, as Iran obtained all the necessary nuclear components and expertise to complete the program on its own. This fact is essential to understanding the current nuclear crisis. Iran no longer needs anyone’s assistance to complete its nuclear program; thus, no external force can peacefully constrain it. By misleading everyone, Iran put itself in a position to determine whether or not it wants to be part of the nuclear club. It is no longer a question of if but when, and the choice is Iran’s, not the international community’s. Russia’s attempt to penetrate and co-opt the Iranian nuclear program ended up as a secondary and limited benefit for Russia; indeed, that effort worked to Iran’s advantage by giving it the necessary diplomatic cover and time to complete the most critical stages of its program.

We are now watching the final chapter in this story and possibly the beginning of a new saga—one, however, that is quite ancient for Iran. Dreams may come true, and Persia may rise again as a great regional power. Persian Dreams gives us an understanding of how and why this may occur. The lessons we can draw from it are invaluable. Only time will tell whether or not the highest-level decision makers understand those lessons and apply them appropriately.

Steve Dobransky

Kent State University

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"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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