The public denials by Russia and Iran, despite overwhelming evidence, highlight the growing commonality between two nations, drawn closer than ever by their leaders’ anti-Western worldview and embrace of conspiracy theories, their willingness to use violence to achieve regional ends, and their economies connected are isolation under sanctions, brutal repression of their own citizens and their penchant for official lies.
The relationship of convenience has become increasingly important for Russia, which has suffered severe setbacks in its war in Ukraine and, humiliating as it may be for a rising superpower, is turning to Iran for attack drones and missiles – possibly in violation of the law UN sanctions Russia approved.
The closer ties could reshape regional alliances for decades to come as the Kremlin balances difficult competing ties — with Iran for arms and support to keep the war going — and with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s bitter rival, for high oil prices and Russia to keep the war chest overflowing.
Iran’s arms sales to Russia mark a seismic turn — the Islamic Republic’s first intervention in a European war and a military role that poses uncertain risks for the United States, Israel, Turkey and others.
“This is an absolutely new chapter in Iran-Russia relations,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s quite a crucial move by the Iranians to get so determinedly involved in a war on European soil.”
“Connecting your car to a country like Russia, which even in the best-case scenario for Russia in connection with this war will leave Russia deeply weakened and damaged, is certainly a risky proposition,” Rome said.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has upended the geopolitical order in a way not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Amid continued threats of a nuclear strike, mutual accusations of plans to use a “dirty bomb” and mounting evidence that Russia had committed war crimes, fears of a new world war were greater than ever.
Russian President Vladimir Putin dreams of a multipolar world where the decaying West is stripped of its influence and he and other dictators can re-carve the globe into spheres of influence, harvesting resources to enrich themselves and claiming empirical greatness while shedding disagreements maliciously suppress.
“Both the Iranian regime and the Russian Federation have one thing in common,” he said Ray Takeyh, an Iran and Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Both explain their strategic situation through the prism of conspiracy theories, so engagement between the two states is likely to intensify as they both find themselves in a similar position, at odds with the international community and also with their own respective publics.”
As Iran aligns itself firmly with Russia and China, hopes of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by US President Donald Trump, which curtailed Tehran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program in exchange for sanctions relaxation on Iran, have faded.
Recent political unrest in Iran only increases the likelihood that Iran will turn to Russia for support, with Moscow being able to veto it as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to block any action against Tehran.
The Iranian leadership is also likely hoping that by supporting Russia’s fight in Ukraine, they can prove their country is a serious military player in the world and leverage arms sales for much-needed revenue. They seem to think they can foot the bill as the United States and European Union impose new sanctions in response.
“If you put yourself in the minds of some Iranian officials, I think there is a strategic logic to this approach,” Rome said. “I think the logic is probably, ‘The nuclear talks are unproductive. We cannot trust the West. Economically we can manage on our own, and our future is Russia and China.”
He added: “There is probably an advantage to being the country that stands behind Russia in times of need.”
The United States has also said the Iranians are training Russian drone operators at a base in Russian-held Crimea. National Resistance Center of Ukraine, part of Ukrainian Special Operations Forces, reported this week that Iranian drone trainers were helping the Russians coordinate drone strikes in Mykulichi near Gomel in southern Belarus.
Western nations are rushing to provide Ukraine with better air defenses, but missile shipments from Iran could tip the balance in the fight, leading to further destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure and a longer, bloodier war as Putin bets that Western Unity will eventually break and that support for Ukraine will wane.
Moscow and Tehran fought on the same side in Syria, supporting dictator Bashar al-Assad, a mutual ally. But the relationship has grown much closer this year, cultivated in a flurry of meetings between Russian and Iranian officials. Most notable was Putin’s July meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who embraced the false narrative that Russia had no choice but to invade Ukraine to defend against a possible attack.
At a key meeting this month, Iran’s First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber and senior Iranian security officials visited Moscow, where according to According to Reuters, they agreed on new arms deliveries.
Mokhber blamed NATO for killing Ukrainians and proposed a joint working group to undermine Western sanctions, saying Tehran had a lot to teach Moscow.
“We have been under these sanctions for 40 years and have not allowed them to undermine the country’s government or seriously affect us,” Mokhber said in Moscow, where he met Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.
During July talks, Russian gas giant Gazprom signed a memorandum of understanding on a $40 billion deal with National Iranian Oil Company. In September, Russia sent a delegation of 65 business leaders to Iran.
For all its rosy talk, however, the alliance carries risks, and mistrust persists between Russia and Iran. Russia had previously voted for UN sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, and Iranian leaders viewed Moscow as unhelpful during the international talks that led to the 2015 nuclear deal, according to Takeyh.
Competition between Russia and Iran for oil and natural gas sales has intensified recently, with Moscow focusing on China as its key future market, undercutting the price of Iranian oil even as the Iranian economy struggles with high unemployment, inflation and shortages has fight.
Putin prides himself on being a player who does business with all sides in the Middle East. But his war in Ukraine has contributed to global economic turmoil, particularly in the energy sector, and is causing political headaches that will force Putin to carefully maneuver his way through thorny regional rivalries.
Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia have soured over its decision this month to work with Russia to curb oil production and keep prices high, and Biden faces “some ramifications for what they’ve done with Russia.” warned.
Andrew S. Weiss and Jasmine Alexander-Greene, analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote recently that Putin, along with Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, could use Russia’s oil muscle to harm his Western adversaries.
Saudi Arabia and others see Washington losing interest in their region, potentially making cooperation with Moscow more fruitful for them. Putin said in a foreign policy speech on Thursday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is only pursuing his own national interests.
“I personally know the crown prince very well,” Putin said. “He wants to balance the energy markets. … For the international energy markets, it’s all about predictability and stability. That’s what matters, and that’s what the Crown Prince is trying to do.”
Israel has also come under increasing pressure to help Ukraine as Putin’s war is increasingly seen as a testing ground for Iranian drones and weapons that could be aimed at Israel, a state Iran has repeatedly vowed to destroy.
Iran may be hoping to reverse Russia’s past refusal to provide it with S-400 air defense systems and advanced fighter jets, moves that would alarm Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey.
If Putin defeats and dismembers Ukraine, Iran, as an early and crucial ally, may also expect large energy investments and Moscow’s support in global institutions.
But if Russia, sanctioned and weakened, fails in Ukraine, Iran’s decision to tie itself to Putin will further hurt its own global economic and political prospects. “If Russia loses the war – whatever that means – and Vladimir Putin is still in power – then the Russian Federation is 1990s Iraq: an irrevocable international actor with a president who committed war crimes,” Takeyh said .
However, Iran is likely to still maintain close ties with Moscow, he said, as a NATO-backed victory by Ukraine would only reinforce Iran’s and Russia’s anti-Western stance.
“It is important to them that Russia is a recalcitrant actor, isolated from the West and relying on revisionist states,” Takeyh added.