Iran’s foreign policy has been characterized by a non-aligned stance since the Islamic revolution in 1979. For the revolutionary leaders, historical interference by the United States (US), Soviet Union and Great Britain was reason enough for Iran to stay away from global powers in order to preserve its independence. This mentality prevailed for the next four decades.
Yet when Iran inked the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with China, France, Germany, the UK, US and Russia on 14 July 2015, Iran embraced cooperation with Russia in the Middle East. The move was predominantly intended to counterbalance factional rivalries within Iran. Second, it was a preference of a single faction within the Iranian establishment; and third, it was expected to be limited to the Syrian civil war.
President Barack Obama was at the helm in Washington at the time. His successor, Donald Trump, has been less willing to engage Tehran with the same logic that led to the signing of the JCPOA. Indeed, he withdrew the US from the deal and reinstated sanctions on Iran.
By doing so, Trump has undermined Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate foreign policy agenda. This has left Rouhani with three options: The first is to accept Trump’s demands, thereby losing whatever political capital he has gained over the past 40 years, and likely losing the presidency to a coup or even a popular uprising; second, he could announce a big shift in the face of a growing threat posed by a hostile US administration, and announce early elections that would most probably see a conservative come to power; third, which already seems to be happening, is to adjust the administration’s domestic development priorities and pro-Western foreign policy approach to match the new reality. Russia is a part of this reorientation.
To put Iran’s Russia policy in perspective, one has to understand the history between the two countries. Iranians have long resented the war Russia waged on the Qajar Dynasty that shrunk Iran’s territory to its present size. In addition, Iran looked to Washington post-WWII, after Moscow tried to annex two of Iran’s north-western provinces. Another blemish on the countries’ relationship is the 1921 Soviet-Iranian Treaty. According to the terms of the treaty, the Soviet Union had a right to take direct action on Iranian soil if it was being used by hostile parties against Moscow, provided that the Iranian government was not able to stop the threat. Time and again, the Soviet Union used this to put pressure on Iran. These facts have over time made Iranians wary of Russia. However, Iran’s new international engagement seems to have cast Russia as the counterbalance to the US. Geopolitical calculations have replaced historical grievances.
As a result, Iran and Russia have been moving closer, finally forging an alliance to prop up the al-Assad regime in Syria. This was an unprecedented move on the part of Iran, because it kept insisting that the Middle Eastern nations should not seek outside help. But the move did not come out of the blue. After decades of calling for local frameworks to address regional issues, Tehran realized the bitter truth that this policy is depriving only Iran of an alliance with a global power. Additionally, Russia found itself in a similar position to Iran after Western states imposed sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Besides the fact that Russia’s place in the Middle East was challenged after the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and the attempt to oust Bashar al-Assad in Syria, it became clear to Russia and Iran that their interests and goals in Syria are almost the same and that they need to cooperate militarily to achieve those goals.
For Iran, cooperating with a global power with which it has a strained history was a hard sell internally. This is why it stopped Russian jets from using an Iranian airbase. Still, the Syria cooperation was regarded as being a one-time affair that would be over after the expected results were achieved. Yet while the JCPOA has hit a hurdle in the US, ending the cooperation with Russia does not seem to be an option for now. The US’s anti-Iran rhetoric alongside Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and a new campaign to pressurize Tehran have all elevated the value of Russia for Iran. As Tehran’s need for a counterbalance to US pressure grows, Russia seems ready to offer the support Europe might be reluctant to offer in defiance of Trump.
Trump is therefore forcing Iran into Russia’s arms, and in doing so, he is weakening Iran’s moderates. Some of these moderates, including Rouhani, have had to adjust their rhetoric and policies to keep up with the new circumstances. In other words, they have had to appear hardline to stay relevant in the new political reality. To understand this equation, one need only look at the resemblances between Rouhani’s speech, which provoked a threatening tweet from Trump, with a speech delivered by Qassem Sulaimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They have never been this close.
As mentioned above, the cooperation with Russia had an internal dimension as well: balancing the Western-leaning tendency of Rouhani’s foreign policy agenda. For now, however, Russia is turning into an attractive power for Iranian elites. There are three levels upon which Russia can gain even more traction in the months and years to come:
Economic: Keeping economic cooperation, which has been growing between Iran and Russia in recent years, in the face of renewed US sanctions is crucial for Tehran.
Additionally, despite differences, Iranian-Russian cooperation in the oil market has become even more important for Iran. At a time when Saudi Arabia is trying to keep oil prices down while Iran’s share of the oil market is declining, cooperating with an oil giant like Russia is important for Iran’s economy. As such, this has been one of the main aspects of every high-level negotiation between Iran and Russia.
Regional: Both Iran and Russia value their cooperation in Syria. For Russia, there is no other actor free of Western influence with which to cooperate in the Middle East, including Syria, other than Iran. For Iran, Russia is the balancer that can stand by Tehran during times of mounting US pressure. Moving from military cooperation into the Astana political process, both nations seem willing to keep the cooperation going. After all, Syria is a single file showing both countries’ ruling elites the benefits of cooperation in the Middle East.
International: While Trump has embarked on an Iran-bashing campaign, Iranians see the value of cooperating with global powers independent of Washington’s influence – including Russia and China. While China is the main economic alternative for Tehran when Western capital and companies are fleeing the country, Russia is the military and political ally Iran lacks on the international level. Although Tehran does not expect Moscow to back it in the face of a US attack, it still banks on its military equipment imports as well as its support in the UN Security Council. That’s why Putin’s promise to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that “I will not betray you” is so important and is strengthening Moscow’s place in Tehran at a time when Europeans’ insistence on the JCPOA might pale.
In general, Trump’s policy is pushing Iran towards Russia. In order to preserve its position in the region, Iran knows that it needs international allies and backing. Russia, therefore, is an important international actor that can balance the US, which is backing Iran’s rivals in the region. According to Khamenei’s adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, “Iran-Russia relations are strategic and will determine the future of the region.” Trump’s policy is only strengthening this view and hastening Iran’s shift towards Russia and the East in general.