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Suspicious bind: Iran’s relationship with Russia

Decision-makers in Tehran are developing the Iran-Russia relationship, but they seem careful not to fully turn away from the West.

Analysis | Middle East

Russia’s war on Ukraine and the potential restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have thrown a spotlight on the relationship between Tehran and Moscow. In the past decade, intensifying Western sanctions on Iran and the animosity between the country and the United States have prompted Tehran to pursue deeper political, economic, and security ties with Moscow. Russia shares Iran’s vision of a multipolar world order in which the US has a diminished role. This summer, there has been a high-level meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Russia has launched an Iranian satellite into orbit for the first time, and Iran has allegedly supplied Russia with drones that it could use in Ukraine. These developments have reignited the debate in Tehran about how far it should tilt towards Moscow, especially given that the West would ease its sanctions on Iran under a restored JCPOA.

Iran and Russia often treat each other as partners of convenience when things get tough with the West. The Putin-Khamenei meeting – which took place in July on the sidelines of a summit in Tehran – was significant for the relationship between the two countries, but it was also timed to send a signal to external players rather than to forge an even deeper alliance between Russia and Iran. Putin’s visit to Iran was his first trip to a country other than a former Soviet state since he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It proved useful to Tehran at a time when Iran was under growing Western pressure to commit to restoring the JCPOA. By hosting the summit in Tehran and signing major energy agreements with Russia, Iran signalled that it had other options and that it was not desperate for a deal with the West.

Some US media outlets allege that Iran has started supplying drones to Russia for use in Ukraine and that the Iranian satellite Russia launched last month will be involved in intelligence gathering in Ukraine. So far, the Iranian government has denied such reports. There is no evidence that Iran plans to become involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine. In two speeches since February, Khamenei has carefully distanced Iran from the conflict – even if, in a mild shift from his neutral remarks that the war in Ukraine should end, he supported Russia by calling the invasion “preemptive”.

Hardline Iranian media outlets such as Kayhan and Javan interpreted Khamenei’s message as meaning that Iran should support Russia in Ukraine. But Nasser Kanani, spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, clarified Khamenei’s remarks by underscoring that Iran’s stance on Ukraine has not changed.

In fact, many Iranian leaders remain deeply suspicious of Russia – a sentiment rooted in a history of betrayal. Against this backdrop, Iran’s political elites divide into two main groups in their views of Russia. One group favours strong ties with Russia as expedient to the survival of the Iranian regime and as a counterbalance to the US military presence near Iran’s borders. The Trump administration’s 2018 decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal and its policy of maximum pressure on Iran increased support for those advocating an alliance with Russia. This group includes Khamenei, his confidants such as foreign policy adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati and Majlis Speaker Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, top commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), clerics who lead Friday prayers, and executives at conglomerates with close ties to the state. They share the Kremlin’s concerns about the threat from the West (including NATO expansion) and seek stronger bilateral cooperation to shield Iran from Western sanctions and military strikes.

The second group, known as the ‘pragmatists’, comprises moderate and conservative politicians who see Russia as an important neighbour but reject efforts to strengthen strategic ties with the country. They believe that it is valuable for Iran to keep its options open with the West and to avoid excessive dependence on Moscow. The members of this group include former foreign minister Javad Zarif, former president Hassan Rouhani, and Ali Shamkhani, who currently serves as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. All three call for de-escalation with the West. Moderate former IRGC commander Hossein Alaei, another member of the group, has vigorously challenged Russia’s attitude towards Iran in not only the war in Syria but also the energy sector, UN Security Council votes, and arms deals. In April 2021, Zarif criticised Moscow for stonewalling in nuclear talks with Tehran in 2014 and 2015, attempting to sabotage the JCPOA, and exploiting Iranian land forces in Syria. In March 2022, when Iran and the US seemed to be on the verge of finalising a plan to restore the JCPOA, the Kremlin disrupted the process by suggesting that Ukraine-linked Western sanctions on Russia would damage the prospects of achieving this. Shamkhani implicitly expressed dismay with Moscow by saying that “40 years of experience has taught our people that relying on Western or Eastern powers will neither guarantee our rights nor our security.”

Given their distrust of both Russia and the West, Iranian decision-makers have long viewed their country as a lonely strategic actor. They have advocated a balanced foreign policy strategy that maintains links to all sides. Some moderate and even conservative media and political figures have now voiced their discontent with Tehran’s apparent effort to abandon its neutrality in the Ukraine war.

Like the Rouhani government, President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration has developed its relationship with the Kremlin while keeping the door open to the West, particularly Europe. Indeed, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently dismissed the idea that Iran’s fate is bound up with Russia’s, commenting that “Europe will have a place in the government’s balanced foreign policy approach … We must pick the best in both the West and the East.”

Indeed, the war in Ukraine has created new opportunities for Iran to advance its interests with both Russia and the West. Iran’s attempts to develop its military partnerships with Moscow have allowed it to display its defence and aerospace technology – as one can see in the drone deal. Iran has also used the rift between Russia and the West to try to erode what it sees as US hegemony in the Middle East. Meanwhile, rising global energy costs have made Iran more valuable to both Europe and Russia. Officials in Tehran have openly stated that they could reintroduce Iranian oil into international markets – and thereby reduce energy prices in Europe – in return for the removal of some US sanctions on Iran. Tehran is contemplating gas exports to Europe in the long term (although this would require careful coordination with Moscow).

Before Western states intensified their sanctions on Russia, an increase in Iranian oil and gas exports would have heightened competition between Iran and Russia. But Tehran could now provide solutions to Moscow. They have floated ideas about how Russia could benefit from Iran’s re-entry into international energy markets after a restoration of the JCPOA. Iran could either import Russian oil and gas to serve its domestic needs (allowing it to export more Iranian oil) or re-export Russian products to non-European buyers on Moscow’s behalf. Following Putin’s visit to Iran in July, the two countries reportedly accelerated their technical discussions on such arrangements. However, it remains unclear whether Iran is willing to go down this road, given that doing so could expose it to greater US and European pressure – a dangerous gamble at a time when the government in Tehran has expended a huge amount of political capital to restore the JCPOA.

One should not underestimate the extent to which decision-makers in Tehran are developing the Iran-Russia relationship. But they seem to be carefully calibrating any move that involves Moscow to avoid angering elites at home or limiting their options with the West – despite Iran’s tense relationship with the US and their disappointment with Europe’s inability to provide economic relief under the original JCPOA. They will likely continue advancing relations with Russia while pursuing political and economic engagement with the West. Russia’s war on Ukraine and the potential restoration of the JCPOA give Iran greater room to implement a balanced foreign policy.

This article has been republished with permission from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (CC BY 4.0)
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