An Iran-Russia Axis? Some in Tehran Aren't So Sure

Leaders in the Islamic Republic disagree on how useful a closer relationship with Moscow would be.

The recent visit to Tehran by Sergei Shoigu was notable in that it was the first time in fifteen years that a Russian defense minister had visited Tehran. As such, it generated considerable speculation about an increasing closeness between Moscow and Tehran. Yet it is still too early to presume that Shoigu’s presence in Tehran is an indication of a coming strategic shift in Iranian-Russian relations. Both countries have reasons to believe that cooperation in security and economics can be mutually beneficial in the face of Western policies against them. But not everyone in Tehran is of the view that Moscow holds the key to Iran’s problems or that Russia is genuinely committed to a new approach to Iran.

The euphoria

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, officials in Tehran have been keenly watching Moscow’s deteriorating relations with the West, particularly the United States. Some hawkish anti-Western voices in Tehran believe that Russia’s ostracization from the West presents an opportunity for Iran to seek a strategic alliance with President Vladimir Putin. They constantly tout the end of American global dominance and the promise of a new world order in which the Islamic Republic can play a key role.

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And yet no one in Tehran has so far formulated a convincing blueprint to move toward this goal. Read Iranian statements carefully and it is clear that even Iran’s hardliners admit that despite much fanfare about Iran and Russia joining hands in the economic and security fields, little actual progress has materialized. One of Iran’s most hawkish anti-Western sites, Raja News, ran a sensationalist headline—“An Iranian-Russian Ballistic Missile is Being Prepared to Hit at the Heart of America’s Oil Sanctions Policy”—but the analogy of a ballistic missile was far from reality.

It turns out that Iran and Russia are merely still discussing a bilateral barter deal in which Iranian oil is exchanged for Russian goods, services and investments. This was hardly earth-shattering news, given that such talks have been ongoing since late 2013.

Nevertheless, the optimists that sense the coming of a new era in Russian-Iranian relations argue that the momentum this time around is rooted in far-reaching shifts in calculations presently taking place. They point not only to Shoigu’s visit—which resulted in the signing of a number of defense agreements—but also to Ali-Akbar Velayati’s visit to Moscow in late January.

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Velayati is one of the Islamic Republic’s most prominent figures, having served as foreign minister from 1981 to 1997. Iranian media reported that Velayati held discussions with Putin as President Hassan Rouhani’s special envoy. But the significance of Velayati going to Moscow is linked more to the fact that he is a top advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The choice of Velayati to meet Putin suggests that deliberations about Iranian policy toward Moscow is being spearheaded at the very top and from within the Office of the Supreme Leader. Iranian officials have a history of visiting Moscow based on the portfolios they hold. For example, on Iran’s nuclear file, it has been Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who travels to Moscow. On the Syrian file, it has been Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian who negotiates with the Russians. Abdollahian is close to Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general that is believed to be Iran’s key policy architect in Syria.

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In other words, Velayati’s Moscow trip might signal that some kind of a significant change in relations is about to take place. Iran’s Mehr News reported that in Moscow, Velayati was able to secure Putin’s approval for Iran to “upgrade its status” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Eurasian security bloc that Russia and China have cultivated since 1996 as a counter to Western-led global organizations.

As an observer state in SCO, Iran has since 2005 unsuccessfully sought to obtain full membership in the organization, but perhaps the Russians are about to entertain the idea of Tehran joining the alliance. Along these lines, the state-run Iranian media have been busy hyping the prospects of an SCO membership for Iran. The hardline Fars News went as far as to predict that Iran’s membership will be green lighted at the alliance’s next annual summit in September, which will be held in Russia.

The pessimists

Russia’s historically troubled relations with Iran, however, will ensure that plenty of Iranians remain skeptical as far as future collaboration is concerned. One figure who is wary of Russia’s intentions is Iran’s deputy oil minister, Abbas Shahri Moghaddam.