Tehran’s ties to Russia are growing, making Iran a stronger force in the region and increasing the danger it poses to the United States and its allies..
The latest Gaza war is more than just another bloody round in the endless conflict between Israel and Hamas. The fighting is a product of a shifting Middle East, where new alliances are transforming the politics of the region. Although the Biden administration and other allies of Israel have been promoting Israeli-Saudi normalization as one such alliance, a counterforce is already in the works: deepening ties between Iran and Russia.
From Tehran’s perspective, an informal alliance with Russia is ideologically and historically odd, but it is strategically enticing. Iran and Russia have been rivals for almost two centuries, and Iran’s former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini hated the Soviet Union almost as much as he hated the United States, scorning godless communism and seeing the Soviet Union as an aggressive power that sought to undermine Iran’s revolutionary regime. But, today, the Islamic Republic needs a great power backer—and Russia fits their bill. Even if Russian arms are deficient compared with their Western counterparts, Moscow can provide the full range of weapons that Iran desperately needs. Add to this a friend on the UN Security Council that gives Iran diplomatic clout, as well as their mutual rejection of democracy and human rights, and Iran’s infatuation with Russia becomes even more understandable.
Moscow’s interest in Tehran is a bit harder to explain. It starts with a range of common interests that are generally anti-U.S., opposed to democratic values, and wary of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism. Indeed, the modern Iran-Russia relationship initially grew from cooperation between their respective intelligence services looking to keep an eye on various Sunni fundamentalist groups that emerged in the Caucasus and Central Asia after the collapse of the USSR. In the Middle East, they share a sense of fear and opportunism, worrying that regional unrest could topple anti-Western partners like Bashar al-Assad but hoping that the strife will allow them to undermine their enemies and expand their own influence.
This commonality of interests was useful enough to Russia for it to broaden its Iran relationship to encompass arms sales and, eventually, a decision in 2015 to intervene militarily in Syria to save Assad’s faltering dictatorship at Iran’s request—and alongside Iranian forces. Together, Iran and Russia helped save the Assad regime.
Yet all of this cooperation seemed limited. Even while they cooperated in Syria, Moscow has not sold Iran much of its top-of-the-line weapons such as the latest fighter aircraft, nor could it stop Washington from trying to economically coerce Iran to agree to another nuclear deal. Indeed, for Russia, the relationship seemed like a bid for leverage elsewhere: It would at times flirt with Iran and dangle new arms sales but then, in the face of U.S. and European complaints, agree to stiff Iran in exchange for perfunctory Western measures against Russia for its interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, its repression of dissent at home, and its assassination of dissidents abroad.
But then Russia invaded Ukraine. Suddenly, Vladimir Putin needed Iran in ways he never had before. In a shocking role reversal, it is now Iran supplying weapons to Russia, particularly its crude, but highly functional suicide drones, which have become the bane of Ukraine’s cities. Iran is also providing Russia some additional munitions, technicians (for its weaponry), diplomatic and moral support, and some sanctions relief. There have even been unconfirmed reports that Iran has offered to send members of its league of Middle Eastern Shiite militias to man the front lines in Ukraine.
All of a sudden, Russia seems to need Iran almost as much as Iran needs Russia.
Perhaps equally important, there were no credible countervailing Western incentives to limit Russia’s ties to Iran. The United States and its allies have imposed vast, comprehensive sanctions on Russia and provided billions in arms to Ukraine. NATO was not going to curtail any of that in return for anything Russia might do with Iran. Nor is the West ready to reward Putin in any way for curtailing his links to Tehran. So, when it comes to Iran, Moscow has much to gain and little to lose.
The strengthening ties between the two countries is an important element of what has been going on in the Middle East over the past three to four years, including the latest Gaza war. Iran has grown ever more aggressive and emboldened both because the U.S. progressively pulled back from the region under the Obama and Trump administrations and because Tehran feels more confident that Russia will support it both diplomatically and, in some ways, militarily as it has in Syria, where Russia was motivated in part by increasing its regional influence and countering the United States, both of which would be true of helping Iran. Moreover, Russia has used limited deployments of its armed forces as well as private military companies like the Wagner Group to become a player in regional conflicts, at relatively little cost. Iran can take advantage of greater Russian influence even when it was not originally intended to help Tehran.
It’s also possible that Russia’s increased backing likely encouraged Iran to support and encourage Hamas in its attack on Israel. We should not make too much of this—that’s not why Iran supported Hamas, nor was Iran’s support the principal cause of Hamas’s decision for war—but it was not irrelevant either. Tehran feels on firmer footing with a major power behind it, and thus it can encourage its regional terrorist allies to be more aggressive.
This alliance is likely to only get stronger in the future. The Ukraine war does not seem likely to end or break Russia’s way any time soon. Neither do the Western sanctions seem likely to end in the foreseeable future. NATO is expanding and increasing its military spending. Ever since Mohammed bin Salman crushed Putin in an oil price war in 2020, Russia has had to toe the Saudi line in OPEC Plus. All of this stasis suggests that Russia’s dependence on Iran is far more likely to deepen than abate. Iran, for its part, does not appear close to a deal over its nuclear program and otherwise has shown no inclination to see the West as anything but an enemy.
Their growing cooperation raises the question of what Iran may be able to call on Russia to provide in the future in return for its continued assistance. More and more advanced arms are an obvious one—S-400 SAMs, Su-34 fighters, sophisticated naval mines, and more advanced anti-ship missiles are all possible, if Moscow can spare them from its own ravenous needs. Cyberwar assistance would be another obvious possibility, although Iran probably has already received some help from Russia’s hackers. Better weapons systems would greatly complicate any U.S. or Israeli military operations against Iran, whether to take out Iranian nuclear infrastructure, punish Iran for its support for terrorism, or other reasons.
The most dangerous outcome from this alliance would be if Russia ignored or even abetted Iran’s nuclear program—particularly Iran’s effort to build a nuclear weapon itself, which has lagged well behind its enrichment efforts. Certainly, the United States should assume it will be far harder to secure another UN Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program.
Even if the Iran-Russia relationship does not lead to that terrifying end, the United States needs to expect that Russian forces will continue to work closely with Iran’s in Syria and potentially elsewhere in the region. Iran’s own arsenal will likely improve, as will its ability to employ those weapons, and Russia will likely back Iran against any U.S.-led attempts to isolate the clerical regime. And in general, the Iran that will emerge in the years to come will be more capable and fortified as a regional actor—one more likely than ever to encourage its proxies and allies to engage in risky gambits like the Hamas attack on Israel and perhaps to engage in equally dangerous moves of its own.
– Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University, Lawfare’s Foreign Policy Essay editor, and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
– Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the former director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council.
Published Courtesy of Lawfare.