The expanding relations between Russia and Iran restrict the West’s abilities in conflicts in the Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia. Such relations in the economic, political and military fields can provide useful leverages and tools to Moscow, which will eventually lead to the formation of a block of aligned and anti-American countries. The use of Iranian drones to attack Ukraine, Russia’s support for the Iranian regime’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the sale of Sukhoi Su-35, and Tehran-Moscow coordination in Iran’s nuclear blackmail are signs of deepening ties between the two authoritarian regimes.
Western countries, especially the United States, do not have many options to push Iran away from Russia. One of these options is the revival of the JCPOA, which cannot be an effective option considering Iran’s getting closer to China and Russia after signing the nuclear deal in 2015. The second option for the West is a military operation against Iran and its nuclear facilities. Considering the economic and geopolitical challenges of the West in Ukraine and East Asia, the Western governments have no intention and no plan to start a war with Iran. The third option is a regime change policy. Considering the explosive situation in Iran’s society and the internal fragility of theocracy, pursuing a change in Iran and replacing it with a democratic regime will help the EU to significantly decrease its dependence on Russian gas in a few years. This policy also paves the US way to counter Moscow’s greedy ambitions in the Middle East.
Russia-Iran threats reach unknown domains
What is happening in Ukraine has become a direct threat to the Western powers, a threat that is incredibly dangerous for European powers behind their borders. With such a background, the West is so sensitive about any cooperation between Russia and other countries. Even before the first bullet of Russian soldiers was fired towards Ukraine, the two countries were experiencing high-level meetings and signing various political and economic agreements. Moreover, it was expected that if the negotiations to revive the JCPOA concluded, economic cooperation would increase significantly. Today relations between Moscow and Tehran are changing to security and military partnership, including exchanging weapons and technology. Chaput (2022) highlights that such a partnership has attracted significant attention from Western foreign policy-makers. Almanitor (2023) reported that US officials acknowledge that an injection of Russian technology into the Iranian regime’s military capability is dangerous to US troops in the Middle East. While Iran and Russia cooperated in the Syrian war, Moscow’s global isolation over the Ukraine war, given Russia’s growing reliance on Iran, drives such ties into unknown domains.
A background of Russia and Iran relations
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Iran and Russia found several reasons for developing bilateral relations. For Russia, any cooperation with countries that could inject valid currencies into its unstable economy was welcomed. Before the Ukraine war, Iran exploited Russia’s relations with the EU to improve its technological and cyber security weaknesses, which can help Iran to carry out cyber attacks against Israel and western countries. Several factors affect increasing cooperation between the two countries, including geographic proximity, understanding of common interests, the relative isolation of the two countries, and mutual understanding of opposing western powers in the peripheral areas. From Iran’s point of view, relations with Russia can balance its position on international issues. Therme (2022) believes that Iran’s strategy of relying less on European countries risks increasing its dependence on Russia and China. Such a relationship allows Moscow to keep its influence in international and regional issues, especially in the Middle East. Therme writes that an ideological affinity between the two countries has minimized their possible disagreements, while prior to the annexation of Crimea, Russia voted in favor of several UN Security Council resolutions to sanction Tehran over its nuclear ambitions.
Moscow-Tehran’s attempts to challenge the West hegemony
Russia and the Iranian regime are both today under tough sanctions, and bypassing them has become the main causality of bilateral economic cooperation. Ballesteros (2022) writes that both Russia and Iran have found their cooperation as an opportunity to counterbalance sanctions. Since the war in Ukraine, Moscow’s tendency towards Tehran has increased to deal with sanctions and create bilateral economic routes as they have connected their interbank communication and transfer systems to help boost trade and financial transactions. (Reuters, 2023). The development of military relations between Iran and Russia is worrying, not just because of Iranian drones in the Ukraine war or Russian jets in Iran. ُThe West should raise the alarm about the development of military partnerships between Iran and Russia as Godwin et al., (2022) state that Russia’s reliance on Iranian drones has cemented the link between the two anti-West regimes. This challenge may expand in the future as new actors may join it.
Some of Iran and Russia’s actions in increasing interactions are not related to bilateral relations but have dimensions beyond that—for example, issues related to Syria, the North-South corridor, and the SCO. Each of these cases will include other actors, which can change the balance of power, challenging the West hegemony. An example of cooperation between Tehran and Moscow can be considered in Syria, where they have been able to challenge the US hegemony in the Middle East. It cannot be easily denied that Iran and Russia have been able to challenge the balance of power during the Syrian civil war and weaken the US position in the Middle East, which Stent (2016) underlined as a vexing challenge for the White House. In the long run, Moscow is trying to create a new bloc by creating a broad axis with the participation of countries with similar interests, including Iran, in order to have a long-term impact on power-building in the region. Grajewski (2020) writes that within the context of Moscow’s Eurasia foreign policy, Iran occupies a privileged position as a bulwark against Western encroachment and a like-minded security partner against the imposition of liberal norms and legitimacy. The Iranian regime seeks to strengthen its position and become the hegemon power in the region, while it considers its resources and power insufficient. Thus, it considers an alliance with Russia to achieve the goal. The military action in Syria, invading Ukraine, opposing the pressure on the Iranian regime while harnessing it, and trying to weaken America’s relationship with its Arab allies are among Moscow’s actions to encourage countries to distance themselves from the West.
The West ambiguous approach toward Russia-Iran deepening ties
The foreign policy process of Western countries, especially the United States, regarding the relationship between Russia and Iran shows significant points, including the fact that the above three countries affect each other’s relations. The variable of US-Russia relations has an important effect on the JCPOA and the totality of Iran-Russia relations, and its influence has been greater than Iran’s influence on Moscow-Washington relations. The US green light on Tehran-Moscow nuclear cooperation was one of the most disastrous mistakes of the West, which led to Russia’s unnecessary involvement in nuclear talks with Iran. Another example of the West’s catastrophic policy regarding the relationship between Russia and Iran is the silence of the West regarding the sale of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran. Russian weapons sale to Iran was one of the JCPOA results. Indeed, the JCPOA not only did not push Iran towards the West, but the reduction of sanctions left Russia free to develop its relations with Iran. Considering the Iranian regime’s anti-American nature, it is naive to think that the mullahs’ regime will one day have a favorable view of the West. Thus, distancing the Iranian regime from Russia failed to be achieved by signing the JCPOA. In other words, Iran’s proximity to Russia or even China has nothing to do with sanctions, as the signing of the JCPOA and the lifting of sanctions in 2015 increased political, economic, and military relations between Russia and Iran to the highest level. Before the start of the Ukraine war, a nuclear agreement with Iran was within reach, but after invading Ukraine, Russia intends to exploit the nuclear talks to open a way to bypass sanctions. If the JCPOA is revived and the Iranian regime joins the FATF, Russia will be able to bypass the sanctions through Iranian companies. The revival of the JCPOA and ending restrictions to export goods and technology by October 2023 will contribute to developing Iran’s nuclear weapon delivery systems and also free Iran’s hands to develop military cooperation with Russia.
Pushing Iran away from Russia
Russia-Iran close ties help Moscow to develop its geopolitical, economic, and security perspectives in Eurasia. Iran has become an important part of Russia’s geopolitical strategy against the Western powers. The Iranian regime’s anti-west nature challenges the US goals of isolating Russia through having direct access to the Caucasus and Central Asia. With all the challenges the West faces, particularly the Ukraine war and the relatively hostile relations between Washington and Moscow, the Biden administration has few options to mitigate risks. The fatal mistake made by the western countries is that they did not continue the maximum pressure campaign against Iran and simultaneously freed Russia’s hands in the nuclear negotiations. Although all rhetoric made by the White House about a military option is on the table, the Biden administration has no plan to start a war with the Iranian regime. However, the question is, will this situation remain the same in 2024, assuming someone like Donald Trump takes office? Considering the US and its allies are moving to treat Iran as a global threat because of its growing alliance with Russia (Seldin, 2023), the best option to distance Iran from Russia is to bring about change in Iran. Achieving such a goal requires a policy of regime change in Iran, which can be the most pragmatic option considering the theocracy’s fragile internal situation.
Ballesteros, M. (2022) ‘Russia’s relationship with Iran in the context of the 21st century geopolitics’, Opinion Paper IEEE 36/2022, p. 15. Available at: https://www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/docs_opinion/2022/DIEEEO36_2022_MARBAL_Rusia_ENG.pdf
Chaput, V. (2022) ‘The Russia-Iran Strategic Partnership in the Shadow of Ukraine’s War’. FINABEL. Available at: https://finabel.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/IF.Russia-Iran.Vincent.pdf
Godwin, M., Talabany, S., Shelley, J., VERELST-WAY, T. and EL-BADAWY, E. (2022) ‘How Not to Lose Friends and Influence in the Middle East: The Narratives Advancing Russia and China’s Soft Power’, Tony Blair Institute. Available at: https://institute.global/sites/default/files/articles/How-Not-to-Lose-Friends-and-Influence-in-the-Middle-East-The-Narratives-Advancing-Russia-and-China-s-Soft-Power.pdf
Grajewski, N. (2020) ‘Russia and Iran in Greater Eurasia’, National University of Singapore, Middle East Institute. Available at: https://mei.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Insight-239-Nicole-Grajewski.pdf
Reuters (2023) ‘Iran, Russia link banking systems amid Western sanction’. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/business/finance/iran-russia-link-banking-systems-amid-western-sanction-2023-01-30/
Seldin, J. (2023) ‘Pentagon: Iran a ‘Global Challenge’ Due to Alliance with Russia’. Available at: https://www.voanews.com/a/pentagon-iran-a-global-challenge-due-to-alliance-with-russia-/6982757.html
Stent, A. (2016) ‘Putin’s Power Play in Syria: How to Respond to Russia’s Intervention’, 95 Foreign Aff. 106. Available at: https://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/fora95&div=15&id=&page=
Szuba, J. (2023) ‘Ukraine war at year 1: Russia-Iran alignment threatens delicate Middle East balance’, Almanitor. Available at: https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/02/ukraine-war-year-1-russia-iran-alignment-threatens-delicate-middle-east-balance#ixzz7vJtfpQCd
Therme, C. (2022) ‘The Russian-Iran Partnership in a Multipolar World’, Russie.NEI.Reports, No. 37, p .13. Available at: https://www.ifri.org/en/publications/etudes-de-lifri/russieneireports/russian-iran-partnership-multipolar-world