Can Russia and Iran Still Be Friends after the Nuclear Deal?

President Vladimir Putin meets with President Hassan Rouhani.

Moscow and Tehran are learning how to agree to disagree.

Russian observers have long understood that Iranian-American hostility has been a factor motivating Tehran to seek close ties to Moscow, despite lingering Iranian resentment regarding czarist and Soviet interventions in Iranian affairs and ongoing differences over numerous policy issues (including the delimitation of the Caspian, oil production levels and Russia’s cooperation with Iranian adversaries in the region). Even areas of Russian-Iranian cooperation—such as Russia’s completion of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor and weapons sales to Iran—have proved contentious due to delays, disputes over contract terms and even cancellation of agreements (such as when President Dmitri Medvedev announced that Moscow would not deliver S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran in 2010 even though Tehran had already paid for them).

Many Russian observers, then, have expressed concern that if Iranian-American relations ever improved, this would lead to an overall Iranian turn toward the West and away from Russia. As progress was made toward the achievement of the Iranian nuclear accord (which was a high priority for the Obama administration in particular), some Russians believed the time they feared had come, when Iranian-American rapprochement would soon result in less Russian influence in Iran. Some had called for Russia to somehow derail the talks, but others pointed out that so long as Washington and Tehran wanted to achieve a nuclear accord, any effort by Moscow to stop it would only lead to an agreement being reached without Russian participation, and that would make Moscow appear weak and unimportant.

By now, though, it is clear that the coming into force of the Iranian nuclear accord has not resulted in an overall Iranian-American rapprochement. Nor is it likely to any time soon. This being the case, there has not been the attenuation of Russian-Iranian relations that many in Moscow feared the Iranian nuclear accord would lead to. Indeed, Russian-Iranian cooperation has increased recently.

Converging Interests

One factor contributing toward Russian-Iranian cooperation is the joint fear on the part of their top leaders that America and the West seek to topple them through supporting “color revolutions” against them. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has placed a prohibition on expanding Iranian-American ties beyond nuclear cooperation. In an article published in the National Interest on May 3, 2016, the Iranian dissident author, Akbar Ganji, wrote that “in Khamenei’s view antagonism toward a common enemy, the United States, is the basis for unity between Iran and Russia.”

Moscow and Tehran, as is well known, have also been pursuing the common goal of protecting the Assad regime in Syria against the domestic opposition that arose against it during the onset of the “Arab Spring” in 2011. Before September 2015, forces from Iran (as well as Iranian allies from Hezbollah and various Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias) undertook the main burden of defending Assad while Russia played more of a supportive role in supplying arms to Damascus. But with the Assad regime losing ground during the summer of 2015 despite their support, Putin decided to ramp up Moscow’s role by sending Russian air force units to Syria, where they launched a bombing campaign that not only put a stop to the Assad regime losing ground, but to its regaining lost territory from its opponents. Russian and Iranian press accounts stated that joint planning for the Russian intervention began months in advance. Further, the combination of Russian air power and Iranian (plus allied militia) ground forces has proven highly effective.

Other forms of Russian-Iranian military cooperation have also increased. In April 2016, TASS confirmed that Russia had begun supplying S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran. Moscow had originally agreed to do so in 2007, but President Medvedev had then canceled the deal in 2010, perhaps as part of his effort to secure U.S. Senate ratification of New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty)—the subject of much Russian-Iranian contention afterward. In April 2015, President Putin announced that progress on the Iranian nuclear accord allowed Russia to lift the ban on selling S-300s to Iran. In addition, TASS also announced in April 2016 that Russia might supply radiolocation and electronic warfare systems to Iran. Trilateral security cooperation among Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran also advanced.

In addition, Russian-Iranian economic cooperation has expanded recently. Majles Speaker Ali Larijani declared that Iran will give Russia priority in any industry it wants to invest in. A top Russian customs official announced that Iran had promised to replace Turkey (whose ties to Russia have soured dramatically after the shoot down of a Russian military aircraft by Turkish forces in the vicinity of the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015) as a supplier of perishable foodstuffs. In addition, Moscow and Tehran signed a memorandum of understanding on railway development, and have discussed Russian investment in Iranian transportation infrastructure (including seaports). Moscow and Tehran have also agreed to explore for underground sources of water in Iran. And the two sides are working on expanding Russian-Iranian educational cooperation.

On the diplomatic front, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif expressed hopes that Russian-Iranian cooperation could lead to progress on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute as well as delimiting the Caspian Sea. Moscow has also been pressing the case for admitting Iran to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but could not persuade China to allow this at the most recent SCO summit.