Iran has rapidly and unexpectedly emerged as Russia’s most reliable wartime partner, providing drones and missiles for its brutal attacks on Ukrainian civilians, on-the-ground tech support for its flight operators, and even turbines to help Russia’s gas industry skirt Western economic sanctions.
But the growing Moscow-Tehran partnership — and Iran’s status as a borderline active participant in the Russia-Ukraine war — has sparked questions that stretch far beyond the current conflict. Foreign policy analysts say that Iran’s hard-line religious leaders have made a calculated choice to cast their lot with Russia as a way to divert Western attention away from the Middle East and as an attempt to weaken America’s power abroad.
The Kremlin’s increasing reliance on Iranian drones and other hardware also gives Iran’s military leaders daily feedback on how their equipment performs on the battlefield against a real-world enemy, which could prove invaluable if and when Iran needs to use those capabilities in a large-scale war of its own.
Indeed, specialists argue that Tehran sees both immediate and long-term benefits from an alliance with Russia, which has welcomed Iranian support with open arms as its own military stockpiles dwindle and as it faces increasing economic and geopolitical pressure from the U.S. and its allies over its decision to invade Ukraine.
Iran’s long-term play hinges on deepening ties with both Russia and China, seen as the most powerful leaders in an anti-Western movement that could challenge U.S. global power in the 21st century.
Moscow and Tehran appear to have bonded over their shared status as the focus of U.S. sanctions, and their shared antipathy to a global strategic order dominated by NATO and America’s network of international allies.
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With a weak economy and a military that pales in comparison to the world’s strongest, Iran needs to be viewed as bringing something to the table.
“Viewed in this context, a deal to supply Russia with drones, missiles, and military advisers makes strategic sense for Iran and can demonstrate the latter’s value to one of its two senior partners in the anti-Western entente,” John Hardie and Behnam Ben Taleblu, scholars at the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy magazine published Wednesday.
“By fueling the crisis in Ukraine, Iran likely hopes to lead the United States to continue diverting its attention from the Middle East,” they continued. “Under three successive presidents, Washington has signaled it would prefer to largely divest from the region to shift military resources elsewhere and focus attention on problems at home. Now that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war in Ukraine is absorbing Western attention and resources, Tehran sees an opportunity to feed this trend.”
For the record, at least, Iranian leaders adamantly deny supplying drones and other military assets to Russia since the Ukraine war began in February, calling the reports U.S. disinformation. But “kamikaze” drones of what appear to be clearly Iranian design have been shown at attack sites inside Ukraine, and both the U.S. and European Union have moved to sanction Tehran for its military support of Moscow.
Ukrainian and Western officials say Iran has provided Russia a host of military equipment, including short-range Zolfaghar ballistic missiles and Shahed-136 drones. The latter has been one of Moscow’s weapons of choice in recent attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure.
What’s more, Western officials say that Iranian troops are on the ground in Ukraine helping Russian troops fly those drone missions. The presence of Iranian personnel on the ground in a war zone alongside Russian troops seems to undercut Tehran’s assertion that it is a neutral party and that its weapons sales to Russia do not necessarily mean it backs Moscow’s war effort.
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Warming ties between the two were on display in a visit Mr. Putin made to Tehran in July — his first foreign trip outside the boundaries of the old Soviet Union after ordering the Ukraine invasion in February. Russia and Iran have both been supporting President Bashar Assad in Syria’s bloody civil war, and despite Iran’s professed neutrality, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei largely embraced Mr. Putin’s version of events over who was to blame for the Ukraine war.
“NATO is a dangerous entity,” the ayatollah said. “The West is totally opposed to a strong, independent Russia. … If [NATO] hadn’t been stopped in Ukraine, it would have later started a similar war in Crimea.”
Iran’s support extends even beyond the military realm. Last Sunday, for example, Iran announced a new contract to supply Russia with 40 turbines for its gas industry, Agence France-Presse reported.
Western economic sanctions, the Kremlin says, have prevented the maintenance and repair of Russian turbines, endangering the country’s energy production and its ability to export oil and natural gas to help finance the war.
For all of its help, Iran surely expects something in return. Mr. Hardie and Mr. Taleblu argued that Iran may want military hardware, perhaps Russia’s famed S-400 air defense system. In Iran’s eyes, such a system could prove crucial in defending itself against future U.S. or Israeli airstrikes.
But some fear that Tehran may have even more far-reaching aims. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speculated this week that Russia may return the favor by offering direct assistance with Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.
“In eight months of full-scale war, Russia has used almost 4,500 missiles against us. And their stock of missiles is dwindling. That is why Russia went looking for affordable weapons in other countries to continue terror. It found them in Iran,” Mr. Zelenskyy said Monday in a speech to Haaretz’s Israel Democracy Conference.
“I have a question for you: How does Russia pay Iran for this, in your opinion?” he asked. “Is Iran just interested in money? Probably not money at all, but Russian assistance to the Iranian nuclear program. Probably, this is exactly the meaning of their alliance.”
Foreign policy specialists largely reject that idea, saying that many Russian leaders remain opposed to the idea of Iran as a nuclear power. Despite its own nuclear saber-rattling in Ukraine, Russia likely would see little strategic benefit in helping another nation — in this case, one with deep, lasting ties to Islamic terrorist organizations — become a nuclear state.
At the same time, however, Iran’s decision to back Russia has helped derail a multilateral push to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program. After 18 months of aggressive diplomacy, Biden administration officials are now signaling that the effort to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is no longer a focus, thanks to Iran’s support for Russia and its brutal crackdown on ongoing domestic protests.
“It’s not even on the agenda. It’s not a focus because there’s no movement,” Robert Malley, the State Department’s special Iran envoy, told CNN recently, referring to JCPOA negotiations.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Wednesday he’s pessimistic about “a near-term prospect” of a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, saying Iran is to blame for “trying to inject” new, unrelated demands into the multilateral talks.
Signed by the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran, the JCPOA limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief. Former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of that deal in 2018 and instituted a “maximum pressure” economic campaign against Iran.
Until recently, Biden administration officials had insisted that they’d continue diplomacy with Iran in an effort to stop the nation from acquiring a nuclear weapon, even as relations on other fronts deteriorated. Those talks have been shelved, and officials now focus on how Iran’s support for Russia is cutting the country off even more from the rest of the world.
“It’s another sign of how isolated both Russia and Iran are and they have to rely on each other. They continue to lie to the world but the facts are clear,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told Politico late last week. “The Supreme Leader [of Iran] should answer why he has Iran directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons that enable Russia to kill civilians and damage civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. It’s just another example of Iran’s desire to export violence, and both Iran and Russia need to be held accountable for it.”