A New Phase in Russia-Iran Relations

By: Ian K, Columnist

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

2015 has proven to be a seminal year for Russia-Iran relations. Although both governments have long recognized strategic value in collaborating with each other, significant inhibiting factors have kept bilateral relations mostly limited to rhetoric and low-impact confidence building measures[i]—until now. The shifting geopolitical environment has provided Moscow and Tehran an unprecedented opportunity to start reaping tangible benefits from cooperation. Indeed, Moscow’s military intervention in Syria, where Iranian forces are also supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, suggests that the first operational military cooperation between Russia and Iran is currently underway.[ii]

Russian and Iranian domestic propaganda offer insights into their governments’ views on the stakes of bilateral relations. In Russia, the Kremlin portrays its Tehran links as key to rehabilitating Russia’s prestige abroad and reclaiming the former influence of the Soviet Union.[iii] Senior Iranian officials close to the Supreme Leader are presenting Russia’s expanded influence in the Middle East as a major boon for the Islamic Republic, giving rise to interpretations of Moscow’s intervention in Syria as a historic ‘tipping point’ in the regional balance of power. Iran, presumably, is the fulcrum in this analogy. During a late September address, the Supreme Leader’s senior military advisor asserted that Moscow’s “participation on the politico-military scene in western Asia, especially Syria, is one of the most important changes” in the “structure of power in the international system and the formation of a multipolar system of power in the world.”[iv]

A Good Year

Russia and Iran inaugurated 2015 with a flurry of diplomatic activity. Sergei Shoigu became the first Russian defense minister to travel to Tehran in 15 years when, on January 20th, he arrived to sign a military cooperation agreement designed to improve counterterrorism collaboration, expand personnel exchanges for training, and increase reciprocal port calls by their respective navies.[v] The Supreme Leader’s senior foreign policy advisor followed up by leading a high-profile delegation to Moscow later that month, reportedly securing President Vladimir Putin’s support for full Iranian membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.[vi]

Shortly after an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program was announced in April, Putin terminated a self-imposed prohibition on the transfer of S-300/SA-20 GARGOYLE long-range, highly capable surface-to-air missile systems to Iran.[vii] In ending the ban, which was enacted by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 partly in response to pressure from the US and Israel, Putin negated one of the single greatest irritants in the bilateral relationship. Tehran has long prioritized the acquisition of SA-20s as a means of rehabilitating its spotty, antiquated air defenses, a critical vulnerability in any future conflict with the US, Israel, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).[viii] Russia and Iran reportedly agreed to begin the transfer by the end of this year,[ix] and the process reportedly is proceeding on schedule.[x]

By July, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force Commander Major General Qasem Soleimani, who is widely credited with leading Iranian operations in Iraq and Syria,[xi] reportedly was travelling to Moscow to participate in joint planning sessions for the provision of direct military assistance to the Assad regime.[xii] Although Russian officials continue to deny Soleimani’s presence in Russia, which would have violated a UN travel ban,[xiii] unnamed ‘senior regional security officials’ told Reuters that Soleimani’s visit was instrumental in precipitating the deployment of Russian combat forces in Syria.

In addition to these breakthroughs, Russian and Iranian officials this year continued to set lofty goals for bolstering economic ties, collaboration in the energy sector, and technological cooperation. Moscow and Tehran, for example, are working to implement an agreement to boost bilateral trade tenfold by 2017.[xiv] The fruits of these initiatives, however, remain to be seen.

Old Problems, New Catalysts

Historical constraints on Russia-Iran partnership—most notably mutual suspicion and Russia’s desire to maintain positive relations with Israel and the GCC—appear to have an increasingly irrelevant bearing on the relationship’s overall strength. Old enmities dating back to the rule of the Czars and Shahs as well as mistrust resulting from more recent downturns and occasional recriminations have proven inconsequential in the current dynamic, as both parties appear determined to overcome their apprehensions.[xv] Furthermore, Moscow’s relations with Israel and the GCC have not suffered serious setbacks as a result of its growing ties with Iran. In fact, contentious aspects of Russian Middle East policy appear to have propelled high-level dialogue with Moscow, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and numerous senior GCC officials have travelled to meet Putin in Moscow since August. As these US allies develop hedging strategies for Washington’s perceived disengagement from the Middle East, Russia simply figures too prominently to ignore.[xvi]

What’s changed? In sum, the dual crises in Ukraine and Syria have created a unique confluence of interests that, coupled with Iran’s emergence from international isolation pursuant to the interim agreement over its nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have set the preconditions for substantial cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.

Although Putin has pursued a pro-Iran policy since his re-election in 2012,[xvii] the break with the West over Ukraine gave new incentive to Putin’s Iran track. An analysis posted to a Russian government-controlled news site in October 2014 described the dynamic following the imposition of Western sanctions against Russia: “After all, Russia and Iran are in the same boat. Therefore, we must unite and attract other countries that could potentially be targeted by Western sanctions. The priority is to create a strong regional security structure” to counteract the West.[xviii] In Putin’s search for openings anywhere to compensate for the ramifications of Ukraine, Iran presented a glaringly obvious choice. Tehran is eager to play that role.[xix]

The deepening of the Syria crisis, too, naturally hardened the Russia-Iran relationship. Moscow and Tehran have coordinated political and diplomatic support to Assad’s regime, the key Arab ally of both governments, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Both have augmented Assad with substantial material assistance. But the regime’s major military setbacks this year reportedly led Moscow and Tehran to jointly conclude that direct military cooperation was required to stabilize Assad’s position, making their Syria policies, in effect, reliant on one another.[xx] Moreover, Moscow’s Syria policy has strained its relations with Iran’s great rivals for Russian attention—Israel and the GCC—but also demonstrated those relationships’ durability. The fact that the Syria question has compelled engagement with Russia rather than undercut its influence probably reinforced Moscow’s perception of its own indispensability and led it to calculate that expanded cooperation with Iran is unlikely to result in unacceptable consequences.

Iran’s prospective opening under the JCPOA also provides Tehran and Moscow with long-awaited opportunities to add material ties to their largely theoretical partnership. A Kremlin statement released shortly after the deal’s announcement in July quoted Putin as saying “bilateral relations with Iran will receive a new impetus and will no longer be influenced by external factors.”[xxi] Indeed, Putin appears to have met historical Russian sensitivities about a potential Iranian rapprochement with the West following the nuclear deal by interposing Moscow as Tehran’s first and foremost partner among the great powers. Although full-fledged cooperation will not be possible while the UN sanctions regime remains in place, Russia is well positioned to capitalize on opportunities for cooperation if and when sanctions are lifted, most notably the conventional arms embargo slated to terminate 5 years after the JCPOA’s implementation date.[xxii] Russia was Iran’s primary arms supplier prior to the imposition of the embargo, a position it will almost certainly regain.[xxiii]

Not a Done Deal

Despite significant progress in Russia-Iran relations, the emergence of a true strategic alliance is not preordained. Moscow, for one, has yet to prove its staying power in the Middle East. Its regional policy is more a compilation of power plays and transitory, transactional associations than grand strategy,[xxiv] and the Russians have demonstrated a willingness to abandon their erstwhile Iranian ally when doing so benefits their relations with the West. Furthermore, while both parties are eager to benefit from cooperation, neither appears willing to subvert its core interests for the sake of the other should those interests diverge.[xxv]

Nevertheless, the trajectory of Russia-Iran relations over the coming decade has potential to be a defining geopolitical trend. A solidly pro-Russia Iran could provide Moscow with a durable and lasting presence in the Middle East, a reliable and lucrative market for its arms exports, and significant leverage in its relations with the West. Conversely, a partnership with Moscow would allow Tehran to reduce the military-technological gap between itself and its regional adversaries, to bolster its international legitimacy, and to deter its enemies more credibly.

[i] Mark N. Katz, “The Iran Primer: Iran and Russia,” United States Institute of Peace, updated August 2015, accessed 9 October 2015, http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-russia.

[ii] Hugo Spaulding, Christopher Kozak, Christopher Harmer, Daniel Urchick, Jessica Lewis McFate, Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhier, and Kimberly Kagan, “Russian Deployment to Syria: Putin’s Middle East Game Changer,” Institute for the Study of War Warning Intelligence Update, September 17, 2015, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Russian%20Deployment%20to%20Syria%2017%20September%202015%20(1).pdf.

[iii] Nikolay Kozhanov, “Chaos in the Arab World Suits Russia’s Domestic Propaganda,” Chatham House’s The World Today, August 7, 2015, http://carnegie.ru/2015/08/07/how-putin-turns-turmoil-in-middle-east-to-his-advantage/if12.

[iv] “Iran News Round Up, September 24, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 24, 2015, http://irantracker.org/iran-news-round-september-24-2015.

[v] Franz-Stefan Gady, “Russia and Iran Sign Military Cooperation Agreement,” The Diplomat, January 21, 2015, accessed October 11, 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/01/russia-and-iran-sign-military-cooperation-agreement/.

[vi] Rohollah Faghihi, “Why did Velayati meet with Putin?” Al-Monitor, February 11, 2015, accessed October 9, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/02/iran-russia-nuclear-deal-velayati.html.

[vii] Gabriela Baczynska, “Russia opens way for missile deliveries to Iran, starts oil-for-goods swap,” Reuters, April 14, 2015, accessed October 11, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/14/us-iran-nuclear-russia-idUSKBN0N40YX20150414.

[viii] Michael Eisenstadt and Brenda Shaffer, “Russian S-300 Missiles to Iran: Groundhog Day or Game-Changer?” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 4, 2015, accessed October 9, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/russian-s-300-missiles-to-iran-groundhog-day-or-game-changer.

[ix] Jared M. Feldschreiber, “Iran, Russia reach agreement on delivery of S-300 missile systems,” UPI, August 19, 2015, accessed October 12, 2015, http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2015/08/19/Iran-Russia-reach-agreement-on-delivery-of-S-300-missile-systems/7271440011429/.

[x] “Iran News Round Up, October 6, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, October 6, 2015, accessed October 12, 2015, http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-october-6-2015.

[xi] Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Says Iranian Military Figure’s Visit to Russia Violates U.N. Ban,” The New York Times, August 12, 2015, accessed October 11, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/13/world/middleeast/us-says-iranian-military-figures-visit-to-russia-violates-un-ban.html.

[xii] Laila Bassam and Tom Perry, “How Iranian general plotted out Syrian assault in Moscow,” Reuters, October 6, 2015, accessed October 9, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/06/us-mideast-crisis-syria-soleimani-insigh-idUSKCN0S02BV20151006.

[xiii] Gordon, “U.S. Says Iranian Military Figure’s Visit to Russia Violates U.N. Ban.”

[xiv] Nikolay Kozhanov, “Understanding the Revitalization of Russian-Iranian Relations,” Carnegie Moscow Center, May 2015, Accessed October 9, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/CP_Kozhanov_web_Eng.pdf.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Yaroslav Trofimov, “America’s Fading Footprint in the Middle East,” The Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2015, accessed October 11, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/americas-fading-footprint-in-the-middle-east-1444411954.

[xvii] Kozhanov, “Understanding the Revitalization of Russian-Iranian Relations.”

[xviii] John R. Haines, “Russia, Iran, and the (Increasingly) Lonely Superpower, Foreign Policy Research Institute, March 2015, accessed 10 October, 2015, http://www.fpri.org/articles/2015/03/russia-iran-and-increasingly-lonely-superpower.

[xix] Kozhanov, “Understanding the Revitalization of Russian-Iranian Relations.”

[xx] Bassam and Perry, “How Iranian general plotted out Syrian assault in Moscow.”

[xxi] Elena Holodny, “Putin likes the Iran deal,” Business Insider, July 14, 2015, accessed October 11, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/putin-likes-the-iran-deal-2015-7.

[xxii] Dmitri Trenin, “Russia’s Missile Moves Explained: The S-300 Challenge,” The National Interest, April 15, 2015, accessed October 11, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/russias-missile-moves-explained-the-s-300-challenge-12635.

[xxiii] Paul N. Schwartz, “What the Iran Deal Means for Russia,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2015, accessed October 11, 2015, https://csis.org/files/publication/150603_Schwartz_IranDealRussian_Web.pdf.

[xxiv] Dmitri Trenin, “Russia’s Middle East Gambit,” Tablet, May 30, 2013, accessed October 11, 2015, http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/133189/russia-middle-east-gambit.

[xxv] Kozhanov, “Understanding the Revitalization of Russian-Iranian Relations.”

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