Moscow improved its historically strained relationship with Tehran after the Soviet Union collapsed, and by the nineties, a strategic partnership seemed to emerge. Today, observers argue the relationship has reversed to opportunism and rivalry. This is partly true. Relations are best understood as tactical and based on pragmatic interests despite rivalries and weak economic ties. Although relations are tactical, the partnership is deeply rooted in mutual values and will likely endure.
Partners and rivals in the Middle East
Moscow and Tehran have allied to prevent regime change in Syria. Iranian proxies and Russian airstrikes (of which 14% targeted ISIS) helped Assad increase his control of Syria from 16% to 48% of the country between 2015 and 2018 (France-Pesse, 2018). Where the alliance turns into rivalry is Syria’s reconstruction as Tehran aims to embed itself within the Syrian state through non-state actors, whereas Moscow seeks to restore centralized state authority.
Rivalry emerges from the opposing visions. Speculators say Moscow called its debts to pressure al-Assad to seize Rami Makhlouf’s assets because he helped Tehran acquire telecommunications contracts and a port in Latakia. That the port deal and contracts were annulled arguably confirms speculations as does the reorganization of the Makhlouf-financed Tiger Forces into Syria’s 25th special division. The moves signal Russia’s push to unite militias under the Syrian army, which contrasts Iran’s recruitment of militias in Sunni Arab heartlands. Rivalry does not necessarily mean hostility as Moscow and Tehran will likely agree on spheres of influence in Syria to prevent regime change.
However, Russia-Israel relations will continue to cause friction. Moscow supported Israel’s 50 miles safe zone and likely helped Tel Aviv strike Hezbollah and Iranian military facilities in Syria as Russian air defence systems were inactive during the attacks. Despite this, Iran’s military presence in Syria has grown, and in July 2020, the Iran-Syrian pact authorized the deployment of Iranian air defense missile systems in Syria. The pact challenges Russia’s monopoly over Syrian airspace and heightens Israel-Iran tensions, which strains Moscow’s relationship with Tehran.
Moscow has also strained relations with Tehran by lobbying Saudi Arabia. Sanctions make Iran vulnerable to increases in the price of oil, and between January and May 2018, Moscow helped Riyadh raise the price of oil from $70 to $80 per barrel (Parker, 2019, p. 13). In return, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Jubeir stated in 2019: “We want Russia to replace Iran in Syria” (Parker, 2019, p. 2013). Efforts to lobby Saudi Arabia show how Moscow is willing to upset Teran to preserve ties with other players, and one such player is Washington.
Washington, Russia, and Iran
Moscow frequently uses Tehran as a “bargaining chip” when relations with Washington improve and as a means to show discontent when relations sour. Improved relations saw Moscow cancel $3 billion in arms to Tehran in 1995. A decade later, when relations soured over NATO enlargement, Moscow sold Tehran $1.2 billion in arms and S-300 missiles but later canceled the deal after Obama reset relations in 2010. Since the Crimean annexation collapsed relations, Moscow has sold the S-300 missiles again and arms worth $8 billion. Fluctuating arms deals show how Moscow uses Tehran to engage with Washington. However, policy is not determined by relations with Washington. Even at the peak of Andrei Kozyrev’s pro-Western foreign policy (1991-1995), Moscow improved relations with Tehran through mediation in the Tajik Civil War (1992-1997) and Washington’s democratization agenda has given Moscow and Tehran a sense of commonality since the Colour Revolutions and the Green Movement. Regime Survival and anti-Americanism are however, only two factors in Russia-Iran relations.
Economic ties are weak
A weak factor is economic ties. Mega-deals agreed since 2011, such as the contracts worth $70 billion and the $30 billion “roadmap for strategic investments,” remain unimplemented and contrast actual trade. Since the nineties, Iranian exports to Russia have never surpassed $500 million. While Russian exports to Iran grew to $3.7 billion between 1995 and 2010, the value has collapsed in the last decade to $1.2 billion. However, trade recently picked up. Russian exports grew by 26% between 2018 and 2019 to $1.6 billion, and growth has continued despite Covid-19. This may reflect the increased usage of rials and rubles to an estimated 50% of transactions. Despite growth, today’s trade represents a significantly weaker economic relationship than what Russia has with Turkey, Israel, or Egypt.
Cooperation is strongest with regional stability. Tehran has ceded to Russian interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, Georgian, and Ukrainian conflicts. Tehran also helped Moscow in the Tajik Civil War (1992-1997) and prevented Muslim unrest in the Caucuses by sponsoring a pro-Russian resolution in the Islamic Forum. In Afghanistan, Moscow and Tehran have shared intelligence to fight the Taliban. They also hosted parallel talks with the Taliban in 2016 and cooperated on anti-drug trafficking and anti-terrorism operations. As a result of Tehran’s Russian-centric policy, Moscow has come to consider Tehran a stabilizing force.
The Caspian Sea’s legal status has historically destabilised relations as the sea possibly contains 16-53% of global gas reserves (Tarock, 1997, p. 125). When Moscow agreed to divide the Caspian Sea along each state’s coastline, it broke its agreement with Tehran to oppose unilateral action by littoral states to exploit resources and, in effect, reduced Iran’s share from its claim of 20-50% to 11-13% of the sea (Grajewski, 2020, p. 13). Despite the dispute over the Caspian Sea, which Tehran only settled in 2018, Moscow and Tehran have achieved the mutual goal of preventing NATO presence in the region by agreeing to prohibit the military forces of non-littoral states. Therefore, mutual concerns about liberal interventionism and US unilateralism trump long-held disputes and translate into strong regional security cooperation.
An enduring partnership
To conclude, the ability to overcome rivalry in the Caspian Sea and Syria despite weak economic ties shows how the shared vision of a pluralistic international system that ensures regime survival deeply anchors Russia-Iran relations. The tactical partnership is therefore, likely to endure.
Albin Touma has previously worked in research roles at the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. He is a fellow at the International Youth Think Tank and recently graduated from the University of Glasgow with a first class degree in History and Politics.
France-Pesse, A. (2018). Study: Russian Support Gave Assad Half of Syria. Retrieved September 2020,
from Voanews: https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/study-russian-support-gave-assad-half-syria
Grajewski, N. (2020). Friends or Frenemies? How Russia and Iran Compete and Cooperate. United
States of America: Foreign Policy Research Institute. Retrieved September 2, 2020
Parker, J. (2019, January). Between Russia and Iran: Room to Pursue American Interests in Syria.
Strategic Perspectives, 27, pp. 1-22.
Tarock, A. (1997). Iran and Russia in 'strategic alliance'. Third World Quarterly, 18(2), 217-224.