Few-Friends Russia Embraces Iran


Russia once viewed the G-20 group of leading economies as the world’s key cooperative forum. No longer. The November 15-16 meeting in Bali will not be attended by Vladimir Putin and there is therefore little chance that his isolation will be illustrated through face-to-face condemnations from Western leaders. 

That’s not to say that Russia has no friends, just that it has fewer than before its all-out war on Ukraine began in February. North Korea, for example, has reportedly drawn closer to the Kremlin through supplies of military equipment to aid its war of aggression. And Iran, a more significant power, now enjoys a detectably stronger relationship with Russia, with serious implications for the Middle East, nuclear non-proliferation, and sanctions evasion. 

The sight of Iranian suicide drones striking civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and the mooted arrival of Iranian ballistic missiles to bolster Russia’s unprovoked war on a European neighbor meanwhile shows how the Kremlin benefits (and Tehran’s indifference to reputational damage.) 

The warming of relations comes after decades, if not centuries of mistrust. This mutual hesitancy has been a hallmark of bilateral ties, with a sense of incompleteness always haunted their much-vaunted cooperation. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and most of all its failure to produce a quick victory presented Iran with significant opportunities to exploit Russia’s weaknesses, and to push Putin’s regime to agree to more extensive cooperation in the economic and military realms. Iran’s nuclear ambitions likewise.  

Before the war in Ukraine, Russia’s involvement in Iran’s revived talks on restoring the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) designed to end Tehran’s ability to build nuclear weapons, were characterized by the US and its allies as fairly positive. On several occasions, the Kremlin pressured Iran to stay in line and abstain from making further moves toward acquiring nuclear weapons, and so kill any scant hopes of restoring the nuclear agreement.  

Russian calculus was clear — it opposed the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, a region already beset with instability. Iran and Russia have long cooperated on numerous issues from the South Caucasus to the Caspian Sea, but the Islamic regime’s nature — its tradition of financing and helping to direct a variety of foreign militias — and its willingness to arm the enemies of its enemies, made it risky to assist its quest for nuclear technology. 

The war in Ukraine may be changing all these calculations, and there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting this is already happening. First, since the first days of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine when Western resolve to oppose Russia became evident, the Kremlin resorted to blackmail, threatening to scupper the JCPOA negotiations in Vienna. In June, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supported a resolution demanding Iran’s cooperation with the UN, Russia voted against it. It also stayed silent when Iran switched off several IAEA cameras at the nuclear sites.

Russia’s game is clear. It cares deeply about its war against Ukraine and is effectively asking the West how much it cares about Iran’s nuclear program. This potential geopolitical horse-trading fits with Putin’s approach to foreign affairs, but takes little account of the US-led approach. So far the West has resisted, but Russia knows that the clock is ticking — Iran is getting dangerously close to the famous breakout moment when it will be impossible to reverse its progress toward nuclear weapons. 


* The article was primarily published by CEPA