This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.
Although recently Russia has firmly allied itself with the Iran-led Shia axis in the Middle East, Russian-Iranian relations are far from the strategic partnership they are often seen as.
Despite increased military cooperation, Russian-Iranian relations remain tense and ambiguous, bearing the potential for both further rapprochement and increased rivalry.
Since 2013 Russia has returned to the Middle East as a major and active player. It seeks to take advantage of the new post–Arab Spring situation to regain global power status, equal to that of the U.S. and more generally of the entire West.
This new power position is meant to give Russia a better bargaining position vis-à-vis the West in negotiating the relaxation of sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine.
Additionally, Russia’s renewed influence in the region is aimed at potentially expanding trade opportunities for the struggling Russian economy.
Even more important, it allows the Kremlin to present its citizens with an image of national greatness that is crucial to sustaining the regime’s domestic legitimacy in times of economic trouble.
In 2015, Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran formed an anti-ISIS coalition, one that in fact opposed all Sunni Islamists and their regional supporters. Since 2015 Russia has fought alongside Iranian forces and Iran-backed Hezbollah in Syria and continues to supply Bashar al-Assad’s regime with arms.
Iran is represented in Syria by its own soldiers and the fighters of the Lebanese Hezbollah. No accurate figures are available, but the most popular estimates mention about 1,500–3,000 Iranian soldiers and up to 10,000 Hezbollah militiamen that have taken part in the fighting, including 1,000–1,500 killed in action.
The Russians have mostly confined themselves to air strikes, gathering intelligence, and assisting their partners with logistics.
Furthermore, when the sanctions on Iran were lifted, the Kremlin announced it would complete the suspended delivery of S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile systems to Iran and claimed to have concluded an $8 billion arms deal with Tehran.
More recently, Russian sources revealed an extraordinary move by the Iranian leadership that allowed Russians to deploy their bombers at the Iranian Hamadan air base in order to carry out attacks against the enemies of Assad’s regime in Syria. The revelation led to a quick termination of the secret accord, but this episode, coupled with the rest of the above-mentioned items, led many commentators to speculate on the coalescing Russian-Iranian strategic alliance.
However, Russian-Iranian relations do not amount to a strategic alliance but rather to a form of pragmatic cooperation between potential rivals.
In economic terms, Iran is only a minor trade partner of Russia. Between 1996 and 2008, Iran’s portion of Russia’s international trade volume did not rise above 0.8 percent. In the first six months of 2016, Iran was only the 19th largest economic partner for Russian non-primary exports. During this same period their mutual trade amounted to only $856 million [i]—which already represented a 71 percent increase over the value of mutual trade in the first six months of 2015.
In contrast, Russia and Iran are direct rivals in the global energy market, and gas and oil revenues are crucial to the budgets of both countries. Hence, it is hardly surprising that for many years, Russia and Iran have failed to agree on the division of Caspian Sea resources.
Iran seems to have purposefully put off resolving the issue, which could be interpreted as a desire to achieve a stronger negotiating position. Meanwhile, both countries continue to strengthen their Caspian Sea navies.
In the diplomatic arena, Iran has often appeared to time its official declarations in such a way as to make Moscow look bad in the eyes of the international community, probably to alienate it from the West.
For example, the first time Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly claimed that Israel would be wiped off the map was during an official visit of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to Jerusalem. Naturally, Russia was immediately accused of backing the ayatollah’s genocidal aspirations. Moreover, Iranian officials and politicians took few pains to conceal their suspicious if not hostile relation toward their northern neighbor.
Iranian accusations of treacherous behavior were particularly loud after Russia froze the S-300 deal. The delivery of the missile system was part of an $800 million contract signed in 2007, but the Kremlin was reluctant to complete the deal and in 2010 suspended the delivery. Russia stuck to its decision even in the face of a subsequent Iranian lawsuit.
However, when the international sanctions on Iran were lifted, the Kremlin was forced to announce it would complete the deal, and in 2016 Iran said it had received the first batch of the missile systems.
After the international sanctions on Iran were lifted, Russia felt it could not afford to be more righteous than the West and had to act to protect its interests in Iran against the growing competition.
Earlier this year, Russian official media announced an $8 billion arms deal with Iran. According to the reports, Iran planned to purchase Su-30 warplanes, Yak-30 training aircraft, various military helicopters, K-300 coastal defense systems, new surface ships and new diesel-electric submarines. The news further fueled speculation about a significant Russian-Iranian rapprochement.
However, the fate of the deal remains uncertain. Iranians are known for their skill in leading on their partners with hollow promises, and Russians are equally notorious for their tendency to sell the bear’s skin before they have caught it.
The Russian and Iranian joint fighting in Syria to protect Assad’s regime is usually portrayed as a sign of their political alliance. More recently, Iran’s agreeing to allow Russian aviation to use the Hamadan air base was held out by many analysts and journalists as ultimate proof of the strategic nature of this cooperation.
But the Hamadan incident reveals how fragile and forced this cooperation in fact is. First, the Kremlin shamelessly disclosed the secret arrangement for the sake of domestic propaganda needs, bragging to the home audience about its international achievement.
The revelation caused a major scandal in the Iranian parliament, which then forced the Iranian leadership to back out of the deal and expel the Russians. The sheer fact of a Russian military presence on Iranian soil, coupled with Russia’s reckless behavior, was perceived as arrogance and an insult to Iranian national pride. Needless to say, this behavior is not the sort one would expect from true strategic partners.
Moscow will hardly admit it, but it is seriously worried by the recent turn in Iranian diplomacy, which is shaping up to be a multipronged policy with greater potential for rapprochement with the West.
Such a development is likely to spur Russia to outbid the West in the benefits it offers Iran, but in the long run it could also lead to a greater divergence of interests and an exacerbation of already existing disagreements, turning the partners of convenience into rivals.
Dima Course has completed his Ph.D. dissertation in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University (Israel). He is affiliated with ARCDC–Ariel University Research Center for Defense and Communication.
[i] In the list of the top-importers of the 25 main Russian non-primary products for 2015 Iran is mentioned only twice: as an importer of 7 percent of Russian wheat and 4 percent of sawn timber. For comparison, Turkey, in spite of downed Russian jet in Syria, is mentioned 9 times in the list, three times as a main importer of specific products (21 percent, 30 percent and 39 percent).