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deepening security cooperation: unpacking russia and iran’s partnership

Deepening Security Cooperation: Unpacking Russia and Iran’s Partnership

Author: Nicholas Castillo

May 2, 2024

Image source: eurasianet.org

The pattern of the strike package Iran deployed against Israel on April 13 appears to be directly modeled on the drone and missile attacks Russia frequently deployed against Ukraine. Reported by the Institute for the Study of War, this cooperation further appears to demonstrate that Tehran and Moscow’s partnership goes beyond simple arms sales. This latest episode underscores the degree to which Russian and Iranian military and security infrastructure are now collaborative and appear to be learning from each other’s strategies.

Russia’s reliance on Iran throughout its full-scale war in Ukraine has been well documented. Since 2022, Russia has sourced critical military gear from the Iranians, including thousands of Shahed kamikaze drones that have been deployed on the front and have severely damaged civilian infrastructure across Ukraine. In February, Reuters reported that Iran and Russia had reached an anticipated agreement for Iran to sell hundreds of ballistic missiles to Russia. Military gear has also gone from north to south, with Iran placing orders for Russian Su-35 fighter jets, Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak-130 combat trainer aircraft. These are highly useful tools for Iran, whose air force primarily consists of aircraft that pre-date the 1979 revolution.

While Iran and Russia primarily operate in different regions, with Russia’s main concern being the war in Ukraine and Iran’s central theater of interest being the Middle East, they also have shared interests and are learning from one another. Both Iran and Russia have faced serious Western sanctions in recent years. In response, Tehran and Moscow have bolstered bi-lateral economic ties and worked toward building political and economic blocs to compete with the Trans-Atlantic alliance for global power. Tehran has offered Moscow information and access to networks used to evade sanctions. Iran appears to be looking to Russia’s example of how to manage large-scale protest. In 2022, Iran sourced advisors from the Kremlin in order to crush the popular uprisings against the regime following the killing of 26-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Much of the illicit transport of weapons or goods between Russia and Iran occurs by way of the Caspian Sea, where Russian and Iranian ships have proved expert at sanctions evasion practices. Under a 2018 treaty, all foreign military vessels are barred from the Caspian Sea and NATO member states lack adequate resources to properly monitor shipments there. Therefore, if Western countries wish to better enforce or monitor sanction-evasion activities, it will require new cooperation between NATO members and Caspian littoral states – some of which seem eager to diversify ties away from Russia towards countries like Türkiye or the US.

Recent cooperation between Tehran and Moscow is an about face from previous years. During the effort to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Russia worked alongside the United States and European Union to pressure Iran to come to the negotiating table and established the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. From 2007 to 2016, Russia bowed to Western pressure and delayed arms shipments to the Islamic Republic. But now, it appears that with clear battlelines drawn against the West, Tehran and Moscow are finding avenues of cooperation based on shared interests. 

The partnership appears to be becoming more crucial for Iran as it squares off with technologically superior Israel. Deals struck in February cement the sharing of anti-jamming technology and real-time assessments of how Iranian weapons preform against NATO-equipped Ukrainian troops. Russia has also provided Iran anti-aircraft defenses, all the more valuable given that a potential conflict between Iran and Israel would likely largely play out in the air domain. 

Potential fault lines in the Russia-Iran relationship remain. In the South Caucasus, Iran is strengthen ties with Armenia during a period which has seen Russia seemingly leave Yerevan in the cold. In the Middle East, Russia, has maintained workable and stable relations with Iran’s regional enemy Israel, marked by Tel-Aviv’s dovishness on the issue of Ukraine and Moscow turning a blind eye to Israeli activity in Syria. Russia cautioned Iran to be restrained in the aftermath of its counterstrike on Israel, hinting at the fact that if the Islamic Republic is thrown into a full conflict with Israel, it might deplete the Iranian weapons Moscow hopes to purchase. Furthermore, both Russia and Iran are petro-states, competing for the same oil markets, most notably China. 

Yet, for now, these cleavages seem relatively minor compared to what Moscow and Tehran view as existential threats from the West and from internal enemies. Until that changes, it seems likely that Iranian-Russian cooperation will continue. 

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