OpinionMiddle East

The intricate Russian-Iranian web

The mullahs’ Islamic Republic is a key Russian national security interest.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Nov. 23, 2015. Credit: english.khamenei.ir via Wikimedia Commons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Nov. 23, 2015. Credit: english.khamenei.ir via Wikimedia Commons.
Erfan Fard
Erfan Fard is a counter-terrorism analyst and Middle East Studies researcher based in Washington, D.C.

Few alliances are scrutinized as closely as that between Iran and Russia. Their partnership presents a dynamic interplay of politics, strategy and historical ties. Understanding it yields valuable insights into Iran’s prominent role in Russia’s overarching security calculus and its potential ramifications beyond the Middle East.

The backdrop to this alliance is the changing dynamics of U.S. involvement in the region. Recently, the U.S. has been hesitant to involve itself in the Middle East, resulting in a shift in the balance of power. Russia has exploited this in order to become a potential architect of a new era in the Middle East, filling the vacuum left by the U.S. Iran, recognizing this shift, is aligning itself with Russia—and China as well—as it seeks to assert itself as a hegemonic power in the region.

Iran occupies a pivotal position in Russia’s national security policy. Russian influence in Iran during the Soviet era laid the foundation for this alliance, but contemporary Russia maintains a more nuanced relationship with Iran, collaborating on specific issues while safeguarding its own interests.

Geopolitically, Iran’s strategic location offers Russia a valuable foothold in the Middle East, countering U.S. dominance. Moreover, Iran enhances Russia’s influence, which contributes to stabilizing this tumultuous part of the world. The economic interests shared between the two nations, particularly in the energy sector, further solidify their strategic partnership, creating a win-win situation for both countries.

The Russian factor has even influenced Iran’s domestic politics. For example, it makes a military coup against the mullahs’ regime very unlikely. Moreover, without Kremlin involvement, the succession process in Iran to the post-Khamenei era will be exceptionally challenging. The possibility that domestic Iranian forces might succeed in bringing about a transition to a democratic regime is also very uncertain without the approval of the Kremlin and the Russian Federal Security Service(SVR).

As noted, the roots of the Iran-Russia alliance trace back to Soviet era. Historically, the USSR and its intelligence agency the KGB were at odds with the late Shah of Iran. Consequently, the USSR provided support to Islamic-Marxist groups opposed to the Shah’s regime.

Notably, a significant number of these terrorist groups received training in Palestinian terrorist camps under PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s auspices. Through this network, radical militias established connections with Cuba and Libya. Interestingly, when Iran’s intelligence agency SAVAK shared information with the CIA linking the KGB to terrorism, the CIA hesitated to fully accept the reports.

Following Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolt, Russia significantly influenced various branches of Iran’s military and intelligence services. For example, Russia assisted the Iranian regime with satellite imagery during the prolonged Iran-Iraq war. Additionally, a large number of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force members received training in Russia. Thus, it is likely that a considerable number of powerful regime leaders are Russophiles.

The Iran-Russia partnership is fortified by the two countries’ shared opposition to Western interference. Both nations have faced criticism and sanctions from Western powers, uniting them in their desire for a multipolar world order. Russia sees Iran as an indispensable ally in challenging Western hegemony and creating what it sees as a global power structure that respects the sovereignty of all nations.

At the heart of the Iran-Russia alliance lie personal relationships, particularly between the countries’ respective dictators: Ali Khamenei and President Vladimir Putin. Their rapport, founded on mutual respect and convergent interests, is of immense significance. In addition, Russia’s support for Iran’s nuclear program and its diplomatic backing on the international stage are vital for the mullahs’ regime, enabling its pursuit of regional influence and safeguarding national security.

However, the relationship is a complex one. The two countries hold different positions on regional issues, such as the Syria conflict, which underscores the need for diplomatic finesse and careful navigation of their relationship.

One of the key concerns arising from their alliance is the proliferation of advanced drone technology by the IRGC, which is controlled by Khamenei. The transfer of this technology to hostile actors, such as Russian forces in Ukraine, adds another layer of complexity. The IRGC’s drone proliferation raises concerns about the potential use of this technology in conflicts beyond the Middle East, contributing to the destabilization of various regions across the globe.

Iran also plays a significant role in the ongoing Armenia-Azerbaijan crisis, in which Russia is also involved. The Islamic Republic of Shiite mullahs plays the role of a regional actor with historical ties to both countries. Its involvement is influenced by various factors, including geopolitical interests, ethnic and cultural connections with the involved nations, and concerns about security and stability in the South Caucasus region.

The ongoing crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan continues to escalate, posing a serious threat to regional stability and peace. Russia, bogged down in Ukraine, has recently failed to come to the aid of its ally Armenia in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Historically, Iran has also maintained close ties with Armenia. Moreover, Iran is a member of international organizations like the OSCE Minsk Group that are involved in mediating and facilitating negotiations to achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Iran aims to balance its relationships with Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also seeks to escalate the conflict on behalf of Armenia, thus serving Russian interests. For example, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the IRGC claim that Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad is present in Azerbaijan. As a result, they use their propaganda machinery to disseminate hatred of Baku.

In sum, the relationship between Russia and Iran is a complex interplay of strategic interests, intelligence needs, historical ties and shifting global dynamics. The rising influence of Russia in the Middle East and Iran’s strategic position in a changing world underline the significance of this alliance and its potential impact on the region’s future. Despite international isolation stemming from their actions in the Ukraine conflict—which have included the supply of IRGC drones to Russia—the two countries continue to exert influence on the global stage.

This strategic relationship has the potential to reshape the dynamics of the Middle East and beyond, making it a pivotal aspect of the evolving geopolitical landscape.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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