A new partnership is emerging between Russia and Iran that includes political, security and economic dialogue. This new partnership has been the product of regional and global circumstances that brought the interest of the two countries into alignment. This relationship should be taken seriously as the two countries are geopolitically pivotal countries in Eurasia and their partnership has global ramifications, despite the limitations extant in this relationship.
There have been several high profile exchanges between Russian and Iranian officials. In November 2017, Russian Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov met with Iranian Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Bagheri in Tehran. That same month, President Vladimir Putin visited his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in Tehran. Currently, the two are engaged, along with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in trilateral talks on resolving the conflict in Syria. In February 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was a speaker at a conference on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, organized by Russian think tank, the Valdai Discussion Club, in Moscow, alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The two countries are already cooperating on regional flashpoints like Syria, as mentioned. The security cooperation entails not only military and intelligence exchanges but also anti-aircraft missiles that Iran purchased from Russia and which were tested as operational. Russia and Iran are also using the new momentum in their relationship to test out possibilities for augmenting economic ties, as Iran is already in talks with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) on forming a free trade zone.
There are regional and global drivers of this new partnership. Regionally, both Russia and Iran oppose the US practice of regime change in the Middle East. These two countries consider this practice troublesome as their view of previous US interventions, such as in Iraq in 2003, is that they lead to fallout in the region. Iran and Russia also fear being the targets of regime change themselves. This particularly came to the fore in Syria, where Russia and Iran, as allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, played a key role in preventing Assad’s overthrow. The two countries are also frightened of Sunni-led Jihadi groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, creating a new incentive for their cooperation.
The global driver of the Russian-Iranian partnership is the fact that both countries have disdain for and resentment towards the international system based on US unipolarity. Both countries believe that that type of international balance of power, at best, excludes them and denies them the opportunity to protect their interests, or at worse is openly configured against them. This has become increasingly clear in recent years, as both Russia and Iran feel alienated by the US. The relationship between the US and Russia shows no hope for improvement, as the crisis in mutual relations that started with the Ukraine crisis of 2014 festered further as a result of allegations that Russia interfered in US elections, despite President Donald Trump’s initial desire for rapprochement with Russia.
Iran has even more reason to be wary of the US and its president, as it was Trump who pulled the US out of the international nuclear agreement with Iran, and as a result exposed it again to harsh US sanctions. Moreover, the Trump administration is asserting itself more than ever as the uncompromising backer of Iranian regional rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia. This has already caused turmoil and major power shifts among the Iranian foreign and security policy elite, despite the fact that Iranian President Rouhani is widely regarded as a pragmatic moderate who was supposed to lead Iran’s opening towards the West. In March 2018, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, reacted to the appointment of John Bolton to the position of US National Security Adviser with the statement that Iran should pivot towards Russia and China. There are already talks in Iran of embracing the “Look East” policy that implies partnership with non-Western players like India, Russia, and China, which was formulated during the presidency of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–13).
With that said, one should not predict a full-fledged alliance between Iran and Russia. The two are wary of each other’s intentions. Russia fears that Iran might try to exercise influence in its post-Soviet periphery in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Moreover, Russia does not want to support Iran in any conflict with Israel and Saudi Arabia, let alone the US, in case of a military clash with Washington. Iran is also uncertain whether Moscow might eventually sell it out as a result of some grand bargain with the US. However, this does not mean that the US and the West should take growing ties between Russia and Iran for granted. As long as US foreign policy does not align with their interests, the two countries will likely work together in order to find cooperation opportunities, hedge their bets, and impose as many restraints as possible on US interventionism.