Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also Iran’s loss
As recent high-level meetings between Russian and Iranian leaders show, Moscow-Tehran ties have remained strong since the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The ongoing war in Ukraine, however, has had some seriously negative consequences for Iran — consequences that may only get worse the longer the war continues. Despite this, Iranian willingness to cooperate with Russia seems likely to continue.
On June 29, Russian President Putin and Iranian President Raisi met on the sidelines of the Caspian Summit in Turkmenistan. (The Caspian Summit brings together the leaders of the five Caspian Sea littoral countries: Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.) During their meeting, Putin noted that Russian-Iranian trade grew by 81 percent in 2021 and by a further 31 percent in the first few months of 2022. Raisi, for his part, stated that, “Nothing has stopped or will stop the progress of our trade and economic ties.”
Raisi noted Russian-Iranian cooperation regarding energy and food, as well as Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria “and other areas,” and how this is “useful” not only for Russia and Iran but “the region as a whole.” Raisi also mentioned joint cooperation in transport, transit, fishing, tourism, and (not surprisingly at a Caspian Summit) with regard to the Caspian Sea.
A few days before the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew to Tehran to meet with his Iranian counterpart. Lavrov voiced his support for the resumption of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iranian nuclear accord), from which the Trump administration withdrew the United States in 2018 and which the Biden administration and Iran have not yet come to terms with regard to its resumption. Various forms of Russian-Iranian economic cooperation were also discussed, including the connection of the Russian and Iranian railway systems via Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Military, security, and other international issues — including “countering unilateralism” (i.e, the United States) — were also discussed.
Despite this show of solidarity at the highest leadership level, however, the war in Ukraine has had several negative consequences for Iran. Like other Middle Eastern countries, Iran had been importing wheat from Ukraine and Russia. The Russian blockade of Ukrainian wheat exports, as well as Russia’s unwillingness to sell as much of its own wheat, has served to both raise wheat prices as well as limit supplies of wheat for all wheat-importing countries, including Iran. As in other countries, this has led to unrest in Iran over rising food prices. This problem is a direct consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it is something that Moscow does not seem either willing or able to help Tehran ameliorate.
There were some who initially thought that the Western embargo on Russian oil exports would help Iran by bolstering demand for its oil. Instead, however, Iranian oil exports have shrunk since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is because Russia managed to increase its oil exports to China and India by offering them discounts from the world market price of oil that far exceeded what Iran had been offering. Nor, according to one Iranian expert, has Moscow been willing to coordinate with Tehran on oil exports — a sharp contrast to how Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have rebuffed American requests to increase their oil production, citing their desire to adhere to their OPEC+ agreement with Russia on oil production limits. Iran has finally responded by increasing its own discount on oil exports, but this is not a “race to the bottom” that will benefit Iran.
Russia has similarly undercut Iranian steel exports through aggressively discounting the price of its steel to Iran’s Asian customers, including Afghanistan, China, South Korea, and Thailand.
There have also been conflicting reports about whether or to what extent Russia has withdrawn some of its forces from Syria for redeployment in Ukraine. If so, it theoretically would provide Iran with an opportunity to increase its influence in Syria relative to Russia’s. What it actually might mean, though, is an increased burden on Iranian and Hezbollah forces to defend the Assad regime against its various internal opponents — who may themselves take heart from a Russian drawdown.
Iran is not happy about the Russian-Israeli deconfliction agreement whereby Moscow turns something of a blind eye to Israeli attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria. If Moscow really does reduce its force levels in Syria, Israel may be less inclined to placate Russian sensitivities and thus increase its attacks — not something likely to be welcomed in Tehran. The recent Russian Foreign Ministry condemnation of them suggests that Israeli attacks in Syria may already be increasing even with Russian forces still present there.
Russia’s war in Ukraine, then, has caused several serious problems for Iran. Still, this does not mean that Iran is likely to break with or turn against Russia. So long as both Russia and Iran are at odds with the United States and the West more broadly, Tehran is likely to cling to its relationship with Moscow despite the current downsides. And Moscow knows it.