The Strategic Partnership Between Russia and Iran – Which policy should Israel Adopt?
By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi | January, 2023
|Photos: Khamenei.ir; Kremlin.ru | CC BY 4.0|
Recent months have been marked by the tightening of the strategic axis between Russia and Iran, and a considerable leap in military cooperation between them. U.S. officials have gone as far as to define the emerging military ties as “unprecedented” and “a full-scale defense partnership”, posing a threat to Iran’s neighbors. This trend further aggravates the strategic and security challenges Israel faces in view of the growing multidimensional threat (nuclear, missiles, terrorism) posed by Iran.
Russian reliance on Iranian support
Over the past six months, Iran has supported Russia by supplying it with hundreds of Shahed 136 offensive drones and training on how to operate them. The two countries also seem to have agreed to set up a joint production line for drones in Russia. Iran may also provide Russia with another weaponry system within the next several weeks, including hundreds of surface-to-surface missiles (SSM, possibly with a range of up to 300km).
The Iranian aid serves as considerable augmentation for the Russian Army, forming a crucial component in the strikes it has been carrying out since this summer in Ukraine against military and infrastructural targets. The use of Iranian drones allows Russia to further erode Ukraine’s air-defense systems, which are already depleted. Russia’s need to rely on Iranian UAVs results from a combination of the many losses of Russian weapons suffered during the war months, Russian defense industries’ logistic failure to meet the needs of the local military, western sanctions impeding the import of essential technological components, and the Russian Army’s relatively low investment in UAV development.
What does Iran stand to gain from this partnership?
The deepening collaborations between Russia and Iran harbor potential for improving Iran’s capabilities and maneuverability in a wide range of areas:
On the political level – Forging a strategic axis and attaining Moscow’s growing commitment to support Iranian positions in the international arena, including with regard to any talks (should they resume) toward the drafting of a new nuclear deal, and in the UN Security Council.
On the military level – Upgrading the Iranian air force, air-defense arrays, and intelligence capabilities in view of the possibility that Russia would supply advanced air-defense systems to Iran (S400?), advanced SU-35 fighter jets, and helicopters. Iranian pilots have reportedly been training in Russia this past spring on SU-35s, and the Commander of the Iranian Air Force has stated that the two countries are negotiating the acquisition of fighter jets. Furthermore, the two countries are probably increasing their cyber and intelligence collaborations, inter alia in aspects pertaining to Israel.
On the technological level – Iran can use Ukraine as an experiment field for testing and upgrading its drone performance, or any other weapons it provides (such as how well its drones function against western air-defense systems and under harsh weather conditions). In addition, Russia is transferring its western weaponry systems to Iran for the latter to study and copy technologies from.
On the economic level – Nearly US$1bn in payment and help circumventing the sanctions, inter alia by using Ruble and Rial in bilateral transactions. It is noteworthy that, alongside military cooperation, recent months have also seen a considerable rise in economic ties between the two countries.
However, Russia is clearly exhibiting caution in its promotion of relations with Iran in areas that could enrage other countries and lead them to retaliate, particularly if these countries are attributed special importance by Moscow in general, and these days in particular, primarily Saudi Arabia and Israel. The reason for its careful conduct is, namely, the fact that Saudi Arabia has been refraining from agreeing to help the United States by lowering the prices of oil, whereas Israel has been disinclined to assist Ukraine by providing it with the air-defense systems it has been requesting of it.
Thus, despite reports of Iranian requests for help acquiring nuclear materials and manufacturing nuclear fuel, Russia, to the best of our knowledge, has avoided aiding Tehran with the development of its weapons-grade nuclear program. Moscow has many reasons for maintaining this position, first and foremost its concern over long-term strategic and security implications in the event that Iran would be in possession of nuclear weapons. It further realizes that, if Iran were to attain such capabilities, it could deliver a fatal blow to the arms control regimes, destabilize the Middle East, and accelerate a nuclear arms race involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey.
As for Syria, Russia has been avoiding any change to the characteristics of its activity vis-à-vis Israel for two main reasons. First, Israeli strikes - according to media reports - against Iranian targets in Syria serve strategic Russian interests too of weakening Iran’s presence there. Second, Moscow realizes that, as long as the Israeli air force maintains its freedom of action in Syria, Israel will continue to be deterred from supplying Ukraine with air-defense systems.
Implications and recommendations for Israel
In the current state of affairs, there seems to be a direct link between the continuation of the war in Ukraine and the depth of the Russian-Iranian security-military partnership. In fact, as the Russian shortage of weapons aggravates, so will its dependence on the military assistance received from Iran increase, leading Moscow to offer Tehran more in exchange for its support. Therefore, Israel would do well to realize that, as long as the war continues, the options available to it for gnawing at Russia’s tightening relations with Iran are extremely limited.
In view of the growing threat posed by Iran, and the axis being forged between Tehran and Moscow, which increases the former’s sense of security as well, Israel should form a combined strategic perception with two main underlying anchors. The first and primary among the two is preserving its special relations with the United States, and advancing accelerated force buildup processes, due to the understanding that Israel’s special strategic and security ties with the United States are crucial to any attempt to impede the Iranian nuclear program, and counter the growing threat that Tehran poses. The incoming Israeli government should therefore avoid taking any destabilizing steps or actions that could be interpreted as being adverse to the values it shares with the United States, thereby causing relations and collaborations between the two counties to sour.
Israel would do well to take advantage of the window of opportunities opened as a result of the United States and Europe growing more and more furious with Iran, particularly in view of the help the latter has been offering Russia in its war with Ukraine, and its vicious approach to its own domestic riots, to garner western support for promoting various alternatives by which to curb the Iranian nuclear program, and impede Tehran’s efforts to improve its offensive capabilities (missiles, drones). The West could do so, inter alia, by exerting significantly greater pressure on the regime economically and domestically, and imposing sanctions on organizations and individuals involved in the nuclear program or in terror activities.
At the same time, the new Israeli government should actively maintain its relationship with Russia on both political and security levels. It is especially in view of tightening ties between Russia and Iran that Israel should adopt a cautious approach to Ukraine’s requests, and avoid crossing Russia’s red lines (especially by providing it with air-defense systems). The reason being that a potential destabilization of Israel’s relations with Russia could cause the latter to retaliate both regionally and with respect to Russian Jewry, and such tolls paid would play directly into the hands of Iran. Against the backdrop of the escalating tension with Iran in recent months, Israel should keep all options available to it for taking action against Tehran, and limiting its progress in the area uninterruptedly.
Furthermore, in the field of nuclear, Israel would do well to reiterate in its dialogue with Moscow the potential risks that ongoing progress made in the Iranian nuclear program poses both for Israel itself, and for regional stability as a whole.
Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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