Facing economic and military difficulties in his invasion of Ukraine, the Russian president Vladimir Putin popped up last week in Iran’s capital Tehran. His plan was to show the world that, despite sanctions on Moscow and international aid for Ukraine’s resistance, he was not isolated. Putin got his photo opportunity with Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who bashed the US and Nato, insisting: “If you [Russia] had not taken the initiative, the other side would have caused the war with its own initiative.” There were more pictures with the Iranian and Turkish presidents, Ebrahim Raisi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For “anti-imperialist” — and thus pro-Kremlin — news sites such as The Cradle, this was proof of a new emerging bloc.
The Biden administration also saw a potential axis, declaring that Iran is preparing to send hundreds of armed drones to Moscow amid Russia’s military deficiencies and losses. But, beyond the pictures and posturing, the reality is more mundane. Russia’s relationship with Iran is not an alliance, but a convergence of interests at a time of crisis for each country. And the driver for this convergence is not strength but weakness: both Putin and the supreme leader are thumping their chests as a vaingloriously defiant response to international sanctions, political blowback over their ventures and the limits of their armed forces. This is a pact of the isolated.
Iran’s post-1979 relations with Moscow have fluctuated. Despite recognising the Islamic Republic, the Soviets supplied Saddam Hussein with weapons throughout the 1980- 88 Iran-Iraq War. The end of this conflict, soon followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, brought reconciliation with economic links, arms deals, and an agreement for Russia to build Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr. But amid the post-9/11 Middle East and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Putin – still consolidating his own power in Russia – played a cautious hand. Russia let the US tangle itself in knots in the region, but shared US and European concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. Moscow was part of the P5+1 powers (Russia, US, UK, France, Germany, China) negotiating a nuclear deal with Tehran.
It supported UN sanctions and suspended a deal with Iran to deliver advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. Iranians chided the Russians over delays in the completion of the Bushehr reactor. The catalyst for a closer relationship was the Syrian uprising of March 2011. Both Russia and Iran provided logistical, intelligence and propaganda support for the Assad regime from the outset of its repression of mass protests. With Assad’s military at risk of dissolution, Tehran committed itself in September 2012 to establish a 50,000-strong Syrian militia, and brought in Iranian personnel fighters from Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon. Opposition factions, Kurdish groups and the Islamic State still took most of Syria. So, in September 2015, Russia launched its massive military intervention with special forces, sieges and bombardment of the opposition territory.
Bashar al-Assad was propped up, and Syria fractured into three parts: Turkish-backed opposition in the northwest, the Kurdish-controlled northeast, and Russian and Iranian-backed regime territory elsewhere. Linked by their calculations that Assad was the flawed but preferred vehicle for their positions, Russia and Iran had established a short-term “tacit security arrangement” – “tacit” meaning the relationship is limited, informal and based on mutual interests. Russia has increasingly spoken out against US sanctions on Tehran, but it is still part of the P5+1 process to bring the US back into the deal — and to ensure Iranian compliance. It has maintained a cautious approach to conflicts between the US, Iran and other parties from Iraq to Lebanon to Yemen to Israel and Palestine. Moscow may seek benefit from its relationship with Iran, but Putin is also seeking this with Iranian rivals such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. On 24 February 2022, Putin sent most of Russia’s armed forces into neighbouring Ukraine.
Iran-related complications were immediately evident. With the negotiations on a renewed Iranian nuclear deal close to completion, Russia threatened to derail them by demanding that sanctions — imposed over the invasion — be lifted on Moscow as well on Tehran. The Russians soon backed down amid Iranian objections. But another difficulty ensued: with Moscow failing to seize Kyiv and topple the Zelenskiy government quickly — and taking heavy losses in its operations — Russia had to draw down on its military positions in Syria. That raised questions about Iran’s deployment, including whether it takes over those positions, and opened the space for Turkey’s Erdogan to threaten renewed military operations into northern Syria. Most significantly, the international response put more pressure on a Russian economy that was already struggling. Moscow has never fulfilled repeated declarations that it would provide billions of dollars in loans to help Tehran in the face of international sanctions. Now it finds itself in the same boat. Salvation is unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon.
China and India are happy to take advantage of heavily discounted oil from both Russia and Iran, but both are maintaining a cautious line over any bailout of Moscow with either economic or military assistance. Biden patched up the US position with Saudi Arabia and the UAE during his trip to the region, and both still treat Iran as a rival – even if the Emirates are talking of an expanded diplomatic presence in Tehran. The most dramatic image from Tehran was not of Putin with the supreme leader, or of him with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts. It was a minute-long video of Putin waiting alone to meet the Turkish president.
In March 2020, he tried to humiliate Erdogan by leaving him for several minutes in a hallway. Now Erdogan got payback by making the Russian wait, pacing and puffing out his cheeks as cameras rolled. It was a powerful reminder that no PR visit could substitute for the consequences of an invasion entering its sixth month. And it was a marker of where Putin finds himself that his only solace — as he looked small in a chair beside a tiny side table as the supreme leader addressed him from a distance — was the Iranian leadership finds itself just as isolated internationally.