Between competitive partnership and rivalry
Moscow-Tehran relations are shaped and constrained by ideological and geopolitical developments in the Middle East and beyond.
Many in the West have long viewed the Islamic Republic of Iran as Russia’s ally. The reality, however, is more complex.
The ties between Russia and Iran would best be characterized as a “marriage of convenience” – even a “competitive partnership”. They lack strategic depth and the alleged shared ideological underpinnings that underpin their relationship are situational.
Today, the politico-military sphere of cooperation between Moscow and Tehran is limited to the Syrian file and mutual exchanges do not exceed 4 billion dollars (against 25 billion dollars of exchanges between Russia and Turkey).
Of course, Moscow-Tehran relations are enjoying a bit of a renaissance, but their relations have been marked by ups and downs over the decades.
Until the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, there had been numerous Russian-Persian wars and Soviet interventions in Iran, which cast a shadow over modern relations between the two countries.
Although the shah was considered a close ally of the United States, he had close contacts with the USSR. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union built factories and gas pipelines in Iran and equipped the Iranian military with modern weapons, making this period the best of Russian-Iranian relations.
Soviet-Iranian cooperation came to an abrupt end with the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who came to power later, called the USSR a “little Satan” (the “big Satan” was the United States) and began supporting the mujahideen who were fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
In Lebanon, a pro-Iranian Hezbollah leader, Imad Mughniyeh, was behind the kidnapping of Soviet diplomats and the murder of one of them in 1985.
It was not until 1989 that Soviet-Iranian relations began to normalize and continued to improve in Yeltsin’s Russia. However, the essence of this cooperation was purely transactional: Iran wanted the latest Soviet/Russian weapons, and the USSR and then Russia sought to make billions of dollars from the sales.
More recently, many Iranians perceived Russia as a hostile state during the latter’s use of Hamadan Air Base in Iran to strike Daesh positions in 2016, 1941 and 1945. As a result, Tehran canceled the agreement for the use of the facility for the Russian military aviation.
The basis of the partnership
Iran would probably have remained Russia’s minor partner in the Middle East had it not been for the Arab uprisings and the Syrian revolution, which led to a gradual politico-military rapprochement between the two.
The ties between Tehran and Damascus were much deeper than those between Moscow and Damascus. Syria was an important part of the “Axis of Resistance”, which has an ideological and even religious and spiritual component, as it is supposed to lay “international and regional ground” to ensure the return of the 12th Shia Imam from hiding .
Naturally, Russia did not share such attitudes and its cooperation with Iran – and the Assad regime – in Syria was purely pragmatic. Although they both supported the Assad regime, tensions began as soon as Moscow got involved in Syria.
The countries had contrasting visions: Moscow was interested in normalizing relations between Syria and its neighbors, using the country as a springboard to enter the “big game” in the Middle East, while Iran tried to make the country its military springboard for attacks on its neighbours.
At first, these differences seemed more technical, mainly concerning, for example, the question of the implementation of the agreements with the Syrian opposition on the cessation of hostilities. At the time, Russia was looking for a relatively more moderate approach compared to Iran and the Syrian regime. For example, he brought in Sunni and Chechen Muslim military police to Aleppo after the regime took control of the city – in part to prevent massacres of Sunni residents by pro-Iranian Shiite militias.
In other areas, such as Wadi Barada, there have been incidents between Russian military police and pro-Iranian militias.
Tehran’s dominance in the Syrian economy also began to displease Moscow as too few commercial spheres were left to Russian oligarchs.
Although it was somewhat more profitable for the Assad regime to contract with Russian companies, Iran retained its influence both through official channels as a major sponsor, business partner and supplier of products. oil tankers of the regime; and unofficial channels: and pro-Iranian activists bolstering Tehran’s politics.
Finally, Russian-Iranian tensions reached a new level in 2018 after Israel and a US military contingent stationed in Syria began striking pro-Iranian formations in the country. With that came the risk of a direct military confrontation between Iran and the United States and Israel, which Moscow wanted to avoid.
In southern Syria, Iranian formations reached the Israeli and Jordanian borders after a military campaign in 2018. Based on agreements with Washington and Tel Aviv, Moscow prevented Tehran from establishing housing in Deraa and Quneitra .
Russia has also tried to limit Iranian expansion in northeast Syria near the borders with Iraq, between the towns of al Mayadin and al Bukamal, where a pro-Iranian-controlled enclave s is actually formed, running the risk of a clash with US troops on the other. side of the Euphrates.
However, given Israel’s pro-Ukrainian stance and US military aid to kyiv, Moscow may reconsider this approach.
On the other hand, Russia is interested in maintaining friendly relations with the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Jordan, for which the strengthening of Iran’s position in Syria also poses a threat. Therefore, Russia could continue its policy of restricting Iranian ambitions but keeping an eye on Arab states rather than the US and Israel.
A new competition ground
However, the contradictions between Russia and Iran are gradually going beyond the Syrian issue and could extend to the post-Soviet space, particularly in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
Iran became more active in its Caucasus policy after the Armenian-Azerbaijani War when Armenian leaders deemed Russian aid in its war with Azerbaijan insufficient. Instead of increasing its military support to Yerevan, Russia entered into an alliance agreement with Azerbaijan.
Iran is now trying to pressure Azerbaijan by carrying out military maneuvers under the guise of alleged military ties between Baku and Tel Aviv and presenting itself as a more reliable partner for Yerevan than Moscow.
In Tajikistan, Iran is trying to compete with Moscow on security issues. Moscow is trying to develop a constructive dialogue with the Taliban despite Dushanbe’s hesitations in the face of the new government in Kabul. Meanwhile, Tehran has already offered Dushanbe new forms of military interaction, including opening a new factory to produce Iranian-made drones.
In the context of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, where Moscow is rapidly using its resources, Russia’s Central Asian and Caucasian allies may feel increasingly insecure. Therefore, Iran has the opportunity to fill this security vacuum.
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