Are Russia and Iran forging a strategic alliance?
Vladimir Putin’s recent trip to Tehran for a trilateral summit with Iranian leaders and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggests so. As does Russia’s use of imported Iranian drones, based on stolen U.S. technology. As does the $10 billion role being openly played by Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company, in helping Iran build its nuclear weapons program.
Yet the Biden administration prefers to see things differently. Ignoring large sections of observable reality, President Joe Biden continues to rely on Russia as a good faith mediator to negotiate a return to the failed Iran nuclear deal of 2015—better known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This reliance requires the White House to dismiss the obvious fact that Russia’s mediation is really advocacy on Iran’s behalf, which in turn helps to fuel Russia’s war machine in Ukraine and make a mockery of U.S. sanctions against Putin. Yet the convergence of Tehran’s and Moscow’s interests does not translate into a full-fledged alliance, many experts say.
Why? The conventional wisdom dictates that for all the current cooperation between Iran and Russia, past enmity and divergent goals continue to undermine their relationship. According to this view, shared interests persist, but so do divergent ones. All is shrouded in the fog of historical rivalry and mistrust.
A sure sign that this reassuring view might be off the mark is what regime apologist Seyed Hossein Mousavian—the former Iranian ambassador to Germany who bizarrely distributes his pro-regime propaganda from an academic post at Princeton University—wrote in February to downplay the depth of Iran’s cooperation with Russia. Relations are good, he stated, but “far from truly strategic.” Mousavian has a history of running interference on Iran’s behalf, since his days in Berlin in the 1990s, when Iran was on trial for the murder of Kurdish activists in a local restaurant. When a man like Mousavian takes to the pages of The National Interest to reassure Americans that the Moscow-Tehran axis is not a thing, it’s probably a thing.
The problem for the Biden administration is that, for more than 18 months now, it has expressed unwavering faith in the power of multilateral diplomacy, which includes the Russians, to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The White House is negotiating with Russia and Iran as if there were no war in Ukraine; no Russian criminal negligence regarding nuclear safety in Ukraine’s occupied areas; no Russian nuclear saber rattling against the West; and no ongoing, documented JCPOA violations by Iran—to say nothing of a Kremlin with zero credibility in upholding any agreement it signs. Yet when it comes to questions of nuclear war or peace, Putin is suddenly a trustworthy partner.
Treating major national security crises such as Russian aggression in Europe and Iran’s rush to nuclear weapons capability as if they inhabited parallel universes may be expedient. But it signals a lack of comprehension of the growing alignment between two authoritarian regimes whose approaches to the biggest policy questions facing each largely overlap. Spoiler: They are not on the side of the West. This is a reality Washington has sought to compartmentalize in the hope of reaching, yet again, an elusive grand bargain in the Middle East with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Washington needs to confront the deepening relationship between two paranoid dictatorships for what it is: an emerging coalition of totalitarian rogue states, backed by China, which is hellbent on reshaping the world and overturning the Western democratic rules-based order. This order, imperfect though it is, promotes human rights, democracy, free trade, open societies, and good governance. It rejects the use of force for conquest, and believes in the power of diplomacy, goodwill, and good faith cooperation between nations. This is the order that Iran and Russia, whether or not the White House considers them good faith diplomatic partners, wish to subvert.
Since the 2012-16 Iranian- and Russian-backed siege of Aleppo in support of the murderous Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, the Moscow-Tehran axis has only grown stronger, its strategic cooperation deeper, and its reciprocity more encompassing. Just as Russia came to Iran’s rescue in Syria in 2015, Iran is now willing to return the favor in Ukraine. And with each step, the two regimes are drawing closer.
Exhibit No. 1: The Islamic Republic styles itself as a defender of the oppressed against imperialism. Yet Iran voiced public support for Russia’s imperialist war of aggression in Ukraine and coordinated disinformation operations with Moscow to peddle Russian conspiracy theories in order to excuse its mass atrocities. That’s not because of a passing moment of strategic convergence. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that the West wanted to prevent “independent and strong” Russia. In Tehran’s view, Moscow is oppressed by the West, which uses Ukraine as its pawn.
Exhibit No. 2: Iran is not just paying lip service to Putin’s imperial quest; it is also providing material support to Russia’s war effort. Amid the diplomatic flurry of tyrants patting each other’s backs, the Biden administration revealed that Iran may soon supply its drones to the Russian army. According to Ukrainian authorities Russia has already deployed them in combat. Iran, meanwhile, has launched a logistical airlift to Russia since the beginning of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Weapons caches from Iraq have been finding their way to Russia through Iran for quite some time.
Exhibit No. 3: Tehran and Moscow have negotiated a 20-year economic and military cooperation agreement. Their bilateral trade is reportedly growing. Russia’s energy industry is ready to invest in Iran’s natural gas—a lucrative sector that suffered a lost decade due to international sanctions and the withdrawal of Western energy giants from Iran. The ultimate beneficiary of this alliance will be China, which stands behind both countries, and has an unquenchable need for imported energy.
Exhibit No. 4: Western sanctions on Russia and China not only encourage the two governments to work together, but also breed a sense of shared grievance and common destiny. No wonder they have both begun to take small steps to de-dollarize their bilateral trade. This is not just transactionally convenient; it is a move imbued with an aspiration, no matter how delusional, to undermine the global dominance of the U.S. dollar in international trade and finance. The two countries also cooperate to stymie Western sanctions: In 2018, for example, the U.S. Treasury Department targeted an Iranian-Russian oil network that helped Assad bypass U.S. sanctions. Iran has also agreed to assist Russia in the field of aircraft spare parts and maintenance, where Iran’s aviation sector, long under sanctions, has extensive experience both in procurement and in manufacturing that can now assist Russia’s newly sanctioned fleet. Meanwhile, Russian entities are helping Iran evade sanctions on its own energy sector.
Exhibit No. 5: Iranian-Russian military cooperation is growing, as is a shared commitment to prop up anti-Western regimes. Iranian media recently reported that Russia and Iran are poised to participate in joint military exercises in Venezuela alongside China and others. The exercises, a yearly Russia-sponsored war games’ competition, include Iran, China, Belarus, Myanmar, and “Abkhazia” (the Russian-occupied “republic” in Georgia). Russia just reportedly launched a spy satellite on Iran’s behalf that it initially plans to use for its war in Ukraine.
Russia and Iran, in their previous incarnations, had a long history of rivalry, especially in the buffer zones and borderlands between the two empires, which, over the centuries, Russia gradually gobbled up from Iran. The shah sided with the United States during the Cold War, and the Islamic Republic, despite its anti-Western, Marxist-tinged revolutionary fervor, looked to the godless communists with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. “Neither East, nor West,” thundered the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder, first supreme leader, and ideologue-in-chief.
Yet rivals of yesteryear have more than once become staunch allies: The past enmity between the United States and Great Britain and between France and Germany is the subject of light banter today. As for Russia and Iran, some of their interests still do not coincide: Since 2015, for example, Russia has allowed Israel to thwart Iranian military escalation in Syria and Lebanon, although that too may be changing, given Russia’s increasingly vocal criticism of Israel’s stance on Ukraine and its threat to close the Jewish Agency’s Russia offices.
As far as strategic convergence goes, look no further than the respective Russian and Iranian echo chambers and the content of their disinformation ops, which are so aligned that their stated policies toward the United States have become virtually indistinguishable.
Russia’s propaganda supporting its rape of Ukraine echoes Iran’s bloodcurdling dehumanization of Israel.
Though the ideological premises for close alignment predate the Syrian civil war, the current pattern of close cooperation began to consolidate in the crucible of that war, which engulfed the Levant as the Obama administration was finalizing the details of the JCPOA in 2015.
When Bashar Assad, a wily and cruel dictator who preferred to destroy his own country and murder its people than concede power to popular protests, was in danger of losing control, he had only Iran and Russia to save him. Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the elite Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, boarded a commercial flight in Tehran and headed to Moscow in July of 2015, as nuclear negotiations in Vienna were in their final stages. Soleimani was on a mission to finalize the details of Iranian-Russian military cooperation in Syria’s civil war. Both countries worried that the Assad regime and its Iranian auxiliaries were being overrun in Aleppo. Russia’s air support could change that.
Soleimani’s gamble succeeded. Russia, already supplying the Assad regime with weapons and diplomatic cover, entered the fray and ruled the skies while Soleimani deployed every proxy militia Iran could mobilize on the ground. Russia’s entry into the war led to a reversal of fortunes for Assad and Iran. Aleppo was turned to rubble but restored to Assad’s control. The regime emptied Syria’s Sunni countryside, sending tens of thousands of Syrians to Assad’s torture chambers. Many more fled as refugees, pressuring neighboring states and Western sensitivities in what would become the first great, man-made refugee crisis of the 21st century.
Today, Russia has moved beyond cruel realpolitik and propagates the view that its new manifest destiny is to wipe an entire people off the map of Europe while stemming the tide of moral decay it attributes to the West. Depicting the West as irredeemably decadent and depraved is not unprecedented—Russia has been officially bemoaning our depravity since the 19th century. What is new is that this discourse, amplified by Russia’s propaganda supporting its rape of Ukraine, has become so vicious that it echoes Iran’s bloodcurdling dehumanization of Israel and its righteous contempt for the West.
Russia and Iran are revisionist powers bent on reestablishing their hegemonic rule. They have found enough common ground to align where it matters most: undermining U.S. influence and values. Russia is not just engaged in a war of aggression against its neighbor; it wants to upset the global balance of power by building a league of authoritarian states that includes Iran, China, and Venezuela—a strategy that is clearly reminiscent of the Cold War.
The past is not a foreign country, to borrow the title of a landmark essay by the historian Anita Shapira. It carries weight. Ancient rivalries can be overcome by new realities. Moscow and Tehran are drawing closer. Pretending otherwise is to flirt with disaster.
Emanuele Ottolenghi (@eottolenghi) is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington, D.C.