Axis of Convenience: Limitations to Russia-Iran Cooperation

Written by Taehwa Hong

Introduction

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War in support of the Assad regime in 2015 marked the first Russian military action in the Middle East since the invasion of Afghanistan[1] in 1979. Russian air force provided the Syrian government and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) air cover, curbing rebel advances and turning the tide of the war in their favor. The air campaign not only demonstrated Russia’s expanding role in the region but also its increasing ties with Iran[2]. The axis of anti-US sentiment and strategy is at the center of their partnership, which blossomed in earnest with Russia’s blockade of UN sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program in early 2000s[3]. Rightwing analysts from conservative organizations have long considered their relationship a coherent alliance in which they support each other most of the time. However, this paper argues that the positive relations between Russia and Iran serve as a marriage of convenience; Russia exploits Iran as a pawn in its geopolitical chess game to resurge as a hegemon with client states it can exploit, and Iran uses Russia to serve its own interest in expanding Shia influence in the Middle East. Economic rivalry, the role of US domestic politics and Russia’s broader regional interests such as strengthening ties with Israel and Gulf countries prevent Russia and Iran from becoming committed allies and cause them to remain inconsistent partners instead.

Misperception of Russia-Iran Relations and the Concept of Alliance

Conservative analysts’ popular misperception of Russia-Iran relations revolves around the fallacy that as anti-US states, Russia and Iran are close partners with unshifting allegiance. Conservative think-tanks and policy groups in particular continue to suggest that as revisionist states, Iran and Russia reached a level of cooperation that borders outright military and political alliance. For instance, Marina Calculli of the Aspen Institute claimed in 2015 that the Russian intervention in Syria was intended to “strengthen existing transnational alliances (between Moscow and Tehran)”[4]. Similarly, the Heritage Foundation reports in 2001 and 2010 respectively pointed at Moscow’s overt assistance to Iran in “developing weapons of mass destruction”[5] as one of the biggest geopolitical challenge for the U.S as it signals an alignment of two major anti-US forces. Such views appear to assume that the main Russian and Iranian foreign policy goal is to undermine American hegemony. Robert Freedman of The National Council for Eurasian and East European Research also argued that “as long as the conservatives remain in power, the alliance is likely to continue”[6], and that weapons trade is a strong evidence of their strengthening ties. David Tucker of Ashbrook went as far as to argue that Russia deserved to be listed as one the Axis of Evil countries for its transfer of weapon technology to Iran, and that it only avoided the disgrace because the Bush administration did not want to antagonize Moscow[7].

The theoretical concept of an alliance can also help us evaluate the extent of the partnership between Russia and Iran. According to Stephen Walt, an alliance can be defined as “a formal or informal arrangement for security cooperation between two or more sovereign states”[8]. He adds that a formal treaty is unnecessary as long as there is undisputable “commitment.” An example of an alliance is the one between the US and Israel, which lacks a formal mutual defense treaty, but is still widely considered an alliance.  Scholars like Glenn Snyder focus on the security aspects of alliances: “alliances are defined as associations of states for the use of military force” and allies have “expectations that they will have each other’s support in disputes with other states.”[9]

Presented with such definitions, analysts could argue that Russia and Iran are allies, given Russia’s military intervention in Syria and its support for Iran against western sanctions. Granted, such Russian policies helped foster Iranian power in the region. Russia has also long supported Iran even in agendas that do not directly concern Moscow, such as by helping build up IRGC and Hezbollah—Iran’s proxy in Lebanon—in their conflict against the U.S.[10] Russia was also instrumental in preventing what it perceived as successive White House administrations’ attempt for regime change in Iran.[11] Anti-Americanism is the crux of such a partnership, a lynchpin that could persist along with American hegemony.

In reality however, Russia and Iran’s central foreign policy goals are broader and more pragmatic than mere anti-Americanism. In fact, as will be investigated later, their pursuit of respective national interests allows them to occasionally align with the U.S against each other, directly contradicting the notion of a strong alliance. Admittedly, traditional allies can also have disagreements and disputes. For instance, South Korea and the U.S. have clashing trade interests; but the American security guarantee for the republic has become a “foreign-policy axiom”[12]. On the other hand, not only do Russia and Iran have conflicting areas of interests, but even in places like Syria where their interests seemingly converge, deep distrust and cold pragmatism plague their relations. More importantly, Russia’s support for Iran is shallow; it is ready to undermine Iran given that it is in its interest, and it has precisely been doing that in the recent decade. In essence, the relationship lacks the “commitment” that Walt discussed, as mentioned above.

Collision Between Russia’s Geopolitical Interests and Iran’s Strive for Regional Hegemony

The most critical inhibiting factor in Russia-Iran relations is the two countries’ vastly different security interests. Iran’s foremost regional goals are countering Sunni influence and ensuring regime survival through whatever means necessary, including nuclear proliferation and exploitation of proxies[13]. These do not come in tandem with Russia’s goals, which are to maintain stability in the Middle East and maintain its partners, including Iran’s archrivals Israel and Saudi Arabia[14]. Ultimately, Russia aspires to reemerge as the rule-maker globally; it is simply using Iran’s regional ambitions to that end, uninterested in their actual success.

Historical interferences by foreign powers and international isolation in the contemporary world rendered Iran very sensitive to threats to regime survival, in turn rendering its foreign policy hawkish. During the 19th and early 20th century, Iran was the victim of the so-called “Great Game”—political maneuvers by Russia and Britain to divide their influence in Iran[15]. In 1953, American and British governments conspired to topple the democratically elected Mossadegh regime, resurrecting the Shah whom many Iranians over time came to believe was a pawn of the U.S[16]. In this context, the clerical regime in post-revolution Iran exercised an aggressive foreign policy, culminating in the creation of its nuclear program. Surrounded by pro-US states in the region, Iran viewed the development of nuclear weapons as a ticket to the regime’s survival and deterrence to the foreign interference that had plagued the nation for centuries[17]. Despite the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, Iran still seems to be harboring ambitions to become a nuclear state, or at least to leverage its nuclear program against adversaries[18]

In the same vein, maintaining the Shia Crescent has been central to Iranian foreign policy in recent decades. Tehran hopes to sustain Shia influence across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon against threats from the West and Sunni powers[19]. To counterbalance Saudi Arabian and Israeli influence, which Iran sees as existential threats and part of a western conspiracy to overthrow the regime, the theocracy has also been exploiting non-state proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. As it fears conventional war with Gulf states, Iran resorts to asymmetric warfare using terrorism and propaganda. Hezbollah, working closely with the IRGC, is suspected to have masterminded multiple attacks on Jewish and American targets around the world, most notably the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing that killed 63 people[20]. Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait are also used to exercise political influence against Saudi Arabia, by coercing national authorities and breeding violent fundamentalism[21]. The combination of nuclear and proxy threats undermines the American-led security order in the region, which has led many to believe that Russia—a major revisionist state—fully supports Iran’s actions.

However, Russia clearly prefers stability to instability in the Middle East, where it seeks to rise as a major powerhouse; it therefore challenges Iran on several fronts. Iran’s nuclear program for instance could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, due to which unnerved powers such as Saudi Arabia would pursue their own nuclear arsenals to preclude Iran’s asymmetrical advantage[22]. Nuclear proliferation in the region could endorse dangerous foreign policy actions under the shield of nuclear bombs, which could harm Russian investment opportunities and political influence. Granted, Russia has long shielded Iran from international sanctions, “ruling out international encirclement as an option”[23]. However, after several failed attempts to negotiate with Iran itself, Russia joined UNSC Resolutions 1696 and 1737 “demanding that Iran halt all nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities”[24].

Moreover, in 2010, then Russian President Medvedev suspended S-300 sales to Iran, citing technical issues[25]. Given that the S-300 surface-to-air system was expected to deter an American or Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, such a move opened up the possibility of a preventive strike. This decisive measure reaffirmed the notion that Russia was an important player to consult with when it comes to stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, by mounting pressure on Iran, Tehran would be “more amenable to Moscow’s wishes through realizing how dependent it was on Russia”[26]. Putin proceeded with the delivery in 2015 April, when JCPOA was already on the horizon and the chances of military intervention were significantly low. Given Israel’s record of dismantling nuclear programs in Iraq in 1981[27] and Syria in 2007[28] through airstrikes, the suspension considerably exposed Iran to possible Israeli attacks. While traditional allies maintain mutual security commitment, Russia was willing to allow the U.S and Israel to make credible military threats to Iran for its own stature and interests. Such calculative double-dealing shows that Moscow does not necessarily see Tehran as an outright ally.

Moreover, Russia takes a deliberately ambiguous stance on Iran’s confrontation with its adversaries because Iran is still a potential partner of Moscow. Russia, in the recent decade, has been strengthening ties with Gulf states. Putin has personally invested much in improving relations with the monarchs in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and is “determined not to let Iran become an obstacle to Russia’s own relations across the Middle East”[29]. He frequently hosts Saudi officials in Moscow, expressing tacit support for their policies in Bahrain and Yemen, which are the focal points of Saudi-Iran rivalry[30]. In July 2017 Moscow concluded a preliminary military cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia worth $3.5 billion, through which Riyadh requested transfer of military technology, ostensibly to keep Iran at bay[31]. Keeping in mind that Saudi Arabia is an important player in setting oil prices, Russia has a strategic necessity to maintain close ties with Riyadh, much to the chagrin of Tehran.

Similarly, Moscow hopes to maintain amiable relations with Israel. Putin reportedly told Prime Minister Netanyahu in September 2016 that if Israel “lent Russia support in Syria, Russia would in return help them contain Iran in the region”[32]. Although Israel is a key U.S ally, it halted arms sales to Georgia after the Russia-Georgia War in 2008. Wikileaks divulged a diplomatic cable clearly signaling that Moscow was “satisfied” with Israel’s decision and readily accepted it. Russia sees as much opportunity in its relations with Israel as in its ties with Iran. Especially at a time when Washington’s leadership in the region is in doubt[33], Russia’s expanding connections with regional countries is helping Moscow reach a de-facto main power status in the Middle East. Russia’s pragmatic approach to Saudi Arabia and Israel spells problem for Iran, whose foreign policy success depends on diminishing their influence. Since Iran essentially views its relationship with them as zero-sum games in which one’s gain is the other’s loss[34], Russia’s multilateral links preclude a formation of a Russia-Iran alliance. Admittedly, countries—especially major powers with outreaching diplomatic relations—tend to maintain connections with states that are at odds with their allies. However, the inexorably hostile relations between Iran and its foes in Saudi Arabia and Israel entail there is an inherent lack of commitment between Russia and Iran. Should Iran go to war with either of them, it is unclear whether the Russians would side with Tehran; in fact, given Israeli and Saudi military superiority over Iran[35], it is unlikely Moscow would throw in support for Iran. Because Iran is not Russia’s only partner in the region, Russia has been and will continue to prioritize its own diplomatic stature to Iran’s interests in weakening Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Most importantly, Russia simply seeks to be the rule-maker in the region and is “hardly interested in Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ consisting of Shia forces”[36]. In a broader geopolitical context, Russia has been increasingly engaged in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq in a bid to return to superpower status. It has taken decisive roles in choosing how and who will fill in the power vacuum created by conflicts, sponsoring General Haftar in Libya—who has risen as the de-facto powerbroker in Libya[37]—and mediating between the Taliban and the government in Kabul[38]. Russia’s relations with Iran are affected by this macro-objective. As the influential pro-Kremlin Russian daily Nezavisimaya gazeta asserted, “Russia’s success in Iran—especially if it manages to convince Tehran of the need for full cooperation in the nuclear realm—could become a turning point in terms of recognition of Russia as an independent center of power in today’s world”[39]. Overall, Russia’s occasional support for Iran has less to do with protecting Tehran’s regional position and territorial integrity than with its own ambition.

Naturally, Russia does not consider Iran an equal power, obstructing the concept of an alliance between two equals. In 2007, Ayatollah Khamenei “invited Russia to form a strategic alliance with Iran” and “share between them responsibility for the future of the Middle East and Central Asia”[40]. Putin merely “replied evasively that he would think about it”. Russia does not intend to “concede any part of the region to Iran” simply because Iran is not Russia’s equal in terms of its economic capacity or political influence. For a power-seeking Russia to reemerge as a global hegemon, Iran is simply a pawn to play with, not an equal player to deal with respectfully. Such an attitude became more salient in November 2016 when Russia snubbed Iran by revealing it is using the Shahid Nojeh Air Base in Hamedan, despite the Iranian population’s longstanding anti-imperialist sentiment against foreign military bases being built in their country[41]. Russia also simply informed Iran, rather than consulted with them, on its temporary withdrawal from Syria in 2016[42], despite the potential backlash to Iranian military efforts there. While it is common for major powers to ally with less powerful states, it is uncommon to openly dismiss and belittle an ally. Such “arrogance” is driving a rift in bilateral relations, making the prospect of an alliance even dimmer. Russia’s view of itself as a superior power is an obstacle to constructing a more comprehensive Russia-Iran relations.

Case Study: Syrian Civil War

While many scholars point to Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War as a testament to Russia-Iran alliance, it is in fact a case study that implies the opposite. Although it is true that Russian intervention is greatly helping Iran maintain a Shia regime in Damascus, diverging interests stemming from substantially different foreign policy goals reflect limitations to the Russia-Iran partnership. The Syrian conflict is representative of the latent schisms between the seemingly solid Russia-Iran partnership.

First, Moscow and Tehran have different views regarding President Bashar Al-Assad’s future. Iran’s red-line is that Assad must remain until at least 2021, when his presidential term ends. Russia is less attached to Assad as an individual; it is satisfied as long as a pro-Russia leader is in power. In fact, Russian diplomats made it clear that it is not “inextricably bound” to Assad[43] as long as Syria stays as Moscow’s client state. For Iran however, Assad’s grip on the power is paramount because he is personally indebted to Iran for helping him militarily and economically before and during the civil war[44]. Such backdrop is unlikely to change Moscow’s calculus in any way. Given Russia’s record of abandoning Iran’s interests for its own, it is possible it could give Assad up in exchange for other concessions from Western powers. As explained previously, Russia has no interest in preserving the “Shia Crescent” as long as its interests are preserved; it is instead interested in using the conflict to render itself more important in the region.

Second, Russia and Iran do not share an affinity for local militias and proxies. Iran has been actively employing local and foreign militias in Syria, most of which directly answer to Iran’s Ayatollah instead of to Assad. For example, The Fatemioun Brigade and the National Defense Forces (NDF) are organized and trained by Iranian authorities, commanded by IRGC officers[45]. On the other hand, Russia is wary of resorting to non-state actors and proxies, who it sees as potential agents of disorder. To that end, Moscow prefers working directly with the central government of Syria—it even called for the NDF to be brought under Syrian government control[46]. Having witnessed the total collapse of state structures in Iraq and Libya, and with its own problem with insurgents in Chechenia[47], Russia has a complicated relationship with non-state actors, including those directed by Tehran. Thus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented in April 2016 that they “could not really talk about a new paradigm” with regards to Iran and its proxies[48]. In fact, the suspended sale of S-300 was at least partly motivated by fears that they could end up in the hands of Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah[49]. Russia’s deeply ingrained distrust of non-state actors prevents further cooperation with Iran, and Syria is just an example of such a limitation.

Third, Russia has openly betrayed Iran in the military and diplomatic field whenever appropriate. Russian diplomats insisted on signing the Aleppo ceasefire deal with the rebels in May 2016 despite Iran’s pleas not to; Iranian generals thereafter blamed this Russian mistake for allowing rebels to regroup and facilitate offensives against government strongholds[50]. In tandem with Russia’s bid for superpower status, Moscow sponsored the ceasefire in order to demonstrate its ability to control the dynamics of regional affairs. In the process, it willingly sacrificed Iran’s advantage in the war. In fact, Russia occasionally refused to provide air cover for its Iranian and Syrian partners on the ground, as demonstrated in Iran’s loss at Khan Tuman to the Al Nusra Front (currently Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) in the absence of Russian support[51]. Russia is essentially sending a “message to Iran that they need to play ball on the political track”[52], similar to how it passed the UN Resolution and suspended the sale of S-300s, to nudge Iran to enter negotiations on its nuclear programs. Russia also exercised Machiavellian pragmatism of knowingly endangering its partners by turning a blind eye on Israeli air strikes on Hezbollah targets in Syria[53], to the extent that they do not hinder the overall Russian effort in Syria to back the government. Russia hopes to maintain a flexible and not committed partnership in the region, and the fact that it is collaborating with Tehran in Syria does not alter such an aim.

U.S. as a Determinant in Russia-Iran Relations

While both Russia and Iran seek to undermine the U.S-led world order, America’s special position as the global hegemon makes it nearly impossible for them to completely disengage with it. In fact, Russia-U.S. relations and Iran-U.S. relations have proven to be influential in Russia-Iran relations. During periodic U.S-Russia thaws, or times when Russia hoped to improve relations with the West, Iran’s strategic value declined for Moscow. For example, when the Bush administration planned to install a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland to protect Europe from Iran’s missiles, Russia worried it could be used to block missiles from Moscow, significantly reducing its deterrence capability. In turn, Putin offered to “share with the US Russia’s Gabala radar facility in Azerbaijan to detect whether ‘some country, such as Iran, were to test a nuclear weapon’ and give the US enough time to then deploy missile defense systems”[54]. He even suggested that they create a “new missile-launch warning system” in southern Russia to monitor Iran’s missiles[55]. For Russia’s own security, Putin explicitly undermined Iran’s military capacity. Russia frequently finds itself in between the U.S. and Iran’s standoff. In areas of U.S-Iran disagreements such as Tehran’s nuclear program, Israel’s security, and Hezbollah, Russia strictly acts in accordance with its own national interests; it does not simply side with Iran because America is the common adversary.

President Obama’s “Reset Policy”[56] further expanded the prospect of improved U.S-Russia relations, in turn eroding Russia-Iran relations. Russia’s support for UNSC Resolution 1929—which established a framework to sanction Iranian banks—against Iran’s nuclear and missile programs[57] came in this backdrop, as Moscow sought to improve relations with Washington. In fact, the warming relations incentivized Medvedev’s Russia to actively undercut Iran. For example, the preparation of a new arms control deal to replace START I was swiftly followed by Russia’s announcement that “the Iranian reactor Moscow is building at Bushehr will not begin operations in 2009”[58]. In late November, Russia also supported the IAEA resolution condemning Iran for building a clandestine enrichment plan[59]. Such open betrayals prompted then Iranian President Ahmadinejad to complain: “some people were deceived. I think Russia made a mistake”[60]. The Russia-Iran partnership was significantly weakened by the U.S-Russia thaw, as Russia deemed it more useful to improve relations with Washington than with Tehran. Whilst Russia shares revisionism against U.S.-led global order—as shown in its aggressions in Eastern Europe—it does not seek unnecessary conflict with Washington on behalf of Tehran. Precisely because anti-Americanism is the lynchpin of a Russia-Iran partnership, improving U.S-Russia or U.S-Iran relations can render Tehran and Moscow less willing to work together.

In reverse, a U.S-Iran thaw could spell problems for Russia too. The two countries have yet to witness a major rapprochement since the 1979 Revolution, but the JCPOA settlement could open up such a possibility. Especially with new business opportunities opening up in Iran after experiencing relief from international sanctions, Iran may benefit from improved relations with the West, harming Russia’s economic interest in the process. For example, friendlier relations with the West could “allow former Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia to export petroleum to and through Iran, reducing dependence on Russia”[61] which in turn would weaken Russia’s political clout in the region. Iran’s rapprochement with the West in the long term could also revive its Cold War-era role as a bulwark against Soviet Union. In the same vein, Russia has historically considered Iran to be a strategic location, as it is a conduit to “warm waters off the Persian Gulf and beyond”[62] and contains rich reserves of oil and gas. Iran under western political influence could significantly endanger Russian interests. Russia has been using Iran as a leverage in dealing with the U.S. elsewhere, proclaiming to be a reliable intermediary between the two. For instance, it has been linking Iran’s nuclear program with its actions in Eastern Europe, hoping to avoid harsh sanctions with the promise of bringing Iran to the negotiating table. Russia wants to be instrumental in handling Iran’s relations with the West, and an Iran-U.S. detente would thwart that goal[63].

Looking forward, with Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine having invited European sanctions, there is no clear indication that Russia’s relations with the U.S. will improve in the near future. However, considering that Washington and Moscow will have to consult each other on issues ranging from the anti-terrorism front to resolving the Syrian Civil War, another period of a U.S-Russia thaw does not seem infeasible. Equally significantly, JCPOA has opened up a window for renewed relations between Iran and the West. Inconsistencies in U.S-Russia and U.S-Iran relations are likely to render Russia-Iran relations unstable as well, as the strategic value of bilateral partnership fluctuates relative to the cost of alienating Washington.

Domestic Politics as an Inhibiting Factor

Iranian policymakers are not oblivious to such limitations in relying on Russia. In fact, the political elites in Tehran are divided on what do with Russia, and this disunity further obstructs the prospect of a consistent alliance. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has adhered to the “Neither East Nor West” principle, labelling both the US and the Soviet Union as imperialist devils[64]. However, after the costly and unnecessarily prolonged Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, Iranian politics—which were previously unified under religious fervor—began to produce pragmatists who were willing to engage with the US for practical reasons, such as reviving trade relations[65]. The mullahs also came to acknowledge the need to have a foreign power as a partner, but preferred Russia to the US as it was Washington’s protection of the Shah that had triggered the Revolution and laid foundation to the Islamic Republic.

With the removal of sanctions after JCPOA, the silent battle between the pragmatic moderates represented by President Hassan Rouhani and religious conservatives under the influence of Ayatollah Khamenei intensified[66]. Conservatives and the security establishment are “Russian leaners”, who aspire to the Russian model of a domestic social system: “securitizing the state and the economy to prevent a US-supported regime change”[67]. They promote partial privatization and quasi-liberalization as the only viable reforms, hoping to benefit regime loyalists while preventing the rise of the middle-class with aspiration for liberal democracy. They hope to work closely with Russia to prevent subversive elements and ideas infiltrating into Iranian society through economic reforms. Russia has witnessed economic liberalization translate into pro-West uprisings in the Color Revolutions in former Soviet spheres of influence. This occurred mostly recently in 2014 when the Ukrainian people overthrew pro-Russian President Yanukovych after a disrupted trade deal with the European Union. [68] Therefore, Russia has also been keen in passing on the idea of Russian style liberalization to conservatives in Iran.

Furthermore, there is an ever-lasting impression in Iran that “Russia is more predictable than the West”[69], at least partly because Russia does not experience turbulent political transitions as seen in democracies such as the U.S. Putin has been virtually reigning Russia since 2000, and Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential term between 2008 and 2012 is widely viewed as a perfunctory turnover to give the guise of a democratic process[70]. On the other hand, the American policy towards Iran has gone through minor and major changes over time; President Trump’s declaration to revoke the JCPOA, the centerpiece of Obama’s Iran policy[71], is just one recent example. For the already-skeptical conservatives, temporary relaxation in tensions between Iran and the U.S is no guarantee of a sustainable détente. It is in this backdrop that Ali Akbar Velayati, the Supreme Leader’s chief foreign policy advisor, explicitly stated: “Russia is Iran’s only partner on regional issues”, calling for closer Russia-Iran ties[72].

On the other hand, moderates are calling for the China Model: liberalization of the economy and society but a continued grip on politics. Former President Khatami’s call for “dialogue of civilizations”[73] came in the context in which economic liberalization and international trade became crucial to resuscitate Iran’s moribund economy. To address Iran’s economic problems, moderates see the U.S and the West as profitable trade partners. In contrast, Russia is suffering an economic downturn itself, a condition that could negatively impact Iranian exports to Russia. Even more importantly, Russian companies have been reluctant to share technology and know-how with their Iranian partners so that they can keep Iran reliant on Russia. Moscow is also preventing Iran from diversifying its trade partners. Gazprom, which is closely associated with the Russian government, has been “blocking Iran’s gas supplies into Armenia by purchasing and controlling the Armenian segment of distribution”[74] in the fear that Iran could replace Russian influence in former Soviet zones.

These opposing views constantly collide in the Iranian government’s decision-making process. While trade and diplomatic affairs are largely administered by Rouhani’s cabinet, the Ayatollah maintains overreaching influence over all parts of Iranian society and government. In fact, Khamenei even encouraged an open public discussion—uncharacteristic of the usually reclusive regime—on JCPOA to undermine Rouhani’s effort to normalize relations with the West[75]. Moderates find grass-root support from young constituents and the middle class, while conservatives rely highly on the iron grip of the security establishment and religious elements[76]. As discussed above, Iran’s inconsistency towards nuclear negotiations also stems from diverging views on how reliable Russia is as an arbitrator. The clashing views frequently make Iran’s policy towards Russia inconsistent and ambiguous, as the two factions wrestle with power, with neither of them having a clear upper-hand. Combined with Iran’s visceral distrust towards major powers stemming from historical interferences, fragmented policymaking inhibits further cooperation and an alliance between Russia and Iran.

Oil and Gas Competition

Iran and Russia’s competition in the energy market also hinders their formation of an alliance. The two countries are both heavily reliant on oil export. In the years of international sanctions on Iran, Tehran was blocked from exporting oil to Western nations. With the relief from sanctions after JCPOA however, Iran could expand its oil sales, which in turn would reduce Russia’s revenue from oil export. Their economic structure does not bode well for bilateral relations. In fact, assuming Iran reclaims its pre-2012 share of the European oil market, Russia’s share will be reduced by over 10 percent”[77]. Iran is also planning to “build a pipeline from its gas field in the Persian Gulf to the Syrian port city of Tartus”, as a pathway to Europe[78]. Multiple Western companies such as Total have also shown interest in revitalizing the frozen LPG projects in Iran[79]. Given that Iran successfully persuaded Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to exempt it from a sharp production cut[80], it can ramp up output and expand its proportion in the global energy market.

            This turn of events could significantly harm Russian economic and political interests. Moscow could coerce Tehran into not fully entering the European market by leveraging Iran’s desperate need for diplomatic protection from the bellicose Trump administration, deteriorating bilateral relations in the process. Oil and natural gas sales are crucial for Kremlin because the Russian economy depends on them. In 2013, such sales accounted for 68% of Russia’s total export revenue[81]. The Soviet Union collapsed partially because it was overstretched relative to its financial capacity[82], and Putin does not want Russia to face a similar fate. Given that Russia’s overreaching global influence is closely related to its ability to maintain a certain degree of economic stability, Iran’s rise as a competitor can be dangerous. Furthermore, Putin’s popularity is intertwined with Russia’s ability to fight back chronic recessions that have been plaguing its economy since the Ukraine Crisis, when Western countries imposed sanctions on Moscow[83].

            Similarly, Russia has been translating its de-facto monopoly in the European energy market into political leverage. Hence, Iran’s emergence in the field could endanger Russia’s clout in Europe. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine precipitated Moscow’s diplomatic isolation in Europe, but it managed to maintain a certain degree of influence. As Hungarian officials admitted, European countries’ gas dependence on Russia prevented them from fully cooperating with US-led sanctions[84]. Central and eastern European nations—former Soviet spheres of influence—are particularly beholden to Russia’s pipeline; this situation allows Kremlin to expand its influence in Europe by keeping trade intact even during confrontations with the US, and using oil as a bargaining chip to promote pro-Russian policies in relevant countries.

While Russia seeks to become a global power-player, Europe remains its central field of play. Considering how Russia was willing to undermine Iranian interests for its own influence in the Middle East, it is plausible that they could coerce Iran into limiting their entrance into the European market by capitalizing on Iran’s isolation from the world. This move would not be welcomed in Iran, which is desperate to restore and increase beyond the pre-sanctions level of oil revenue. Such a prospect is already starting to materialize into a source of conflict; Putin only reluctantly agreed to let Iran exempt itself from a joint Russia-OPEC production freeze because the Iranians “insisted that it should be able to keep raising production that was depressed for years by international economic sanctions”[85].

Conclusion

In conclusion, Iran is only a part of Russia’s grand regional strategy, not the crux of it. Russia is willing to diminish and undermine Iran’s interests as long as it serves its own agenda. Iran needs Russia more than Russia needs Iran; while Russia maintains flexible relationship with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran remains diplomatically isolated with very few partners. Russia is arguably Iran’s strongest partner along with China, and such an imbalanced relationship allows Russia to exploit Iran as a pawn for its own agendas. American relations with Russia determine the strategic value of a partnership with Iran. When US-Russia relations are relatively cordial, Iran is not as important for Russia; the reverse is also true when US-Iran relations improve. Russia also considers itself superior to Iran. It is unwilling to treat Iran as an equal, which precludes an alliance based on mutual respect. 

Understanding this imbalanced status quo, pragmatists in Tehran argue in favor of warming up relations with the West. However, their views collide with the conservative elements in the Iranian government. The ensuing power struggle translates into inconsistent policies towards Russia, mixed with skepticism and hope. This inconsistency, along with Russia’s own concerns regarding Tehran’s support for non-state actors, creates grave uncertainty that is detrimental to their relationship. Diverging economic interests further exacerbate disagreements, as oil exports are the backbone of the economy in both Russia and Iran. Iran’s presence is a double-edged sword for Moscow’s bid to return to hegemonic status, as we saw in Syria, and this reality precludes serious hopes for an outright alliance between the two.


About the Author

Taehwa Hong is an International Relations student at Stanford University and Asia Times opinion writer. His works have been featured in The Business Times, The Huffington Post, WorldPost, The Peninsula, and YaleGlobal. His research focuses on East Asia and the Middle East.


Endnotes

[1] Pillar, P. (2015). Echoes of Afghanistan in Syria. [online] The National Interest. Available at: http://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/echoes-afghanistan-syria-14050 [Accessed 28 Nov. 2017].

[2] Roth, A. (2016). Syria shows that Russia built an effective military. Now how will Putin use it?. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/syria-shows-that-russia-built-an-effective-military-now-how-will-putin-use-it/2016/03/17/aeaca59e-eae8-11e5-a9ce-681055c7a05f_story.html?utm_term=.d14bda920706 [Accessed 14 Nov. 2017].

[3] Sahimi, M. (2009). Why Russia & China Love Iran’s Hardliners. [online] FRONTLINE – Tehran Bureau. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/08/why-russia-china-love-irans-hardliners.html [Accessed 14 Nov. 2017].

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