Are Russia and Iran Forming a New Strategic Alliance?
By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi | March, 2022
|Photos: Mehr News Agency / Khamenei.ir | CC BY 4.0|
President Putin’s visit to Iran (his first visit outside the Former Soviet Union borders since the invasion into Ukraine), and his trilateral summit (19 July) with the Iranian leadership and President Erdogan clearly demonstrate Russia’s efforts to deepen its relations with Iran in recent months. However, seeing as the ties between the two countries have had their ups and downs over the years, one must wonder whether this is merely a specific, temporary overlap of interests or a new strategic partnership in the making that could counterweigh U.S. efforts to establish a regional alliance with the Gulf states and Israel.
Steps toward intimacy
Russia’s efforts to get closer to Iran find expression on various concurrent levels. On the strategic level, the summit that convened in Tehran just days after President Biden had visited the Middle East and held a summit in Saudi Arabia presented an opportunity for President Putin to show how, despite the West’s efforts to turn Russia and him personally into lepers, he is able to advance collaborations with key countries, including Turkey, who is a member of NATO.
The summit was yet another rung on the ladder of the great power battle over the establishment of a world order and new constellation of alliances, during which Russia was able to close ranks with Iran against the West, as manifest in Khamenei’s statement whereby Russia had no choice but to invade Ukraine, or else it would have had to face an attack by NATO. The Iranian leader’s speech tallies with the backup his regime had provided to Russia since the war broke out, while casting the blame on the West. It is also likely that Presidents Putin and Raisi joined forces to convince President Erdogan to avoid a new military campaign in northern Syria against the Kurds, and even the wheat deal signed in Turkey (22 July) may have been directly linked to the understandings reached in Tehran.
On the military level – even prior to the summit, government officials in Washington, led by the U.S. National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, had maintained that Iran was going to provide Russia with several hundred UAVs, including some equipped with offensive capabilities, and that Russian delegations had visited Iran in June and July to examine them. Sullivan also noted that Iran intended to begin training Russian teams in July on how to operate the drones. Although the Iranian Foreign Minister had denied these reports, the commander of the Iranian Army’s ground forces stated that the Iranian Army had manufactured sophisticated UAVs, and that his country was willing to export military equipment to “friendly countries”. In any event, to date there has been no clear evidence of such a transaction having been signed and/or begun to be performed.
On the economic level – Russia, Iran and India are engaging in advanced negotiations for an transportation project known as the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), designed to significantly shorten the route by which goods are transited from Russia to India via Iran (the corridor is estimated to shorten the way by approximately 40 percent, and save approximately 30 percent of the cost of transit). The first experiment was already carried out in June, and during it, cargo was transported from St. Petersburg to India via Iranian ports and roads. According to plans, the new commercial route will be fully operational in early 2023. In addition, Russian energy corporation Gazprom and The National Iranian Oil Company have signed an MoU in the field of energy amounting to USD40 billion for the development of oil and gas fields, as well as the construction of gas export pipelines. While it is a mere MoU, it fits well into the overall trend of efforts toward the expansion of collaborations between the two countries. Russia and Iran have also decided to start using rubles and rials in the transactions between them, and abandon the U.S. currency as further means of gnawing at the effect of Western sanctions. In practice, the scope of commerce between the two has grown by 10 percent during Q1 of 2022 (although the scopes of their partnership remain low – USD4 billion in 2021).
Gaps and competition
These cooperation-deepening steps are counterweighed by the historical hostility and mutual distrust that have existed between Moscow and Tehran for dozens of years, casting a shadow on the establishment of a lasting strategic alliance between the two. Moreover, their relations are affected by their rivalry over power hubs in Central Asia and the Middle East, and the competition over markets of global energy that has exacerbated in recent months in view of the considerable increase in Russian oil exported to China and India at significantly lower-than-market-value prices. At the same time, Russia is concerned that a new nuclear deal could lead to significant larger quantities of exported Iranian oil that, in turn, would cause prices to drop, and the scopes of Russian exported oil to diminish – a development that, from a Russian perspective, would help European countries to grow less dependent on Moscow when importing their energy. It is no wonder, therefore, that several months ago, Russia demanded to obtain guarantees that the sanctions imposed on it would not harm its economic and military collaboration with Iran as a prerequisite for the advancement of a new nuclear agreement.
Furthermore, Moscow harbors tension between an aspiration to expand its relations with Iran and a desire and need to ensure that no harm will come to its ties with Saudi Arabia, particularly at this time, in view of the latter’s importance with regard to the scopes of production and prices of oil (and, indeed, President Putin was quick to call the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, just days after his return from Tehran).
The two countries’ conduct in Syria effectively reflect the complexity of the relations they share. On the one hand, they strive to restore Assad’s regime, and reduce the scope of American and Turkish activities in Syria. On the other hand, they also compete with one another over the depth of their impact on Syria’s regime, as well as their military presence there. One example of the duality of Russia’s approach may be seen in its silent agreement to publicize Israel’s war-between-wars actions against Iranian targets in Syria because it believes such activity to be detrimental to the Iranian entrenchment there, which ultimately serves Russian interests.
Implications and recommendations for Israel
When push comes to shove, steps toward intimacy between Russia and Iran have been apparent in recent months, fed by the two countries’ understanding that, in view of the chaotic global and regional reality, it is crucial for them to deepen their ties at present in order to promote their own unique interests. This reality poses challenges for Israel on both the strategic and security levels. Thus, tighter relations between Moscow and Tehran could lead to an expansion of all relations between the two countries, including security-military ties (new military transactions, cyber and intelligence-related collaborations including launching Iranian satellite), as well as to the deepening of Russian support for Iran during the nuclear talks.
At the same time, developments on the Russian-Iranian axis could project onto Israel’s bilateral relations with Russia, that have already sunk, inter alia in view of Russia’s discontent over Prime Minister Lapid’s statements on the Russian war crimes perpetrated in Ukraine, Russia’s threats to shut down the Jewish Agency offices there, and the Israeli Prime Minister’s public warnings that closing down JAFI’s Moscow headquarters would be viewed harshly and impact Russian-Israeli relations.
Since the war in Ukraine broke out, Russia has consistently criticized the strikes in Syria attributed to Israel; however, as a rule, it has avoided taking any tangible steps to stand in Israel’s way. Direct and public friction between Israel and Russia, or any attempt to make the latter pay a price in the event that it does decide to shut down the Jewish Agency offices there, could lead to a change in Russian conduct in Syria, and prove detrimental to the security coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow and/or prompt Russian retaliatory steps in other areas (including preventing Jews from immigrating to Israel, or reducing their numbers). The war in Ukraine has clearly demonstrated that Russia is not deterred by threats nor hesitates to forcefully use any means available to it in order to promote its strategic goals.
Therefore, and in view of the importance of maintaining a good working relationship with Moscow in general, and a security coordination with it in particular, Israel is advised to continue with the same cautious and restrained policy that it has embraced since the war with Ukraine began. Israel should thus maintain a discreet dialogue with Moscow, and avoid publicly disclosing any disagreements and disputes as much as possible so as not to cast a shadow on its relations with Russia, nor prompt Moscow to play hardball, and make it more difficult to resolve this and future crises quietly.
Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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