While Tehran invests efforts to get closer to Russia, Israel should maintain a dialogue with Moscow to safeguard its military and diplomatic freedom of action in Syria, despite the intensifying standoff between Russia and the West.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Moscow from Jan. 19-20 was his first significant diplomatic visit since entering office last August. At the meeting in the Kremlin with President Vladimir Putin, Raisi declared that there are no restrictions on the development of ties with Russia, which he described as being “permanent and strategic.” He expressed his desire to “increase the level of trade and economic cooperation several times over.” He also stated that a draft document on bilateral strategic cooperation for the next 20 years had been submitted to his Russian hosts. This was to replace the partnership agreement of 2001, which expired in 2021.
Putin’s approach to cooperation with Iran and the desire to expand it was more reserved. The two also discussed ongoing talks in Vienna on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program. They also discussed the situations in Syria and Afghanistan.
In a speech addressing the plenary session of the Duma (the lower chamber of parliament), which was met with a standing ovation, Raisi forecast the dissolution of NATO and spoke of Russia and Iran’s shared experience of having to contend with hostile U.S. policy, accompanied by economic sanctions.
There was also a clear religious aspect to the visit. The head of the Russian Council of Muftis greeted Raisi on behalf of 20 million Russian Muslims and conducted a prayer session with him at the Moscow Grand Mosque. As a result, Raisi was the first Muslim leader to interrupt a meeting with Putin for 10 minutes for evening prayer at the Kremlin.
Raisi sought to reach a breakthrough in bilateral relations, which in recent decades have always been viewed against the backdrop of Iranian historical memory of Russia and the Soviet Union as an imperialist occupying power. However, Raisi’s political opponents claimed that he was endangering Iran by entrusting its fate to the Russians.
The common objective of Russia and Iran remains opposition to U.S. domination of international affairs. However, both states suffer from economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and security threats from Washington.
Therefore, the hasty pullout of the Americans from Afghanistan was perceived as a strategic gain both in Tehran and Moscow. Moreover, it undermined the global image of the Biden administration and removed an American presence near their countries.
During nuclear talks in Vienna, Russia plays an active role as a mediator. Russia, the closest country to Iran among the P5+1, has blamed the breakdown of the original nuclear agreement on the United States and favors the removal of sanctions. This would pave the way for Russian companies to work in Iran, and allow Tehran to buy Russian-manufactured weapons.
Nevertheless, Russia does not want Iran to go nuclear. Instead, it attempts to present coordination with the United States and the Europeans as an example of practical cooperation with the West, precisely in the middle of the current Ukraine crisis.
Over the last decade, Russia and Iran have tightened their military cooperation, defending Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. On the eve of Raisi’s visit to Moscow, three Russian warships anchored at the port of Chabahar in Iran and participated in a joint maneuver with the Iranian and Chinese navies in the Arabian Sea.
In recent years, Russian and Iranian fleets have conducted similar regular exercises, and China takes part from time to time. In October 2021, Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri visited Moscow and announced that Tehran would purchase fighter aircraft and combat helicopters from Russia. Previously, both states had preferred a more discreet relationship.
Raisi had expectations that the visit might promote arms deals with Russia offering financing. Instead, when returning to Tehran, Raisi announced that important agreements were reached on energy and agriculture.
Russia benefits from the sanctions on Iranian oil exports. It cooperates closely on oil prices with Gulf states that the Iranians view as their primary external threat. Russian commentators have expressed doubts that Russia and Iran would succeed in upgrading bilateral ties, mainly due to Russian companies’ fear of US sanctions. They also assessed that Moscow would not subsidize Iranian military procurement, especially as Tehran does not pay its debts.
Russian experts have also wondered how Raisi’s charm offensive dovetails with Moscow’s attempts to maintain good relations with Israel and turning a blind eye to its airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria.
As a result, Russia will probably continue to adhere to its approach of maintaining a balance in its ties with the two countries while trying to ensure that the exchange of blows between Tehran and Jerusalem on Syrian soil does not boil over into a broader escalation, which might be detrimental to Russian interests.
In January, Putin’s first meeting with Raisi, and his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in October, show contrasting treatment. While the official photo of Raisi’s visit contained a long empty table where the leaders sat far apart from each other (with the official explanation being COVID-19 restrictions), Bennett was photographed in intimate conversation with Putin at his summer retreat in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Raisi’s visit showed that Tehran is more eager for closer bilateral relations than Moscow. But, of course, Putin will gladly promote his country’s economic interests. Still, he understands that Tehran lacks any real alternative apart from its reliance on China.
On the other hand, Putin has serious reasons not to emphasize Russia’s support for Iran. Accordingly, any substantial expansion of Russian-Iranian trade, including any arms deals, is on hold until a breakthrough is reached in Vienna.
As far as Israel is concerned, the result of this visit was a mixed bag. There was no Russian public pressure on Iran to adopt greater flexibility on the nuclear issue. Also, no criticism was leveled at Israeli attacks in Syria.
As Tehran invests efforts to improve relations with Russia, Israel will have to maintain a dialogue with Moscow to safeguard its military and diplomatic freedom of action in Syria, despite the current growing tensions between Russia and the West.
Daniel Rakov is an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East and great-power competition in the region. He served in the IDF for more than 20 years, mainly in the Israeli Military Intelligence (Aman). From 2019 to 2021, he was a research fellow at the Russian Studies Program in the Institute for National Security Studies.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.