Can the budding Russia-Iran relationship survive diverging regional interests?
Out of the ruins of the Syrian civil war, the Russian-Iranian relationship has deepened significantly. Bilateral ties will continue to strengthen as the two nations pursue similar objectives – such as marginalising America’s role in the region – but they will not be without fault. Russia and Iran will be hard pressed to maintain ties as disputes stemming from conflicting interests in trade and regional politics arise.
FRIENDS IN NEED
Relations between Iran and Russia have historically been based on arms. Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Tehran became isolated from Western powers and the weapons they provided. The most explicit form of this isolation was the sanctions regime imposed by the US. While nominally supporting these sanctions, the Soviet Union became Iran’s main source of military hardware, transferring $772 million worth of arms in peak years.
This dynamic continued after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has maintained a civil but narrow relationship with Iran. Moscow supplied weapons to Iran throughout the 2000s and tried to diversify trade in 2014 with a $20 billion oil-for-goods program. However, Russia was never able to become a primary trade partner for Iran, and diplomatic relations remained limited.
The relationship improved greatly during the Syrian civil war. Both countries came out in support of the Assad regime early on and eventually invested military assets in the conflict. To cooperate effectively, Russia and Iran expanded diplomatic ties, and in 2015, Putin removed Russian sanctions on Iran. Subsequently, trade in the energy sector alone increased by 80 per cent.
Today, relations between Tehran and Moscow are at an all-time high. However, conflicting interests threaten to destabilise the relationship.
NO EAST, NO WEST
Initially meant as a rejection of the two main blocs of the Cold War era, Iran’s longstanding “no east, no west” principle continues to find relevance in its foreign policy. While all candidates in the May 2017 election will continue to seek economic cooperation with Russia, this will not trump their desire to protect Iranian national interests.
Also, Russia could well find itself competing with the West – particularly European powers, which have already begun conducting extensive trade missions to Tehran. For Iran’s moderates, rapprochement with the West is important, and the easing of trade restrictions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action provides the opportunity to do just that. Given Russia’s record of delayed trade deals, inferior private sector technology, and the possibility of long-term competition with Iran’s energy sector, trade with the West will likely become more attractive to centrists in Tehran.
Even Iranian conservatives, who are suspicious of the West, distrust Russia and its regional motives. Hard-liners in Iran’s parliament were vocally critical of Russia’s use of the country’s Hamadan airbase in 2016, arguing that this deal was too much of a swing to the east. They will have little desire to see Russia gain significant influence over Iran’s economy.
THE RUSSIAN PERSPECTIVE
As Russia becomes increasingly active in the Middle East, it will become apparent that Moscow’s long-term objectives have little in common with Tehran’s. In several cases, Russia stands to benefit from cooperating with Iranian adversaries.
Putin has established strong relations with Israel, Iran’s foremost regional antagonist. There is a mutually beneficial economic incentive for relations between Russia, an exporter of raw materials, and Israel, which possesses a highly developed technology sector. This relationship has proved so advantageous that talks of a free trade zone are currently underway.
The possibility of a growing relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will also concern Iran. In the past, Russia has turned on Iran when relations with the US strengthened. In the midst of Obama’s reset policy in 2010, Russia voted in favour of UN sanctions and put the brakes on a deal to export S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. If the Kremlin sees the benefit of cooperating with the US again – this time with an administration that is both ardently critical of Iran and somewhat supportive of Russia – Iran may lose out.
The initial bonding of Iran and Russia through the Syrian conflict is subsiding as discussion about the post-war order gets underway. Iran has supported a variety of proxies in the war as it seeks Shi’ite control of Syria – which does not necessarily mean Assad. Moscow, on the other hand, is not concerned with the sectarian makeup of Syria. Russia’s main goal is to maintain a reliable ally in Assad and secure the Syrian coast, along which lies the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. While up to this point Iranian and Russian interests in Syria have complemented one another, the difference in their ultimate aims has begun to test the quasi-alliance.
In short, the Syrian conflict has allowed Russia and Iran to become close, but their relationship is far from secure.
After decades of limited relations based on the trade in arms, the tacit alliance formed during the Syrian civil war has propelled Iranian-Russian relations to new highs. However, domestic Iranian politics and Russia’s foreign policy agenda threaten to fracture this relationship. Strengthening ties between the two will become increasingly challenging as regional and trade interests begin to conflict.