By Arab News
By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami*
Russo-Iranian cooperation has seen significant levels of qualitative development since the outbreak of Russia’s war with Ukraine. According to a ministerial statement delivered by Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense minister, to the House of Commons on Dec. 20, Iran will receive advanced military capabilities from Russia in return for supplying Moscow with drones.
The high-stakes questions preoccupying observers are: What can Iran obtain from Russia in return for defying the major world powers and venturing into strategic cooperation with Moscow? And what benefits could it gain in return for giving up on the nuclear deal and the economic gains expected to result from it, particularly in light of the unprecedented crisis the regime has faced since September when popular protests broke out across the country following the killing of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the regime’s so-called morality police?
For starters, it is worth noting that Iran, like other nations, previously bowed, willingly or unwillingly, to Western pressure and threats by not providing any kind of assistance, particularly military help, to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his war on Ukraine. However, Tehran’s position has shifted in recent months and it has become the only country to ignore the West’s warnings. There are, of course, several factors behind this policy change. These include the suffocating economic crisis in Iran, stalled talks over reviving the nuclear deal, US sanctions, and the search by several global powers for a more equitable world order.
A primary motivation behind Iran’s rush to step up cooperation with Russia is its ideological face-off with the US and the West, as well as its defiance of Washington’s unilateral hegemony over the global order. This is seen as not only a reason for the growing Russo-Iranian cooperation, but also for Iran to position itself as an essential party in this confrontation.
Within a short period, indications of increasing cooperation between the two states have emerged, particularly in the economic and military fields. Militarily, Iran has provided Moscow with drones that have devastated Ukraine’s infrastructure. Officers from Iran’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have served as military advisers to Russian forces in Ukraine, gaining a foothold for Iran in Europe. It is believed that Russia wants to obtain more missiles and military equipment in order to meet its needs, ensuring that the cycle of war will continue.
Economically, Western pressures, as well as the rapidly eroding legitimacy of both the Russian and Iranian regimes at home, have accelerated the two nations’ efforts to open up new channels of economic cooperation. These include using local currencies in economic dealings; exchanging expertise on circumventing sanctions; and cooperating in the field of energy, which Russia needs after its sales to Europe were severed and a European cap was set on the price of Russian oil.
Iran, on the other hand, has practically broken the embargo imposed on its arms sales, and the road is now clear for the two sides to conclude further arms deals. There is no question that Russo-Iranian cooperation will result in mutual exchange of expertise, and perhaps joint efforts to develop drones and other military equipment. Additionally, Russia has supported Iran’s space project, with Moscow helping Iran to launch a satellite, reportedly for espionage and intelligence purposes, in August.
This cooperation is also expected to have profound results in the future, particularly in the Middle East. Russia’s rush to offer Iran advanced technology as part of its revenge against the US and the West will shake the regional balance of power on multiple levels, particularly since it could extend to include Russian nuclear assistance to Iran, or at least Russian protection against Tehran being held accountable by the international community should it exceed the nuclear threshold. Of course, this would immediately catapult the whole region into a nuclear arms race, with grave and extremely undesirable consequences.
Russo-Iranian cooperation has also thwarted regional initiatives aimed at easing tensions and encouraging Iran to accept the progress made in recent months to settle regional differences. This is evidenced by the stalled dialogue with regional powers, the spoiled truce in Yemen, and the stalemate in Syria.
In addition, Iran’s hostile behavior has been strengthened by this close alliance with Russia, with Tehran resuming its threats to ships, as well as to maritime navigation in the region. Iran has also used cooperation with Russia as a lever to influence nuclear talks, and to have its ballistic missiles program and malign regional behavior excluded from the agenda. Iran has shown no willingness to end its subversive role in the region.
Moreover, Putin’s desire for revenge against the West could prompt him to provide Iran with advanced weapons and defense systems, and to conclude further arms deals — driven by the need to inject more resources into the Russian economy — such as the S-400 ballistic missile system and advanced Sukhoi fighter jets. This, too, will gravely harm the military balance throughout the region, and curb the strategy to deter Iran adopted by the US and its regional allies.
In summary, it could be said that cooperation with Russia has nourished Iran’s inclination to defiance. As a result, Tehran has rebuffed attempts to revive the nuclear deal and undermined the path of diplomacy on which the Biden administration has long gambled. Iran has also taken advantage of current variables on the global stage to enhance its points of leverage. Iran’s regional behavior is certainly not expected to become any less volatile and dangerous when it is strengthened by Russian political and diplomatic support, as well as military backing, in appreciation of its supportive position toward Moscow. Increased cooperation could catapult the entire Middle East into further chaos, and torpedo any settlement related to Iran’s regional behavior and missile program. This comes at a time when the war in Ukraine is giving the US and wider West no leeway to impose further deterrent measures on Iran.
Finally, it should be emphasized that the Middle East will not stand idle in the face of any strategic imbalance of power in Iran’s favor. Tehran should not pursue regional policies driven by a hostile ideology. Russia, meanwhile, should reconsider any policies that threaten the regional balance since this will diminish Moscow’s influence in the region and undermine its relations with several regional powers.
The West also needs to understand the message that Saudi Arabia and other regional countries have sought to convey: Diplomacy and engagement without maximum pressure will not force Iran to a “middle ground” or to make concessions so that deep-rooted ideological and historical differences can be peacefully settled.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami