The Islamic Republic of Iran’s ties to Russia, and international terrorism, go back decades: Their cooperation in Ukraine is causing alarm even among the most seasoned experts. Iran and Russia have been acute points of continued Western sanctions, concern, and scorn.
The two nations’ common enemies and shared worldview are becoming the foundation for their future alliances. The meetings this week in Tehran, between the supreme leaders of Iran and Russia, showed all of the typical signs of diplomatic decorum and mutual praise. It also gave insight as to how the waves this relationship creates will affect the world order, and change how Ukraine’s role is calculated in the new era of geopolitics.
Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, have made statements indicating that Moscow is prioritizing a return to the “Old World Order” – a mixture of imperial and Soviet-era level of regional influence.
“The fact that the Iranian leadership has rooted for the Russian invasion of Ukraine defies every principle of the Islamic Republic foreign policy, including its longstanding tenet of resisting imperialism,” says Kourosh Ziabari, the Iran correspondent of Asia Times and 2022 World Press Institute Fellow.
Russia is clearly engaged in “imperial aggression” by “butchering civilians” in Ukraine; the Islamic Republic, however, has chosen “expediency and short-term interests which have persuaded the authorities in Tehran to sanitize the war on Ukraine as ‘preventive’ and ‘triggered by NATO’s provocations,’ so that Iran is on the ‘right side’ of Russia’s heart, whose economic, military, and security assistance is direly needed by Tehran these days,” argues Ziabari.
The two nations are mirroring each others’ expansionist ambitions: Putin has signaled that he is looking beyond the Soviet Union’s “satellites,” and as far west as Sweden and Poland. Iran, relying on Khomeinist religious dogma, including the exportation of the Islamic Revolution and an ethnocentric nationalism, uses a vast network of proxies, coupled with intelligence and terrorism, to reach deeper into many countries around the world.
The fruits of Moscow’s strategy can be found in the partial invasions of various territories, including the partial invasion of Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014. Tehran is continuing its strong engagement with armed conflicts across the Arab world and in Africa. However, it is not “shared values,” rather common objectives that bind the nations’ interests.
In fact, the shared values between Iran and Russia are scant, says Ziabari, explaining that historical reasons such as Russia seeking “colonial concessions from Iran in the 19th century” have left a bad taste in the Iranian collective memory. Many Iranians recall these times and “believe Russia has never been a reliable interlocutor,” says Ziabari.
Experts partially attribute the strengthening of the countries’ bilateral relationship as having origins in Russia’s role as an indirect negotiator, on behalf of the United States, in the famed “Iran Deal” of Pres. Obama, who had sought to coerce Iran to give-up its nuclear program.
“Pres. Obama’s decision, early in his presidency, to seek a ‘reset’ with the Kremlin, among other things, was about soliciting Russian diplomatic support to help America get out of the Middle East and ‘pivot to Asia,’ says Andrew Fink, PhD, an American foreign relations expert.
Obama’s thinking was that this would play out in the US’ long term interests as he could say that “There was a new supply line to Afghanistan, help with a Syrian chemical weapons deal, and a tacit agreement not to sell Russian S-300 air defense systems to Iran. These days, Russia is no longer pretending to be America’s friend in the Middle East,” noted Fink.
American Energy Policies have Pushed Moscow to Strengthen Ties to Tehran
After winning the White House, Pres. Biden had promised to restore the “Iran Nuclear Deal” which had been gutted by his predecessor, Donald Trump. However, this goal has turned out to be hard to achieve.
“Especially with hydrocarbon prices spiking, Biden has less leverage over Iran than Obama believed he had,” says Fink, observing that, “on the other hand, we no longer labor under the illusion that Russia can help us.”
Others had also sounded alarms that Biden’s attempt to restart the “Iran Nuclear Deal” would be detrimental to America’s objectives. Senator Ted Cruz, a critic of Biden’s said that Russia would be the ultimate beneficiary of a new “Iran Nuclear Deal” and that the US should instead act urgently to stop Nord Stream 2 in order “to stop an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert in Iranian security and Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC think tank, agrees that if “the Biden administration’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran yield fruit, it would pave the pathway for greater Russian involvement in Iran’s nuclear space, which in turn will provide Russia with revenue at a critical time.”
According to reports in Newsmax, The Guardian, as well as other European publications, Putin’s Kremlin actively pursued a policy of seeking to push the US to take positions that would benefit Russia’s interests, including supporting the removal of sanctions on Nordstream 2, closing gas pipelines in the US, and by infiltrating “green” movements – including with the use of former East German Stasi.
Behnam sees that Russia and Iran will “continue to find ways to deepen their relationship, even as Russia is taking up more Iranian market share with oil exports to China. Nonetheless, both have more in common such as a visceral anti-Americanism, distrust and distaste for liberal and representative government, and a desire to be the military hegemon of their region. Together, Russia and Iran see their competition with America as zero-sum and are slated to rely on each other for the medium-term.”
Despite the differences between the two countries on various fronts, the Ukraine invasion brought these nations’ mutual interests to the forefront and led to greater cooperation.
Iran looks to Russia for future political backing
Iran-watchers had predicted the sale of Iranian-made drones to Russia during the Tehran meetings last week. However, Iranian networks, a harbinger of the current arms deals between the two countries, started to provide more advanced weapons, such as RPGs and anti-tank missiles, to Moscow months ago.
“The Islamic Republic understands its relationship to Putin’s Russia and has long played the role of junior partner. But the potential sale, supply, or transfer of Iranian drones to Russia stands to change this trend,” says Behnam.
This past April, Russia attempted to use mercenaries recruited from Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria to fight in Ukraine. During the same time, Iran was assisting Russia with smuggling weapons to Iraq. Russia and Iran, together, are strongly abacking the Assad Regime in Syria.
The invasion of Ukraine is a “harsh and difficult issue,” said Khamenei during the press op for his meeting with Putin last week. However, he enunciated, “in the case of Ukraine, if you had not taken the initiative, the other side would have caused the war with its own initiative.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader, ingratiating himself to Putin’s ears, remarked that “if the road is open to Nato, it knows no boundaries and if it was not stopped in Ukraine, they would start the same war some time later under the pretext of Crimea.”
Iran must “rely on the patronage of any superpower as a security anchor,” explains Ziabari. “Presently, Iran has no chance of rebuilding its adversarial relations with the United States, so being in league with the Western superpower is essentially out of question.”
There is another angle where the two have a lot in common, says Behnam, which is Iran’s notoriety as experts in sanction bustings, something that “Russia is looking to tap into given the economic sanctions it is facing due to its invasion of Ukraine.”
Elaborating further, Behnam continued that “Russia and Iran both are subject to American sanctions for a panoply of reasons and have therefore sought creative ways to get around this powerful financial tool while attempting to signal that they are not as diplomatically isolated as the West may wish.”
The former Director of an intelligence service in Latin America, who declined to have his name used, indicated that his country had found evidence that during the past few years, Iran had been known to assist in washing money for Venezuela, drug cartels, and Hezbollah: All of whom are part of an emerging global black market of actors who are sanctioned and frozen out of international trade, and thus must find a new means to trade in money and weapons.
The risks of closser Russian-Iranian relations are many, say experts. In the context of Ukraine, Tehran’s desire to supply Moscow with more weapons, thus undercutting US and EU sanctions against Russia, is a serious threat.
Iranian hackers could be enlisted to team-up with Russia’s large, government-endorsed, hacker networks to create mayhem in Ukraine. This would allow without Iran ever “getting its hands dirty” through overt military involvement in the conflict.
More destabilizing for the current world order is that the duo, plus China, could undercut the dollar based financial system and begin to use another currency – or digital currency – which would take the West out of their financial loop. For a country, like Ukraine, which is on financial thin ice, a destabilization of the dollar would create grave financial concerns for the Ukrainian Hryvnia.
The White House’s opposition to return to oil and gas production and exports policies can help keep prices high – something that suits both Iran and Russia. Likewise, due to internal pressures, it remains probable that a new “Iran Nuclear Deal” will not be obtained, however the US will continue attempting to curry favor with Tehran to make one succeed.
Experts say that the rise of a Russian-Iran energy monopoly may soon become a reality, something that would give the autocratic regimes greater leverage in future negotiations. In the lead up to Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, many American energy experts noted that eastern Ukraine had large potential for energy exploitation – something that Putin wished to have under his control so that his corner on the gas and oil market was not challenged.
Despite the worrying developments, few offered reasons for optimism about how the West could now confront the new Russian-Iranian threat.
Garry Kasparov, a world champion chess player and a leader of the Russian opposition said, “There have been many warnings, but when it comes to standing up to dictatorships like Iran and Russia,” this experience teaches us a central lesson: “Borders cannot protect us if our free world hosts won’t take action.”
For Ukraine, it seems, there is little reason to expect good things to come of the revived Russian-Iranian partnership.