Iran and Russia currently compromise with each other, more than ever. Since 2007 when the Russian president traveled to Iran for the first time in 50 years, he has visited Iran twice (in 2015 and 2017) and was warmly welcomed on each visit. He has had several hours of meetings with the Iranian Supreme leader and president. During the nuclear talks, which lasted for nearly a decade, the Russians accompanied Iran more than others. The two countries are also standing together on the issue of Syria.
Putin visits the Supreme Leader immediately after arriving in Tehran. The repeated issue of negligence and annoyance on Bushehr's Nuclear Power Plant was forgotten; the Russian S-300 fly in Iran and Iran withdraws its complaint. Military commanders announce buying important equipment such as tanks and fighter planes from Russia, and Russia tries to join Iran in the Shanghai treaty…
These are recent headlines that have led to various analyses on Iran-Russia relations, showing a common outcome: a close relationship between Iran and Russia.
Particularly after the Ukraine event, and as a result of the boycotting of Russia by the West, the proximity was even greater. Many analysts believe that having a common enemy (the United States) has caused a closer relationship between the two countries, giving the opportunity to the Islamic Republic to take a long step towards improving its capabilities, specifically in the military field.
One year after the Islamic Revolution and the capture of the American Embassy in Tehran by revolutionary students, the United States cut all ties with Iran and the Islamic Republic was subjected to the most severe financial, commercial, and especially military sanctions imposed by the West and the United States over the 38 years. Although both superpowers (the East and the West) were the enemies of the Islamic Republic, and independency on them was one of the main slogans of the Revolution, some reasons (including the prevention of Iran's re-engagement with the United States, as well as Iran's leniency with the activities of the Tudeh Party inside the country) led the eastern power to change their policy. Therefore, although the relation between the two countries was sometimes severely broken, it never ceased. Now, 25 years after the collapse of the eastern power, Iran's relations with its heritage have entered a new phase.
Is it a practical alliance?
The Russian-Iranian alliance seems to be logical, based on four reasons. First, Russia and Iran have a common desire to eliminate the post-Cold War order in the Middle East, dominated by the US. The second reason is due to the results of Russia's support for Iran during the nuclear talks, playing an important role in Iran's interests by building a reactor in Iran and their help during the P5+1 negotiations to lift the sanctions. Third, the common interests of Iran and Russia in Syria have led them to operate joint military operations in order to save the Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Fourth, Russia wants to make use of the post-sanction economic opportunities in Iran. However, with a closer look at these seemingly common interests, the limitations and differences between them would be disclosed.
Meanwhile, when Russia and Iran experience periods of closer ties with the United States, their relationship grows cold. This approach is very prominent by Russia. Russia's goal is to achieve equality with American domination, which means accepting Moscow's interests from Washington and achieving their goal and gaining equality means they have been successful in their tactics and Iran is nothing but a tool for Russia. Therefore, when Russia's relations with the US is strengthened, its desire for forming an anti-American coalition with Iran disappears.
In the case of Syria, following the ambiguous goal of preservation of Assad's position, Tehran tries to show close cooperation with Russia; however, they seek conflicting interests. Russia is willing to prevent the collapse of Assad’s regime in order to keep its client in the region. Iran is also keen on continuing its cooperation with Syria. Their different views on the future of Syria have led the two countries to adopt different approaches. Within four decades, Russia has strengthened its cultural and military ties with the Assad government and its administrative system and wants to maintain it. Therefore, Bashar al-Assad himself is not a vital issue for Moscow. In fact, if Assad’s regime fails in Syria, it is more likely that Syria will better serve Russia's interests in the region. This is why Russia has made it clear that there is no "unbreakable bond" with Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Iran's role in the Syrian civil war focuses more on assisting the continuation of the Assad government. Iran's access to Syria is highly dependent on its relations with Assad that owes Tehran’s support during the Syrian civil war. Additionally, Iran has simultaneously trained and armed more than a hundred local militants under the name of the National Defense Forces.
There are also many economic opportunities for cooperation between Iran and Russia under the effect of lifting sanctions against Iran. Russia is expected to sell billions of dollars of armament to Iran, but the common military and economic interests have limitations. Although Russia has previously sold the tank and other weapons to Iran, it does not appear to be interested in selling more advanced weapons to Iran.
Except for the military-political constraints in the economic relations between Iran and Russia, in some ways, their main economic interests are in competition. For example, they are struggling with oil and gas issues to keep their share in markets. Iran has made it clear that it intends to regain its share in the market since signing the nuclear deal. Assuming Iran gains its share from the European oil market of 2012, Russia's share will fall by 10%. Similarly, Iran has also signed a deal with Iraq and Syria to construct gas pipelines from the Gulf fields to the port city of Tartarus in Syria; in this case, exporting the gas from there to Europe would be the worst part for Russia. Russians are not interested in competition in the natural gas markets.
On the other hand, energy is an important issue for Kremlin, based on two reasons. The first and foremost reason is that the Russian economy is dependent on its oil and gas resources (it constituted 50% of the federal budget in 2013). Oil price, a major issue for Putin, relies on subsidies and the subsidies are used to gain loyalty and support. Now that the price of oil is low, Russians apprehensively need it to rise again. But for Iranians, it does not seem logical to maintain their steady production. As a result, Iran has not only competed with Russia in this field, but has also won. The second reason, which is dominant in Russian foreign policy, is the use of its 30% share of the European energy market as a pressure tool. Although Moscow could potentially offset its financial losses by developing its energy market in other countries such as China, it would be very difficult to replace another pressure leverage on Europe.
Photojournalist & Documentary producer