Russia was becoming increasingly anti-Western, and Iran could use it for its advantage. And most importantly, as a result of Ibrahim Raisi's victory in the presidential election, the influence of the Iranian pragmatists, who have always been more critical of Russia, was minimized.
The resulting tandem of Raisi and Khamenei made a clear decision: we work with Russia. And the war in Ukraine was a catalyst: it simply accelerated the ongoing processes because, on the Russian side, there was also a need for closer cooperation with Iran.
In the same trench
Iran began to seem helpful to Russia in the early 2010s, with the war in Syria, as well as the negotiations around nuclear power. Since 2010 — when Russia supported international sanctions against Iran — things have shifted to the current position. Some experts think that Moscow believes that the Iranians can theoretically be allowed to possess nuclear weapons as long as they do not test them openly.
Russia lifted sanctions on Iran because they were mainly concerned about a ban on deliveries of S-300 missiles, which had already happened long before. The sanctions had been a signal in response to Iran creating a uranium enrichment plant behind Russia's back. When the Fordow facility was suddenly discovered in 2009, Moscow became irritated and joined the sanctions.
But the Russian leadership was never in favour of sanctions. Russian companies, on the other hand, were tied to the West and afraid to work with Iran. But after the war in Ukraine started, Russian companies found themselves in the same sanctions trench as Iranian businesses. This became a favorable condition for the development of trade and economic cooperation.
Today's enemies, tomorrow's friends
Russian-Iranian relations are an example of how friends can be made and lost quickly. Even since the collapse of the USSR, things have changed several times.
In the 1990s, cooperation with Iran saved several sectors of the Russian economy. The Iranians were willing to pay money; some agreements promised close collaboration by the 2000s. But the Russian elite did not perceive Iran as a potential partner. For them, Iran was a bargaining chip in negotiations with the West.
For example, the 1996-1998 treaties with the United States implied that Russia would refuse to cooperate with Iran in exchange for closer cooperation with the United States. The signing of these treaties significantly undermined Russia's relations with Iran.
The traditional beliefs of the Islamic Republic may appeal to the Russian leadership.
Then, things changed as Russia-U.S. relations evolved. First, there was a friendship with Iran, then Iran was declared the leading problem in the region. In 2007, during Putin's first visit to Iran, one of the main tasks of Russian diplomacy was to ensure that no document approved by Iran contained Putin's signature. They even invented a format of joint statements by the two presidents that were "unsigned" so as not to offend anyone in the West, recalls Kozhanov.
But as relations with the U.S. deteriorated, Moscow gradually began to understand that Iran is also important in its own right: as an assistant to Syria, a country with overlapping interests in Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the Persian Gulf.
The facts that Iran never officially supported Chechen separatism and that it helped to reconcile participants of the civil war in Tajikistan in the 1990s also played a role. The development of conservative ideas in Russia is appealing to the Iranian leadership, and the traditional beliefs of the Islamic Republic may appeal to the Russian leadership.
Together against sanctions
Iran has much experience circumventing sanctions, managing to move fluidly within the Persian Gulf region. There have long been established supply windows through the UAE, Oman, and, to a lesser extent, Qatar.
Iran plays the role of a transit hub. The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is developing quickly. This is the first project that Russia and Iran began to discuss after the sanctions and the outbreak of war in 2022.
In general, infrastructure is now coming to the forefront of Russian-Iranian cooperation. Discussions are going on in the expert community — right up to completely crazy ideas about creating a standard route from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Tehran and Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port city in the Persian Gulf.
The two countries are in the same trench in many respects because they have to.
In addition, several agreements have been signed on bilateral cooperation, for example, on repairing Russian aircraft in Iran. Many experts are sure that this is an excuse for the possibility of importing spare parts to Russia or replacing them in Iran because the Iranians are good at repairing both Boeing and Airbus but cannot produce spare parts themselves.
The Soviets demonstrated that stealing technology and creatively refining it is quite a possible way to develop. But, of course, the sanctions imposed on both countries will limit cooperation.
There is also the option of expanding cooperation to third countries, that is, the involvement of China, India, and other players. In this way, the financial problem could be solved, though only partially.
The future looks unclear
Iran believes the world order is now changing and will result in the death of the U.S. empire. And in the process of restructuring, Russia can help Iran integrate into new alliances, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the free trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union. This would involve the removal of trade barriers as well as the strengthening of Iran's position in the international arena.
But Kozhanov says that he does not believe a long-lasting alliance will be established. Many in Iran oppose a rapprochement with Russia, because they are well aware that it is the Iranians who are paying the price for this rapprochement. If before the Ukraine war, what constituted a problem was the infrastructure related to the nuclear program, now, theoretically, their entire military infrastructure is under scrutiny.
Moreover, when Iran's leadership changes, it is unclear how a new regime will behave toward Russia. And the Russian leadership is also ambiguous in its perception of Iran.
The two countries are in the same trench in many respects because they have to. There is simply no alternative to their cooperation right now. If the global split is prolonged (and it looks like it is), we will see further steps by Iran and Russia toward rapprochement, concludes Kozhanov. But for now, it is too early to know.
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