The Russia-Iran Alliance is Weaker Than You Think

Friends, or competitors?

The relationship between Russia and Iran has come to the fore because of their coordination on the battlefield in Syria. A recent article in the Daily Beast noted President Vladimir Putin’s “fondness” for Iran, while another from Al-Monitor argued that cooperation will extend beyond Syria as “Moscow will seek to expand its regional role through coordination with Iran and Hezbollah.” However, Russian-Iranian cooperation is not as close as it appears to be in many arenas, and the relationship has built-in limitations, due to divergences of interest even on issues that are thought to foster cooperation.

The idea of a Russian-Iranian alliance makes sense to many for four main reasons. First, Russia and Iran have a shared interest in disrupting the U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order in the Middle East. Second, the Russians were seen as leaning towards Iran during the nuclear negotiations because they supported Tehran’s nuclear program, by building reactors in Iran and pushing for more favorable terms for sanctions relief during Iran’s negotiations with P5+1. Third, Iranian and Russian interests in Syria have converged into a coordinated military campaign to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Fourth, Russia hopes to exploit newfound economic opportunities in Iran now that sanctions have been lifted. However, a closer look at these supposed convergences of interest indicates that they are plagued with limitations and differences.

It is true that both Russia and Iran would like to expand their regional influence at the expense of overwhelming U.S. dominance. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia began to perceive the U.S.-dominated unipolar world order as inevitably clashing with its basic national interests; this was true in the Middle East as in other regions. Russia’s foreign and prime minister during 1996–99, Yevgeny Primakov, who was also a leading expert on the Middle East, argued that Russian involvement and counterbalancing against the United States in this region is a crucial tool in reasserting Russia’s global interests. Although Russia’s involvement in the Middle East was limited during Primakov’s tenure in government, this type of thinking continues to shape Russia’s foreign policy. As the United States unquestionably emerged as the dominant power in the region in the 1990s, Iranian and Russian allies in the region were few and far between. Logic and history dictate that Iran and Russia will continue to work to reorient Arab states towards their own orbit and further away from the United States.

Yet when Russia and Iran experienced periods of closer relations with the United States, these thaws have been accompanied by a cooling of relations between Tehran and Moscow. This was particularly apparent from Russia’s side. Russia’s interest in counterbalancing the United States in the global arena aims to achieve parity, or U.S. recognition of Russian interests; if parity is achieved, then the tactic will have served its purpose. Iran is a mere tool in this tactic. Hence, in a period when Russia’s relations with the United States improved, Russia’s interest in forming an anti-U.S. alliance with Iran diminished. For example, in 1995, a deal between Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Gore for cooperation between the American and the Russian military industries led to a cooling in Russia’s relations with Iran.

When it comes to Syria, Tehran has taken steps to reinforce the impression that it is cooperating closely with Moscow. For example, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs implied that there was close coordination between Russia and Iran when he spoke for both countries saying that they would use “all means” to solve the Syrian crisis. However, it is doubtful whether this accurately reflects the degree to which they have common interests beyond some vague notion of the survival of the Syrian regime.