Drones, Intel Cooperation and All This Gas: How Solid Is the Russian-Iranian Alliance?
Enhanced cooperation between Moscow and Tehran presents a challenge to the West in general and to Israel in particular
A few days after US President Joe Biden concluded his visit to the Middle East, another leader of a global power made his way to the region. The Tehran summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was designed to be the Russian answer to America, and that’s exactly how the Russian media framed it.
“While the West was busy canceling Russia, it kept building a new global order,” Vladimir Solovyov, a television presenter and a top Russian propagandist, wrote on his Telegram channel.
While it’s quite doubtful that the two countries, which struggle with far-reaching Western sanctions and serious economic crises, can create a new global order that will bring about the demise of the existing one, there is no doubt that enhanced Russian-Iranian cooperation presents a challenge to the West in general, and to the State of Israel in particular.
What was achieved during the summit in Tehran and how does Turkey − an unlikely partner in this alliance − come into the picture?
Partners, frenemies, and competitors
Just a few months ago Russia was reluctant to further increase its cooperation with Tehran. The first visit of President Raisi to Moscow in January this year ended without any significant achievements for Iranians in the economic or military spheres. The situation changed dramatically after Russia invaded Ukraine and became ostracized by Western countries.
Today it seems that the Russians are more receptive to the idea of enhanced cooperation with Iran. Moscow also assumes that Tehran is ready for close cooperation in both the economic and political spheres despite past disagreements and suspicions.
“In Iran, this visit was seen as an opportunity to take another step toward the ‘Look to the East’ strategy that the Iranian leadership has adopted in recent years, especially since [US President Donald] Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and disappointment in Tehran with the policy conducted by European countries,” Dr. Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iranian affairs at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.
“Consequently, Iran has been looking more and more to the East. [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei and Raisi led this move, also for ideological reasons, to side with the Iran-Russia-China autocratic camp,” he continued.
“In the economic field there is an opportunity for cooperation between Iran and Russia around the joint struggle against sanctions (and Russian assistance based on Iran’s many years of dealing with sanctions), and in the military field − Iranian assistance to Russia,” Zimmt said.
The nature of the relations between Russia and Turkey, however, is very different, as Ankara is perceived by the Russians as a free rider, and not as a loyal and trusted ally. Not only because Moscow and Ankara support warring sides in the conflict in Syria, but also because Russia fears the vast Turkish activity in former Soviet Asian states. Just recently Turkey announced it was considering gas transit from Turkmenistan to Turkey through Azerbaijan. Ankara is also very engaged in Kazakhstan, which is currently waging rather anti-Russian politics.
During his meeting with Putin, Khamenei mentioned that “concerning Ukraine, had you not taken the initiative, the other side would have taken the initiative and caused the war.”
Turkey takes a more nuanced stance on the war in Ukraine – while Erdoğan didn’t join the Western sanctions against Russia, he provided Kyiv with advanced Bayraktar UAVs that have become a legend in Ukraine.
Iranian UAVs to Russia, Russian arms to Tehran
Speaking of UAVs, prior to Putin’s visit to Tehran American sources revealed that Russia was about to purchase Iranian-made drones to gain leverage on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Sources in the Kremlin denied that the issue was part of the discussion between the leaders of Russia and Iran during Putin’s visit to Tehran and so did the Iranian foreign minister earlier last week, but on the day of the visit Iranian student-led news agency Young Journalists Club reported that Iran is ready to export military equipment and weapons to Russia, quoting army Ground Forces commander Brig. Gen. Kioumars Heydari.
There is uncertainty concerning the details of the possible UAV deal between Iran and Russia, and there is even more fog regarding possible Russian arms sales to Tehran. Iran is eager to purchase advanced made-in-Russia weapons, mostly for lack of other choices and due to their reduced costs, and its shopping list includes the S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile system and Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets as well as many other items to modernize its obsolete arsenal. There is little information on the Russians’ readiness to supply these items to the Islamic Republic.
The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on information and intelligence exchange.
And all this gas
While the details of military cooperation were kept secret, the host and the guest made no secret of their plans for cooperation on oil and gas. The Russian energy company Gazprom has signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). Gazprom promised to increase investment in the Iranian oil industry by 10 times to a sensational $40 billion.
NIOC’s executive director added that the parties agreed to develop the North Pars and Kish gas fields, in which the Russian side will invest $10 billion.
According to Yulia Yuzik, a Moscow-based expert on Iranian affairs, it’s still too early to tell whether the statements will be supported by real actions.
“We have to keep in mind that for now, this document is nothing more than a memorandum of understanding, which could turn out to be as much of a bubble as the quarter-trillion-dollar ‘deal of the century’ with China. It is not clear where Moscow will now extract such sums for investment in Khamenei’s economy, and whether Khamenei himself will hold out for the next year or two, given what is happening in his country and the intensified struggle for power,” Yuzik told The Media Line.
Zimmt said, “Alongside the opportunities, there are also challenges facing Iran-Russian cooperation, and especially the competition between the two countries that is reflected, for example, in the fact that Russia sells oil to China at discounted prices and thus creates an alternative to Iranian oil sales to China.”
Between Turkish operation in Syria and Ukrainian grain export
While Iran and Russia discussed arms and energy, the Turkish side was brought to Tehran by completely different issues. Erdoğan came to discuss the issue of Ukrainian grain and received a promise from Putin “not to interfere with the export of Ukrainian grain abroad.”
How exactly the process will be carried out is not yet clear, but the Turkish leader can already take credit for a serious achievement.
From Erdoğan’s point of view, the Tehran summit, which was held as part of the so-called Astana format, was also important for raising the Turkish grievances in Syria. Erdoğan demanded that the Kurds leave a 30-kilometer zone on the Turkish border. However, both Russia and Iran strongly oppose “violation of the territorial integrity of Syria” and made it clear to Turkey that they will not tolerate a military operation in the northeast of the country.
As expected, the Russian and Iranian press praised the Tehran summit, but it is still unclear how Russia and Iran intend to solve their differences with Turkey on the Syrian issue, and even if it seems that Iran took another step toward Russia and away from the West, it still takes part in the negotiations on resuming the nuclear deal with the US.
China appears set to buy even more Russian oil in future months, a step that will undermine Iran’s market share and profits. And yet for now both countries will opt for close cooperation, mostly for lack of other options.
The West, and its Israeli and Arab allies in the Middle East, will be watching this growing alliance of pariah states with a great deal of concern.