The Emerging Moscow–Tehran Axis: Iranian Involvement in the Russian–Ukrainian War

The outbreak of the Russian–Ukrainian war has facilitated unprecedented military and economic cooperation between Russia and Iran, two very important pieces on the Eurasian Grand Chessboard envisioned by American geopolitician Zbigniew Brzezinski. Is this cooperation the sign of a deeper strategic realignment, or does it indicate a tactical partnership of convenience?

Historically, Russia and Iran have shared complex and multidimensional relations with each other since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states in 1521. Russia and Iran gradually developed extensive political, economic and cultural ties over the centuries. On the other hand, the relationship between the two states was characterized by periods of geopolitical competition, proxy wars and direct military conflicts. The two countries fought six wars (in 1651–1653, 1722–1723, 1796, 1804–1813, 1826–1828 and 1941) against each other; Russia intervened in Iran in 1909–1911 to crush the Iranian Constitutional Revolution; and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was locked in a serious military-political crisis with Iran in 1945–1946.

During the Cold War, the Imperial State of Iran, under the Pahlavi dynasty, forged a close military-political alliance with the US in opposition to Soviet Communism and southward expansionism. After the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran announced its opposition to both the US and the USSR, and waged a proxy war against the USSR and the USSR-backed Communist government in Afghanistan. The USSR, in its turn, provided extensive military aid to Iraq during the Iraqi–Iranian War (1980–1988). However, the USSR and Iran developed a partnership in the 1980s on the basis of their common opposition to the US and their respective geopolitical and geo-economic interests. Following the dissolution of the USSR, Russia and Iran expanded their political, military and economic ties, including in the sphere of nuclear technology.

Russia has been a major supplier of military equipment to Iran since the end of the Iraqi–Iranian War in 1988. It has enabled the Iranian nuclear program since the early 1990s, invited Iran to take part in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 2007, participated in a number of joint military exercises with Iran since 2014, closely collaborated with the Iranians in preserving the Syrian government in the Syrian Civil War, and strongly opposed the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the re-imposition of unilateral sanctions on Iran. Russian–Iranian bilateral trade was reduced by 65% between 2010 and 2015 owing to UN sanctions on Iran, but nearly quadrupled by 2022 following the removal of the UN sanctions. However, in spite of close political, economic and military collaboration, the relationship between Moscow and Tehran has not transformed into a full-fledged military-political alliance, and several points of discord have been noticed.

For instance, Russia has supported the United Nations sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2015, suspended arms sales to Iran, and refrained from interfering with Israeli operations against Iranian and pro-Iranian targets inside Syria. On its part, Iran has bickered with Russia on the Russian use of Iranian air bases to conduct operations in Syria, summoned the Russian ambassador over the Russian Embassy’s tweet on the 1943 Tehran Conference, and backed the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) against the Russian-backed Libyan National Army (LNA) following Turkish military intervention in Libya in 2020.

So, it is clear that on the eve of the Russian–Ukrainian War, Moscow and Tehran shared extensive but complex ties. The outbreak of the war, known as a “special military operation” in Russian official terminology, added a new dimension to the Russian–Iranian relationship. After the outbreak of the war on Feb. 24, 2022, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed his understanding with respect to Russia’s security concerns caused by the eastward expansion of NATO. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and the Secretary of the High Council for Human Rights Mohammad-Javad Larijani blamed NATO’s expansion for the outbreak of the war, but refrained from expressing explicit support for the Russian actions, instead calling for a ceasefire and a political solution to the conflict. Iran has so far abstained from voting on the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions that expressly condemn Russian actions with regard to Ukraine.

While Iran has refrained from explicitly supporting Russia, its political ties with Moscow have been upgraded significantly. Since the outbreak of the war, Putin has met Raisi thrice, in Ashgabat on June 29, 2022, in Tehran on July 19, 2022 and in Samarkand on Sept. 15, 2022, and held numerous telephone conversations with him so far. In addition, since February 2022, senior Russian officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, the Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, and the Secretary of the State Council Igor Levitin have visited Iran, and senior Iranian officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Amir-Abdollahian, the Minister of Defense Mohammad-Reza Ashtiani, the former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, and the Commander of the Law Enforcement Command Ahmad-Reza Radan have visited Russia. Moreover, Russia has supported Iranian entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and is negotiating with Iran on the conclusion of a 20-year strategic cooperation agreement.

In addition, Iran, the second most sanctioned state in the world, has predictably refrained from joining Western-imposed sanctions on Russia, which has overtaken Iran to become the first most sanctioned state in the world after the outbreak of the war. In fact, the war has facilitated the further growth of Russian–Iranian bilateral trade. Currently, the Russian–Iranian bilateral trade amounts to $5 billion, making Russia Iran’s fifth-largest trade partner, and during the Iranian fiscal year 2022–2023, Russia invested $2.76 billion in Iran, making it the largest investor in the Islamic Republic. In July 2022, Russia and Iran signed an energy deal worth $40 billion. Moreover, for the first time in 2022, Russia has imported more industrial goods from Iran than the latter has imported from the former. In June 2022, the Iranian Minister of Petroleum Javad Owji optimistically (but somewhat unrealistically) predicted that the Russian–Iranian bilateral non-military trade would grow to as much as $40 billion by the end of 2023.

Furthermore, after decades of disinterest, Russia has started demonstrating considerable interest in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which connects Russia to India via Azerbaijan and Iran, following a major break in Russian–Western economic relations owing to the outbreak of the war. In order to strengthen this trade route, Russia decided to finance the construction of the Rasht–Astara line and pledged to invest $3.5 billion in revamping Iranian infrastructure by 2030. The project is beneficial for both sanctions-stricken Russia and Iran, and holds considerable geo-economic value for the involved states.

Finally, the outbreak of the war has facilitated the growth of robust military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran. During the initial stages of the war, the Russian Armed Forces lacked a sufficient number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Since August 2022, Iran has supplied Russia with more than 1,700 UAVs, including Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 (rechristened as Geran-1 and Geran-2) suicide UAVs and Mohajer-6 reconnaissance and strike UAVs, and is helping Russia in building a UAV factory that can produce at least 6,000 UAVs. Russia has used the low-cost Iranian-origin UAVs to destroy Ukrainian electrical substations, bridges, arms depots, military and intelligence buildings, and other infrastructure. Moreover, Iran has allegedly sent some 300,000 artillery shells and 1 million rounds of ammunition to Russia between October 2022 and April 2023. In exchange, Iran is seeking to obtain high-end military equipment, including Su-35 fighter jets, Yak-130 combat trainer, attack helicopters, radars and air defence systems, from Russia. Iranian pilots are reportedly being trained in Russia to operate Su-35 jets. In response to the deepening Russian–Iranian military cooperation, the US and the European Union have imposed further sanctions on the two states.

In addition, Russia has transferred captured Western military equipment to Iran, presumably for reverse engineering. Russia’s growing military ties with Iran has been one of the factors that has so far prevented Israel, a steadfast US ally, from supplying Ukraine with a significant number of equipment, as Israel fears that captured Israeli equipment might end up in the hands of Iran. And last but not the least, Russia and Iran, in collaboration with the Syrian government, are reportedly plotting to escalate attacks on US troops in Syria in order to force their exit from the country.

However, in spite of the burgeoning political, economic and military partnership, Moscow and Tehran have not yet managed to forge a full-fledged military-political alliance. In fact, both Russian and Iranian actions seem to indicate that the partnership is one of tactical convenience, rather than genuine strategic compatibility. For instance, Iran, unlike Belarus, Syria and North Korea, has so far refrained from directly supporting Russian actions with regard to Ukraine, denied sending military equipment to Russia, refused to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea or four former Ukrainian regions, and expressed its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Meanwhile, Russia has backed the statement of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that called for bilateral negotiations or International Court of Justice (ICJ) arbitration with regard to the dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over the Persian Gulf islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, provoking a strong diplomatic backlash from Iran.

Moreover, Russian and Iranian strategic interests in the Middle East, South Caucasus and Central Asia are not always coterminous or even complementary. For instance, Russia has remained largely neutral in the Saudi–Iranian, Emirati–Iranian and Iranian–Israeli proxy conflicts, because Russia seeks to maintain cordial and/or working partnerships with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel. In a similar vein, Russia has remained neutral in the Yemeni and recent Afghan–Iranian conflicts. On its part, Iran is locked into a geopolitical conflict with Azerbaijan, which has concluded a de facto military alliance with Russia, and Iran is discreetly backing Tajikistan in the Tajikistani–Kyrgyzstani conflict, in which Russia seeks to play the role of a neutral arbitrator. So, there are inherent limits to the Russian–Iranian partnership.

Therefore, while the outbreak of the Russian–Ukrainian War has resulted in the intensification of the already comprehensive Russian–Iranian ties, it is unlikely to metamorphose into a full-fledged de jure military-political alliance in the near future. However, the tactical and transactional partnership between Moscow and Tehran is likely to persist in the short run.

[Photo by, via Wikimedia Commons]

Md. Himel Rahman is a post-graduate student of Security Studies at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and a freelance analyst on international and strategic affairs. His articles have been published in The Geopolitics, the South Asian Voices, The Daily Star, The Daily Observer, the Dhaka Tribune and other platforms.

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