The Transformation of the World Order

Radical changes are taking place in global politics. From the bipolar world of the Cold War period through the failed project to create a unipolar order, we are now seeing a shift towards a new, polycentric, model of organizing international relations. The United States has been losing ground in world affairs, and influence of European states has been weakening, as well. The United States and the West, in general, have increasingly shirked their responsibility to find solutions to emerging problems. Countries such as Russia and Iran are playing an important role in shaping the new world order, although they, along with other powers that claim to have a stake in shaping international policy, are frequently ignored by the Western states.

Petr Topychkanov
Topychkanov was a fellow in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program.
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While the new principles of international relations are far from being formulated, the changes in the Westphalian legacy have already been drastic. This legacy included the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, respect for national sovereignty, and obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force.

Both the interpretation of the above principles and their implementation have changed significantly. Some states feel they are entitled to interpret these principles in a different way, taking unilateral steps such as forming coalitions in order to use force (without appropriate UN decisions), or imposing unilateral sanctions that contradict UN principles, as well as those of international economic and trade organizations, for example, the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Aggressive moves that are against the Westphalian principles are being justified in the international legal environment. Altering national borders, breaking up states and committing other gross violations of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states have become widespread. Contrary to the United Nations Charter, the threat or use of force have become a tool frequently employed by major powers.

In order to respond to the changing international environment, the supporters of a polycentric world strive to form coalitions to address global challenges. These countries seek a world order based on the principles elaborated within multilateral institutions. The principles should be comprehensive, global, effective and fair.

The transition to a polycentric model of international relations is still in its infancy. The major players in global politics have been active in formulating the new rules of the game on the international arena, trying to reserve for themselves the most significant roles in the future world order. The currently unstable global policy has largely been driven by these aspirations.

Globalization, technological advancements and the communications revolution are just a few of the factors that influence the scope of global instability. All this has increased instability significantly. There is reason to believe that the instability of global politics continue because of these factors. The complexity and unpredictability of this period makes international players act in a riskier manner.

Actors lose their positions on the international arena because they are unable to make accurate assessments of their own capabilities and the capabilities of others, and they often misinterpret the intentions of other players. Conversely, a proper assessment of the specific features of this transitional period, as well as good planning and having a realistic view of the strengths and weaknesses of their own policies and those of other actors will help states strengthen their positions on the international arena.

Given the transition from a bipolar to a polycentric world, the problems of international security have been growing in terms of their scale and severity. The key international security concerns are: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; terrorism and religious extremism; and the crises in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf.

The Syrian crisis has had a significant impact on global security. Russia–Iran cooperation may prevent the crisis from becoming a chronic cause of regional and global instability.

The Afghan settlement is an important global security issue. It would be a mistake to talk about the establishment of a security system in the region, or even on a global scale, without internal settlement in Afghanistan. Its neighbours, including Russia and Iran, will play a major part in preventing Afghanistan from slipping into chaos and stopping the growth of threats to regional and global security. The role of Russia and Iran as major actors in the Afghan settlement cannot be overestimated.

Global security includes close cooperation among all countries without exception, whatever their national interests may be, focusing their efforts on addressing common threats. The ability of Russia, Iran and other advocates of a polycentric world order to ensure this level of cooperation will largely determine how and when the transition from a bipolar to a polycentric world will be completed.

Regions play an important part in shaping the polycentric world order. Globalization, which is among the key factors of this transitional period, is accompanied by the growing role of regions and their politics. International relations, in general, have been largely underpinned by regional cooperation.

Given the vagueness of the concept, the word “region” may be interpreted both as a sphere of cooperation and a competition arena. Regional actors may use existing regional structures to establish dialogue with each other, and with actors from other regions. The lack of efficiency of such structures in certain cases and their total inefficiency in others, or the fact that they are simply ignored, may hamper intra- and inter-regional dialogue. However, the emergence of external or regional rivals makes other regional powers pay more attention to regional structures and attach more importance to their regional and global politics.

Concepts such as a “multiregional world order” and the “world of regions” have been formulated in international relations theory. These notions reflect the changes that are taking place in global politics. The greater interconnection between the global and the regional levels of global politics has become obvious for major international actors, which have become more active, trying to benefit from the opportunities arising from regional characteristics. It is for this reason that existing and the emerging regional and interregional coalitions are becoming a major phenomenon in the period of transition from a bipolar to a polycentric world.

Russia–Iran cooperation with the countries in the Middle East gains prominence in this context. The increased activity of the two states has become apparent in many spheres of regional policy. Russia–Iran cooperation in the Middle East may form a basis for a bilateral strategic partnership.

Another region of importance for Russia and Iran includes five Caspian states, as well as other countries in the Caspian Basin. Beside the fact that these countries have rich opportunities in terms of natural resources and the economy as a whole, they may also play an important part in global peace-making and stabilization efforts. A major challenge facing these countries is the development of a common understanding of the global political landscape and their own actions within these conditions.

New regions, beside the traditional Middle East and the Caspian area, are also emerging. The customary “Asia-Pacific” has been largely ousted by the “Indo-Pacific”. This concept, which encompasses the states bordering the Indian and Pacific oceans reflects new political and economic relationships and also new security concerns, including in energy security.

For all the countries in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia unified under the concept of an Indo-Pacific region, there is the major problem of ensuring energy imports, which, if unresolved, would prevent them from keeping pace with normal economic growth. This is just an example, demonstrating the vast opportunities that Russia and Iran have in the Indo-Pacific region.

Russia and Iran: A Lack of Strategic Vision

It is widely believed in Russia that the West’s policy to some extent corresponds with Russian interests, as it creates additional incentives for the development of a special relationship between Moscow and Tehran. This belief is not only wrong, but even dangerous. The Russia–Iran strategic partnership should not be built upon political considerations. This is a too fragile foundation.

There is still no real foundation to Russia–Iran relations, one that would make it possible to call it a genuine strategic partnership, rather than a declarative one. Furthermore, despite the needs generated by regional and global level-concerns, Russia and Iran have failed to establish adequate economic, scientific, technical and educational ties.

The experience of cooperation between Russia and Iran in addressing global and regional problems indicates the lack of a strategic vision. This is confirmed by the examples of Afghanistan and Syria.

In the 1990s, Russia and Iran made joint efforts to limit the influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. These efforts included, but were not limited to, assistance to the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s chief opponent. Despite their successful cooperation in Afghanistan, Russia and Iran failed to form a common vision of the desired future for the country. Since Russia and Iran lacked a strategic vision of Afghanistan’s development after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the initiative in determining the direction of this development was snatched by the United States and its allies.

A similar situation is observed in Russia–Iran cooperation on the issues of Syria and Islamic State. Despite their close positions on these concerns, Russia and Iran have been unable to come to a common understanding over the desired development of Syria and the Middle East region in general. Russia and Iran still lack a common approach to the key mechanisms of settlement in Syria, as well as controls for the further development of the situation in the territories where hostilities continue.

Russia and Iran lack a long-term vision of specific problems. The vision for these and other problems will become an important basis of a strategic partnership between Russia and Iran.

Shared Views on Global Issues

The ideas and principles that underpin the relationship between Russia and Iran were set out in the Treaty on Foundations of Relations and Principles of Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran signed on March 12, 2001. This is the foundation that gives scope to multi-faceted cooperation.

Russia and Iran have close or common approaches to the key concerns of global and the regional politics, be it, for instance, creating a polycentric world order, strengthening the role of the United Nations in international affairs, the situation in Afghanistan, or the Syrian settlement. The overlapping stances of Russia and Iran ensure greater stability and security, both on the regional and the global scale. Russia and Iran have secured a firm ground for continued dialogue in this perspective, and for further strengthening the Russia–Iran partnership in general.

There are significant opportunities for cooperation between Russia and Iran in establishing a new system of international relations based on equality, respect, the non-use of force, the independence of all states – whatever their size and power – and, what is most important today, a sense of justice. The latter is not used widely enough in international relations. Introducing the sense of justice into international relations meets the interests of both Russia and Iran.


Discussions between Russia and Iran demonstrated two interconnected contradictions in the positions of the two countries. The first was connected with Iran’s nuclear programme.

Russia has always been interested in lifting the international sanctions against Iran, and has never supported the introduction of unilateral sanctions against the country. However, Russia voted for several resolutions of the UN Security Council on the Iranian nuclear programme: resolutions 1696 and 1737 (in 2006); 1747 (in 2007); 1803 and 1835 (in 2008); and 1929 (in 2010). Resolutions 1737, 1747 and 1929 imposed sanctions against Iran.

Russia has never vetoed or even abstained from voting. The reason for Russia voting this way in the UN Security Council is evident. Russia was interested in Iran meeting the UNSC requirement, i.e. curbing its nuclear programme and ensuring its maximum transparency vis-a-vis the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is how Moscow saw a way for Iran to exit the sanctions regime once and for all.

Russia’s key interests include strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime, regional stability and large-scale cooperation with Iran.

Another contradiction is related to the position of some Iranian experts who believe that strategic partnership between Russia and Iran may be aimed, firstly, at balancing the West and, secondly, at curbing its anti-Russia and anti-Iran policies. For most Russian actors, an important feature of Russia–Iran relations is that they should not be directed against third-party players.

Cooperation Priorities

A Russia–Iran strategic partnership should be based on a robust and transparent infrastructure. The development of relations in such fields as energy, transport, advanced technologies (including information and space technologies) can and should play a key role in shaping a new model of Russia–Iran relations. An independent position of the two states on the global arena may become an important factor in formulating the agenda of such regional organizations as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

However, trust between Russia and Iran is not enough for successful cooperation; to this end, they need to understand each other’s goals and interests correctly. Russia and Iran should talk more about how they interpret each other’s interests, adjust these interpretations and avoid misinterpretations in the future. Therefore, positive cooperation between the scientific and expert communities of Russia and Iran to facilitate the establishment of a strategic partnership gains extra importance in this context.

This article is a part of the report, «Russia-Iran Partnership: an Overview and Prospects for the Future,» published by the Russian International Affairs Council