In mid-August, at the opening ceremony of the International Army Games 2022 in Moscow, Russian Vladimir Putin declared his country’s readiness to provide all types of advanced weapons to its allies and partners and to conduct joint military drills with them. This followed Russia’s successful launch of the Iranian Khayyam satellite, which Russia says is intended for civilian purposes, while Washington has called it a military satellite intended for spying on Middle Eastern countries, especially Israel. In parallel with this, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan revealed that Moscow has a deal to purchase advanced Iranian drones to use in its war with Ukraine, which has raised American concerns about the prospects for military cooperation between Russia and Iran and its implications for the Ukrainian war and the Middle East.
Areas of Cooperation
Russian-Iranian cooperation strengthened after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 and is primarily military. Tehran purchased various Russian weapons to combat the Western embargo against Iran. Over the last decade, an unprecedented rapprochement between the two countries has occurred through cooperation to counter the repercussions of the events of the Arab Spring, which affected their interests in the Middle East, especially in Syria. Recently, Russian-Iranian military cooperation has intensified and taken on several forms:
1. Space cooperation and launch of Khayyam: On August 9, 2022, the Iranian Khayyam-1 satellite was launched from the Russian Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan. Tehran declared that it is intended for civilian purposes, such as increasing agricultural productivity, monitoring water resources, and managing natural hazards. Iran also revealed that the agreement to purchase satellites from Russia had shifted to "an agreement to transfer space technology," under which Russia and Iran will jointly manufacture the Khayyam-2, -3, and -4 satellites, thus marking the beginning of new cooperation between the two countries in space, as described by the Iranian government. Meanwhile, Washington questions the nature of Khayyam’s work and asserts that it is intended for military purposes, namely, that Moscow will use the satellite for several months to track the progress of military operations in Ukraine under a space cooperation agreement signed by Tehran and Moscow in 2018, after which Tehran will use it to spy on Middle Eastern countries, given its advanced technical capabilities. However, the Iranian Space Agency has denied this and asserted that it is in control of the satellite and its operation.
2. US assertion of Russia’s purchase of Iranian drones: Last July, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan alleged that Russia was planning to purchase hundreds of Iranian combat drones for use in Ukraine, in order to keep pace with the Turkish Bayraktar drones used by Kyiv in combat in eastern Ukraine—particularly since Turkish and Iranian technology is similar. Israeli security sources have suggested that the deal will involve 300 advanced drones, while Moscow will supply Iran with Su-35 fighters to develop Iran’s air force. These sources also asserted that Iran has already provided 46 advanced Shahed 129 and Shahed 191 drones that the Russian army is currently using in Ukraine. Those craft have long flight capability (up to 24 hours), a maximum payload of 400 kilograms, and a range of about 2,000 kilometers. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied Sullivan’s assertions, calling them a "ridiculous rumor."
3. Joint naval exercises: This August, Venezuela hosted naval exercises between Russian, Chinese, and Iranian forces. Obviously, these exercises are a message to Washington because they took place in its own backyard in Latin America. These are just the latest joint drills between Moscow and Tehran; in September 2020, Tehran participated in exercises in the Russian Caucasus, at which point the two sides agreed to conduct regular naval maneuvers in the Caspian Sea, the Arab Gulf, and the Straits of Hormuz. In January 2022, Russia, China, and Iran held joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman.
Furthermore, Iran has offered Russia the use of its military naval bases in the Arab Gulf, if needed. Joint exercises between Moscow and Tehran guarantee Russia an ongoing, military, naval presence in the Arab Gulf and the Caspian Sea, along with its military naval base in Tartus in Syria, to rival that of the US in the region.
4. Ongoing bilateral nuclear cooperation: In 1995, Moscow agreed to build the Bushehr nuclear power reactor in Iran, and Tehran is currently negotiating with Moscow to develop its second and third phases, thus enhancing the nuclear cooperation between the two countries, which—according to their official statements—is for peaceful purposes. Nevertheless, Washington fears that Iran’s nuclear program will be militarized and lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
5. Long-term strategic agreement: During his visit to Russia in January 2022, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi announced that his country had drafted a "20-year agreement with Russia," which includes economic, security, and military aspects and resembles the strategic agreement signed between Iran and China in 2021. Under that agreement, China will pump USD 400 billion worth of investments into Iran and send security forces to the country to protect those investments for 25 years.
It should be noted that the Russian-Iranian strategic agreement—the Basic Agreement on Mutual Relationships and Principles of Cooperation Act—was first signed on March 12, 2001. It was signed for a 10-year term and renewed. According to a report on the Al Arabiya website, the new agreement consists of 21 articles, and the sixth article refers to energy cooperation between the two countries, including nuclear energy. The agreement also stipulates the transfer of technology from Russia, the purchase of Russian military equipment, and Russian investments in Iranian energy infrastructure. Iranian observers have described this agreement as necessary because it will entrench the "military and intelligence alliance" between Tehran and Moscow.
Russian-Iranian cooperation has boomed since the beginning of the Russian military operation in Ukraine due to the two countries’ desire to break their international isolation and counter the Western sanctions imposed on them. The Russian president has held two summits with his Iranian counterpart, Raisi—the Caspian Summit in Turkmenistan on June 30, 2022, and the Tehran Summit on July 20, 2022—and he has phoned him more than four times, confirmation of the two parties’ ongoing communication and coordination that has resulted in intensifying cooperation between Moscow and Tehran at the military and economic levels. They agreed to use national currencies in their trade exchanges, establish Iranian commercial centers in Moscow and joint economic zones, increase passenger flights between Russia and Iran, and double food exports to Russia.
This concentrated and fruitful cooperation in all fields does not mean that Moscow and Tehran have no differences, most notably, certain conflicting interests in Syria, competition in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and disagreements on setting oil prices. Nevertheless, they have chosen to continue to coordinate and cooperate with each other to achieve their common interests, which has several implications.
1. Iranian military support for Russia in Ukraine: Despite Russian and Iranian denials, there are possibilities for Iranian military support for Moscow’s military operations in Ukraine. Tehran can loan drones to Moscow and open its military naval bases for Russia’s use, and it also has the capability to send Shia militia fighters loyal to Iran to fight in Ukraine. This could tip the balance to Moscow in battles that have been ongoing since February 24, by providing a counterweight to the West’s ongoing support for Kyiv. This prompted US Senator Cory Booker to express, at the end of July, "his concern over reports of increasing cooperation between Iran and Russia in the war against Ukraine. Congress is ready to take steps to prevent the joint actions of Tehran and Moscow."
2. Iranian-Russian consensus in the Middle East: On July 19 and 20, 2022, the Iranian capital of Tehran hosted the seventh presidential summit within the Astana process after a two-year hiatus due to the Coronavirus crisis. Putin attended the summit in person, his second foreign visit since beginning military operations in Ukraine, which emphasized the importance of the summit to him. During the summit, Putin renewed his political discourse calling for a new multipolar world order. This call indicates the importance of Iran and Syria to the Russian strategy, especially given the Russian-Iranian consensus on ruling out a military solution in Syria and condemning Israeli military attacks on Syria, which has escalated the current tension between Moscow and Tel Aviv. This consensus applies to all Middle Eastern files, such as support for the Palestinian cause, peaceful resolution of the region’s issues, and counterterrorism. This conflicts with the US position and increases the polarization between Moscow and Washington in the region.
3. Ongoing coordination in the Caucasus and Central Asia: The Russian and Iranian presidents participated in the Caspian Summit at the end of last June. The summit renewed its statement of Moscow’s support for countering Western sanctions, promoting inter-cooperation, fighting terrorism, and supporting Afghanistan. This statement was welcomed by the Central Asian countries seeking to preserve their security and stability following the US military withdrawal from the region. This also applies to the Caucasus countries—Armenia and Azerbaijan—and leads to a Russian-Iranian consensus to counter American influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. This consensus may be directed to other regional and European countries seeking to promote their influence in this region, such as Kazakhstan and Britain. Moscow is also keen to involve Tehran in Russian organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, that Iran may join in the future. Tehran participates in the Commonwealth of Independent States and has excellent relations with Belarus, an ally of Moscow, which has prompted some inside Iran to call for the establishment of a "Eurasian missile shield" extending from Russia to Armenia, through Belarus and China, to Iran, in response to the "Atlantic missile shield."
4. Threat to American interests: Ongoing Russian-Iranian military cooperation and political coordination in most areas will be a real, continuous threat to American interests in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, and even in Washington’s own backyard, where Moscow and Tehran enjoy close relationships with Venezuela and leftist countries in Latin America. Even more significant is Moscow’s acceptance of Iran’s offer to lease three naval bases in the Arab Gulf for Russia’s use—Chabahar, Bandar Abbas, and Bandar Bushehr—along with the possibility of transferring nuclear and space technology from Moscow to Tehran, especially the potential deployment of the Russian S-300 missile system or long-range ballistic missiles in Tehran. This would lead to an imbalance of power in the Middle East, in which case Tehran can also bomb American or Israeli targets in the region or develop that advanced technology and transfer it to Shia militias loyal to Iran. This would threaten the security and stability of the region, but Moscow will be careful to negate those scenarios and avoid escalating the confrontation with Washington.
In conclusion, the totality of the current geopolitical variables, first and foremost, Russian-Iranian military cooperation and political coordination, portends the emergence of a new multipolar international order, with Russia as one of its axes in cooperation with Iran. The two countries will benefit from possible transformations in the international system, especially since the discourse the two countries have adopted over the past decades is very hostile to this system. The Ukrainian war may be a good opportunity for the two countries to enhance their mutual cooperation and introduce radical changes to the international system.