Russia’s recent use of an Iranian air base to bomb targets across Syria marks a striking new development in the history of Russian-Iranian relations. Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, Iran had unsuccessfully resisted Russian designs to control its land and influence its politics. Iran’s 1979 revolution was meant, among other things, to restore the country’s sovereignty against great powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom, and to stand up to the atheist Soviet Union. Yet in contrast with the past, Russia now is no longer an uninvited imperial power, but a welcome strategic partner—the first time since 1979 that Iran has allowed foreign military personnel to operate from its territory.

As Moscow reenters the Middle East after a quarter-century break, it understands the importance of Iran, one of the most important countries along Russia’s southern periphery. Russia is fully ready to engage with Iran on a wide range of bilateral, regional, and international issues involving trade, energy, and security. Yet although the two countries share many goals and cooperation looks promising, the relationship is still relatively fragile and policy disagreements between them must be handled deftly.

Russian and Iranian foreign policy goals converge or diverge depending on the issue. Despite the ongoing U.S.-Russian confrontation, Moscow partnered with Washington and other world capitals to achieve the recent nuclear agreement with Iran. Russians and Iranians are close military allies in Syria. However, their political strategies in that country may diverge. In the wider Middle East, Moscow and Tehran pursue very different objectives, but in the greater Eurasian context, Russia looks forward to Iran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a political forum of non-Western countries co-chaired by China and Russia.

What, then, are the drivers behind Russia’s policy toward Iran? It is worthwhile to examine Moscow’s long-term goals and short-term objectives, as well as how they fit in with Russia’s other important relationships, both regionally and globally.

Iran’s Regional Importance

Even after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Iran has remained Russia’s neighbor across the Caspian Sea. With over 2,500 years of mostly unbroken statehood, Iran is virtually a permanent fixture in the otherwise highly volatile environment south of the Russian border. Whatever the regime in Tehran, Russia needs a relationship with it.

Iran is no longer a sphere of influence for Russia and Great Britain, as it was during the nineteenth century, nor is it a junior ally of the United States as it was between the 1950s and 1970s. It is an independent regional power wielding influence from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to Afghanistan in the east, and from the South Caucasus in the north to the Yemeni port of Aden in the south. In its decades-long confrontation with the United States since 1979, Iran has proven its resilience. A Shiite, non-Arab Iran is a loner in a Middle East characterized by countries largely populated with Sunni Arabs, but Moscow recognizes that there can be few lasting outcomes in the region without Tehran’s participation or consent.

Key Issues for Russian-Iranian Relations

Generally, Russia wants Iran to be a stable and friendly neighbor. Moscow might have a preference for more pragmatic Iranian leaders, but is basically prepared to deal with anyone who is in charge in Tehran, unless, of course, they challenge Russian interests.

There is little ideological affinity between present-day Russian and Iranian leaders. Iran is an Islamic theocracy, whereas Russia is a secular authoritarian state, with the Orthodox Church traditionally serving as a junior partner of the Kremlin. Both leaderships and societies are highly nationalistic, sensitive to their previous glory, and determined to regain their status in global and regional terms. There is not much trust between them either. Iranians remember czarist conquests and Soviet attempts at domination, and Russians complain about Persian evasiveness and duplicity.

Both leaderships are currently motivated by strong animus toward the United States, which has imposed sanctions on both countries, and this shapes their prevailing worldviews. Like Russia, Iran rejects U.S. dominance in the global system, and seeks to reduce that dominance in its own region. Moscow and Tehran are partners in opposing the existing world order.

Russia’s outreach to Iran—a major Muslim country—is important in bolstering Moscow’s image as friendly to Islam and open to a “dialogue of civilizations.” This concept was favored by former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami and is supported by the Kremlin as part of its efforts to make the global order more multipolar. Such cultural solidarity has a pragmatic side. Russians appreciate that Tehran did not criticize Moscow’s military campaigns in Chechnya and backed Russia’s observer status in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now called the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) in 2005.

As Russia seeks to build economic ties to the countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia along a north-south axis, Iran is a key transit country. At a trilateral summit in Baku, Azerbaijan, in August 2016, Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan pledged to work hard to develop a 7,200-kilometer-long trading corridor linking their countries, mostly by rail. For Russia, Iran provides economic opportunities given its population size and potential for technological, educational, and cultural growth.

Yet, so far, economic relations between the two countries have usually taken a backseat to geopolitics. Iran’s principal export, oil, is not something that Russia is interested in buying, and Iranians mostly prefer more advanced Western technology to that of Russia. At present, Russia’s trade with Iran is small in scale—approximately $1.2 billion in 2015, down from $3.5 billion each year in 2010 and 2011, after which Russia joined UN-mandated sanctions against Iran. But Moscow hopes to expand its exports to Iran now that major economic sanctions against Tehran have been lifted.

In anticipation of this, there was talk in 2015 of potential investment deals amounting to $40 billion. Achieving this will not be easy. Cash-strapped Moscow is finding it hard to provide Tehran with substantial credit to stimulate Iranian imports from Russia. In the summer of 2016, the Russian government released two loans to Iran totaling 2.2 billion euros (about $2.5 billion), but a promised $5 billion loan to Tehran has yet to materialize.

Major Russian civilian stakeholders are exploring opportunities in Iran. Rosatom, the nuclear energy corporation, is looking for new orders to complete after it finishes constructing reactors at Bushehr. Lukoil, Russia’s largest privately owned oil company, is seeking to move into Iran’s oil and gas sector, and the Russian aerospace industry is looking for export markets as it is recovers from its post–Soviet era nadir. In the current post-sanctions environment, however, these companies face competition from European firms that have reentered the Iranian market.  

With regard to energy relations, although Iran is a potential rival to Russia as a producer, Russians are taking the long view. The 2015 resumption of Iranian oil exports to Europe, predictably, has come at some cost to Russia, in terms of market share and oil prices, but this did not deter Moscow from actively pursuing the P5+1 nuclear deal with Tehran, which lifted the embargo. In March 2016, Iran did not agree to cap its oil production to support oil prices, as Moscow had advocated doing; yet the Russians professed understanding of Iran’s situation. When Iran finally begins exporting its natural gas to Europe, the principal market for Russia’s Gazprom, Moscow will not like it but will probably take this in stride. Rather than opposing something it cannot prevent, Russia has been demonstrating its sangfroid, while seeking to limit the damage to its interests and cementing important relationships.

Russia’s defense industry is one of the principal beneficiaries of the country’s relationship with Iran. Even when the last of the economic sanctions are removed, Iran will still be denied access to Western military technologies and hardware. Russia’s Rosoboronexport, which sells weapons systems, views Iran as an important market. Iran’s increasing oil revenues make it a more credible customer. In early 2016, Russia finally delivered to Iran the S-300 air defense system, which it had previously not done to put pressure on Tehran during the nuclear talks. Meanwhile, Tehran has been considering purchasing the more advanced S-400 system from Moscow. Russia has stated that there are no restrictions on selling Iran the T-90 main battle tank or the Su-30 fighter aircraft.

Keeping Nuclear Weapons Out

Russia acknowledges Iran’s ambition to be a major Middle Eastern player, but it wants it to stay a non-nuclear-weapons state. Moscow’s stance on the Iranian nuclear issue has been driven mainly by Russian national interests, and was thus unaffected by the U.S.-Russian confrontation in 2014. The Russians certainly want the nuclear deal with Iran—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—to hold, the alternatives being either a nuclear-armed Iran or a major war on Russia’s doorstep. However, with the agreement under attack from influential quarters in Washington and opposed by the more hardline elements in Tehran, its implementation cannot be taken for granted.

Moscow, which throughout the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program was generally more understanding of Iran’s position than the Western members of the P5+1 group, will have an important role to play, for example, in terms of reprocessing spent fuel. If, however, the JCPOA falters and U.S.-Iranian tensions spike again, Russia will have to make some hard choices. It might try to play the role of good cop, or act as a mediator. However, it should not be expected to automatically follow the United States. Depending on the level and intensity of the U.S.-Russian confrontation, the isolated pocket of cooperation between the two countries on Iran may not always remain a protected area. Moscow also has been looking with concern at the development of Iran’s medium-range missile program, but this concern is now rarely made public. 

Cooperation and Competition in Syria

To Russia, Iran has been a valuable geopolitical ally in a number of areas, including Afghanistan, Syria, and the southern areas of the former Soviet Union. In Syria, Iran and its Hezbollah allies have provided forces on the ground in support of the government in Damascus, along with significant financial support, while Russia provides Damascus with air support, artillery, and intelligence, as well as arms, matériel, and diplomatic cover. Since the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Moscow has been coordinating its operations there with both Damascus and Tehran, and also has worked closely with the Tehran-friendly government of Iraq. Russia obtained permission from Iran and Iraq to use their airspace for cruise missile strikes in Syria. Such coordination, it should be stressed, does not restrict Russia’s freedom of action. Moscow notified Iran about both the September 2015 decision to engage militarily in Syria and the March 2016 partial drawdown of the air campaign, and consulted about coordination both times; however, this was not made part of a joint decisionmaking process. Russia’s use of an Iranian air base beginning in August 2016 for its bombing missions in Syria marked an upgrade in the quality of military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran. It was the first time since 1979 that Iran has allowed foreign military personnel to operate from its territory.

While Moscow, like Tehran, seeks to prevent the toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the triumph of the Islamist extremists, there is a fundamental divergence between the two governments’ goals. The Russians want to preserve some kind of a Syrian state, under a regime reformed with their active participation—such a regime would continue to be friends with Moscow. Their end goal, however, is not to preserve Assad, over whom they have limited influence, or to maintain Alawite rule. While Russia’s ongoing direct intervention in Syria has prevented the defeat of Assad’s forces, it also has resulted in the relative reduction of Iran’s influence in Damascus. Moscow also has been paying attention to Israel’s security needs, in Syria and elsewhere—something which is clearly at odds with Tehran’s use of Hezbollah as its geopolitical tool on Israel’s borders. Moreover, despite the de facto alliance over Syria, Moscow has insisted on Iran paying full price for the armaments it purchases from Russia.

The Iranians, by contrast, are fighting to keep the Assad regime in power, to preserve crucial supply links to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and to shore up their influence in so-called useful Syria— a reference to Syrian territory that the Assad regime still controls. These goals can only be achieved with the help of Iran’s Shiite and Alawite allies. Thus, while the Russians are aiming for an outcome that might eventually include some sort of a political compromise that involves Syria’s disparate warring factions and key regional players, the Iranians are focused on achieving military victory for their party. The Iranians are unhappy that the Russians are not giving enough support to Hezbollah and other Shiite forces on the ground and that they have not been active enough on some key battlefronts, such as Aleppo last June.

A major goal of the Russian intervention in Syria has been winning U.S. recognition of Moscow’s great-power role. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, have acted as informal co-chairs of the intra-Syrian negotiations process that aims to achieve a political settlement. In February 2016, they brokered an agreement on the cessation of hostilities in Syria which has since been violated. The United States and Russia, however, also have had a record of success. In 2013, they reached a landmark accord to rid Syria of chemical weapons, which has since been implemented despite the ongoing civil war.

Iran has watched U.S.-Russian collaboration on Syria with suspicion, fearful that they may collude at the expense of Tehran’s interests. There is also distrust on the U.S. side. One reason for Washington’s refusal to share information with Russia on the Syrian opposition forces is its concern that such information could be leaked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Moscow, for its part, has been weighing the implications of Iran’s rapprochement with European Union countries following the signing of the JCPOA. However, the Russians are much more relaxed about the possibility that Tehran might tilt toward the United States. They see the obstacles to radical improvement in the U.S.-Iranian relationship as fundamental ones, and such an outcome as highly unlikely.

Russian-Iranian Relations in Other Regional Settings

In Afghanistan, Iran and Russia have been allies since the Taliban gained power in Kabul in 1996. The two countries actively collaborated with the United States to defeat the Taliban in 2001. Since then, the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan has been both a relief in security terms and a source of geopolitical anxiety for Moscow and Tehran. On the one hand, U.S. forces in the Hindu Kush mountains took on al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists who also posed a threat to Russia and Iran; on the other, the U.S. military presence in the region greatly increased Washington’s influence in Russia’s and Iran’s backyards. Now, as the Western military presence in Afghanistan progressively wanes, the Iranians and the Russians will need to collaborate more closely again to prevent instability in Afghanistan from threatening their own security interests. Another source of worry for Iran and Russia is drug trafficking from Afghanistan, for which the two countries are both transit territories and growing markets.

In the future, Moscow and Tehran may also find common cause in Central Asia, if the security environment in that former Soviet region seriously deteriorates. They have a history of cooperation there. In 1997, Moscow and Tehran joined forces to end the brutal civil war in Persian-speaking Tajikistan. In the South Caucasus, Iran has stayed on the sidelines of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, allowing Moscow and the other Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairs, the United States and France, to mediate between the warring parties. It was in large part thanks to Iran that landlocked Christian Armenia, a Russian ally, could keep a lifeline to the outside world.  

In a number of other areas, however, Russia and Iran remain apart. Moscow views Hezbollah as a sectarian politico-military grouping that warrants engagement, but it has reservations about its more violent activities. Russia also takes a more neutral stance toward the civil war in Yemen, where Iran supports the Houthi tribes. Crucially, Russia does not support Iran’s agenda in the Persian Gulf. While Tehran reaches out to various Shiite forces as it seeks to bolster its regional position in the bitter rivalry with the Sunni Arab powers led by Saudi Arabia, Moscow has carefully steered clear of the Sunni-Shia conflict.

The Dogma of Flexibility

Moscow is reentering the Middle East as a very different kind of player than it was during the Soviet period. The salient feature of its engagement today is its largely nonpartisan approach, by which Russia promotes its interests while remaining on speaking terms with all players in the region. The only exception to this has been Turkey, which in November 2015 shot down a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border—an act that impaired Russian-Turkish relations until Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized to President Putin seven months later. After the meeting of the two presidents in St. Petersburg in August 2016, Russian-Turkish ties are being restored. They may even grow tighter than before, given President Erdogan’s complaints about U.S. and EU behavior at the time of the attempted military coup in Turkey in July 2016. As an overall rule, then, Russia retains flexibility in the region, maintaining a margin for maneuvering in both its alliances and conflicts, except for the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, against which its commitment is complete.

Russia’s close relations with Iran have had a bearing on Moscow’s ties to Israel, as well as its links to a number of Arab countries, above all in the Persian Gulf. Russia’s ability to stay close to both Iran and Israel is a testament to the degree of Moscow’s foreign policy flexibility, the quality of its diplomatic skills, and the inherent limits on Russian-Iranian cooperation. As perhaps the only world leader who has met with both Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Putin has demonstrated his pragmatic, transactional, and realpolitik-based approach to foreign policy. Consistently, Russians have been less worried than the Israelis about Iran’s technical capabilities and its leadership’s political rationality, while at the same time warning about the dangers of an Israeli preemptive strike against Iran.

The Russians have been careful not to be drawn into a Sunni-Shia conflict, whether in Syria or in the Persian Gulf. To Moscow, the coalition it has formed with Baghdad, Damascus, and Tehran does not represent a Russia-Shia axis but only a meeting of interests. In Syria, the Russians have been reaching out, with limited success, to a range of Syrian opposition groups, in an effort to reach an acceptable peace settlement—something unthinkable for Iran. At the same time, Moscow repeatedly has made the point that no political settlement in Syria could be sustainable unless it is backed by Iran—a fact that many Syrian Sunnis have had difficulty swallowing.

Putin has also cultivated relations with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, the most populous Arab country, and a Sunni one at that. The Kremlin’s relations with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan are traditionally close. Leaders of all the smaller members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have recently traveled to Russia to confer with Putin. Moscow’s economic interests have pushed it to embrace the GCC states, but its strategic objectives make it a situational ally of Iran.

In this context, the biggest challenge for Moscow is to manage ties with Iran even as it deepens its dialogue with Saudi Arabia. Becoming partners with the Saudi kingdom and cementing friendships with other rich Gulf monarchies while maintaining and expanding relations with Iran could prove even more difficult than the feat of simultaneously dealing with Iran and Israel. Russia has no appetite for taking sides in the Iranian-Saudi dispute, but pursuing parallel relationships with countries that are bitter regional rivals is a test of its resourcefulness and litheness.   

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and before the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s relations with Iran were highly susceptible to the ups and downs in Moscow’s relationship with Washington. When pressed hard by the United States, Russia would often make concessions at the expense of their Iranian connection. In Tehran, such practices destroyed Russia’s credibility and made Iranian leaders even more cynical toward their colleagues in the Kremlin, whom they had never fully trusted to begin with. In the post-Ukraine era, this no longer applies because the severity of Moscow’s confrontation with Washington rules out such maneuvering, for now. Russia did not withhold its cooperation with the United States on Iran during the P5+1 talks, as many in the West had feared, but once the JCPOA was signed, Moscow proceeded with arms sales to and military cooperation with Iran without any regard for the U.S. attitude toward these moves.

Moscow is eager to have Iran join the SCO, which it has co-led with Beijing since its founding in 2001. The SCO’s forthcoming expansion in 2017, to include India and Pakistan, will serve Russia’s interest in diluting China’s weight in the organization. If Iran also joins as a full member following the lifting of sanctions that were imposed by the UN Security Council, China will be even more embedded within a group of its continental Asian partners. Russia, with its vast foreign policy expertise and diplomatic experience, would be able to benefit from such an arrangement. Tehran, however, has become more cautious toward that prospect, concerned about limiting its options precisely when the West, particularly Europe, is opening up to it.

Conclusion

For the time being, Russian-Iranian cooperation is much more pronounced than competition between the two countries. Disagreements between them—for example on how to divide the resource-rich Caspian Sea, which strategy to follow in Syria, and whether to cap oil production—are being managed more or less successfully, and are on the way to some sort of resolution.

However, the foundation of the relationship between Russia and Iran is relatively weak and imbalanced. Economic ties are underperforming and unimpressive. Mutual trust at the government level is largely lacking. Societal ties are virtually nonexistent. As Iran opens up due to the lifting of sanctions, Iranians are looking west not north. Iran is unlikely to become Russia’s soul mate, and the most Moscow and Tehran can hope for is a pragmatic relationship based on the two countries’ interests, as defined by their respective leaderships. Their international weight and connectivity differ greatly, creating a glaring asymmetry. While Russia is one of Iran’s two most important strategic partners (the other being China), Iran is much lower on the list of Russia’s priorities.  

The potential for discord between Iran and Russia exists in a number of domains—including Middle Eastern geopolitics, the Caspian Sea divisions, and natural gas exports—even if neither side at the moment regards it as in its interest to push hard against the other. For the foreseeable future, Moscow and Tehran need each other in order to accomplish their wider goals and objectives, even if they know that their cooperation has clear limits and can only decrease their competition rather than fully abolish it. This understanding, in turn, can make the relationship sustainable and even moderately successful, despite its shallow roots, sordid history (particularly for the Iranians), and deep and lingering distrust.