- Oct 2, 2015
They’ve found common ground on the battlefield in Ukraine, but not everyone in Tehran is happy about it.By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi hold a meeting in Tehran on July 19, 2022. SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
JANUARY 5, 2023, 12:00 PM
In the first two days of 2023, evidence of a newfound friendship between Russia and Iran was on full display across the war-battered cities of Ukraine in the form of downed kamikaze drones.
More than 80 Iranian-made drones launched by the Russian military were shot down over Ukraine in that 48-hour period, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, the latest sign of how two of the world’s biggest pariah states are deepening their alliance in the face of increasing international isolation and worsening economic woes.
Russia and Iran have formed a partnership of convenience against Western powers for decades, but that relationship has historically been tinged by an undercurrent of distrust and wariness, experts said.
The war in Ukraine may be changing all that, pushing Moscow to embrace Iran as one of its top foreign partners in a bid to secure sorely needed military supplies from Tehran and find lifelines for its sanctions-battered economy—even if that partnership stays below the level of a full-fledged formal alliance.
“The war in Ukraine changed how Russia viewed its ties with Iran,” said Emil Avdaliani, director of Middle East studies at Geocase, a Georgian think tank. “Before 2022, bilateral relations were characterized by ambivalence: high talks but little substance. … With the war, however, Russia’s turn to Asia has become complete and Iran’s support is now seen as critical in [the] Kremlin.”
Deepening relations between Moscow and Tehran could end up prolonging the bloody war in Ukraine, U.S. officials and regional experts said, as Iran provides more military support and resources to Russia. At the same time, it could also endanger U.S. allies in the Middle East that oppose Iran if the Russian government delivers new forms of military technology and high-end weapons systems to the heavily sanctioned Middle Eastern power.
For Russia, the partnership has yielded Iranian-made drones after Russian officials in the late fall of 2022 quietly clinched a deal with Iran to supply hundreds of weaponized drones to batter Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. (Iran has also reportedly sent military trainers to occupied Crimea to train and advise the Russian armed forces on how to use the drones.) Top Russian officials, including Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, have reportedly visited Iran in recent months to finalize a deal to purchase Iranian ballistic missiles.
“It’s hard to come up with an example of another country that has provided as much support willingly to Russia as has Iran,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In exchange for the new wave of support—according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with internal U.S. government assessments—Iran could get high-end military technology and weapons systems from Russia, such as Su-35 fighter jets or Russia’s S-400 advanced air defense system.
“With the shipping of drones, Iran now can push for a fighter jets deal and lucrative economic and trade deals with Russian companies, which so far abstained from investing into [Iran] because of American sanctions,” Avdaliani said.
The flourishing friendship goes beyond the battlefields of Ukraine. On the diplomatic front, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stuck close to home since he first launched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but he made his first visit outside the post-Soviet bloc space to Tehran in July for a major summit with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On the economic front, both countries are busy building up extensive new trade networks aimed at circumventing Western sanctions, including supply routes that can send military equipment from Iran into Russia through river and railway links as well as through the Caspian Sea.
“If they’ve always been hand-in-glove politically, they’re putting way more emphasis into their economic relationship now,” said Gabriel Noronha, an expert with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America think tank and former U.S. State Department official who worked on Iran issues during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
On the intelligence front, Russia agreed to launch a new Iranian satellite into orbit in August 2022 in another sign of the two countries’ deepening strategic alliance. Current and former U.S. officials said the Iranian satellite is likely being parked over Ukraine to gather intelligence for Russia, a matter first reported by the Washington Post. (The Iranian government has dismissed these assertions as false and claimed the satellite is being used for scientific research.)
“For the first time, Russia is more dependent on Iran than it ever has been, not only for drones but also in the Middle East, particularly in Syria,” where Moscow finds itself reliant on Tehran to help preserve its military gains while the Russian armed forces are bogged down in Ukraine, Borshchevskaya said.
Western leaders have taken notice, none more so than Zelensky. The Ukrainian president called out Moscow’s relationship with Tehran directly in his speech to the U.S. Congress in December 2022 during a brief trip to Washington that marked his first time traveling outside of Ukraine since the invasion began. “Iranian deadly drones sent to Russia in hundreds—in hundreds—became a threat to our critical infrastructure. That is how one terrorist has found the other,” he told U.S. lawmakers.
Many of Iran’s ruling elite are embracing the newfound alliance with Russia, but not everyone is on board, officials and experts familiar with the matter said. “There is a view among some in Iran’s leadership that they should shed any reliance on the West, that they should place their fate in Russia’s and maybe China’s hands. There are others who believe that is an illusory gambit,” a senior Biden administration official told Foreign Policy. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
There are two broad camps within Iran’s elite decision-makers on the matter, according to a recent paper from the European Council on Foreign Relations. One camp is in favor of upgrading ties with Russia and deepening the alliance, and the other camp of pragmatists want to pump the brakes on fully embracing an alignment with Russia and cultivate at least some ties with Western powers.
The first camp includes Khamenei; Ali Akbar Velayati, one of Khamenei’s top foreign-policy advisors; top commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, speaker of Iran’s parliament. The second camp includes Ali Shamkhani, who currently serves as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council; former top Iranian officials whose power has waned in recent years, such as former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; and a small group of more moderate IRGC commanders.
The second camp could gain more traction in the coming years, particularly if the war continues to sap Russia’s economic and military strength and if the newfound trade ties between the two countries don’t yield the type of economic gains that Iran is desperate for.
“There is a ceiling to the type of strategic cooperation or assistance Russia can and will provide to Iran—and it’s something Iran will discover sooner or later,” the senior Biden administration official said.
At this point, the first camp appears to be winning. “The debate is not entirely settled; although, as of today, it’s clear they are throwing far more of their eggs in the Russian basket,” the official added.
Moscow’s relationship with Tehran has a long and complicated history. But the two countries found common ground in Syria, where Russia intervened in 2015, fighting alongside Iranian-backed militias to prop up the country’s embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and international isolation injected new life into the relationship amid their shared objective of undercutting American primacy in global affairs.
Although China has sought to keep its distance from the war, Iran—already isolated and under significant sanctions—is one of a few countries with little to lose in providing military aid to Moscow. Russia has also approached another global pariah, North Korea, for assistance in bolstering depleted arms stocks with the White House, confirming in December 2022 that Pyongyang had supplied rockets and missiles to the Russian mercenary Wagner Group.
Changing dynamics in the Russia-Iran relationship come against the backdrop of failed Western efforts to revive a U.S. nuclear deal with Iran to convince Tehran to give up its ambitions for a nuclear weapons program. Russia and China supported the deal, but efforts ran aground in late 2022 after Iran rejected a U.S.-brokered proposal to revamp the nuclear deal in exchange for sanctions relief.
Current and former U.S. officials said Russia is, at the bare minimum, not actively opposing a renewed nuclear deal, but it barely lifted a finger in the monthslong efforts to renegotiate it last year.
Now, Western officials are watching closely to see whether Moscow would torpedo any future efforts to restart talks—or even go a step further and lend its support to Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials and independent analysts who spoke to Foreign Policy said it remains unlikely that Russia would actively aid Iran’s nuclear weapons program; such a move would immediately alienate Iran’s regional rivals, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that remain important economic powers for Russia. These officials and experts also say even with Western-Russian relations at a historic low point and relations with Iran reaching new heights, Moscow would be unnerved by a full-fledged nuclear power emerging in its near neighborhood.
In November 2022, CNN reported that Iran had approached Moscow about assistance with its nuclear program, citing unnamed U.S. intelligence officials. Russia’s response remains unclear. Any steps to support Iran in its long-standing goal of becoming a nuclear power would represent a profound shift for Russia that, until the war, had played a constructive role in efforts to restore the Iran nuclear deal.
Still, there is an undercurrent of concern in Washington about the possibility of Russia eventually shifting its stance on Iran’s nuclear weapons program if tensions with the West spike further.
“I think Russia sits very comfortably watching Iran edge close towards what you could call nuclear threshold status,” said Hanna Notte, a senior research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. “That is entirely sufficient for [their] purpose because it keeps everyone on edge in the Middle East. It keeps the Americans still focused with resources and bandwidth on the Middle East so they cannot focus entirely on NATO’s eastern flank and China.”
Regardless, the newfound friendship between Russia and Iran appears to be here to stay—at least as long as Russia remains focused on its war in Ukraine. “I think we are reaching a qualitatively different level in the Russia-Iranian relationship compared to what we have seen in previous years,” Notte said. “The question is: Will there be a breaking point?”
Iran and Russia Are Closer Than Ever Before
They’ve found common ground on the battlefield in Ukraine, but not everyone in Tehran is happy about it.