Emil Avdaliani's comments for Foreign Policy on how relations between Iran and Russia changed amid the war in Ukraine.
In the first two days of 2023, evidence of a newfound friendship between Russia and Iran was on full display across the war-battered cities of Ukraine in the form of downed kamikaze drones.
More than 80 Iranian-made drones launched by the Russian military were shot down over Ukraine in that 48-hour period, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, the latest sign of how two of the world’s biggest pariah states are deepening their alliance in the face of increasing international isolation and worsening economic woes.
Russia and Iran have formed a partnership of convenience against Western powers for decades, but that relationship has historically been tinged by an undercurrent of distrust and wariness, experts said.
The war in Ukraine may be changing all that, pushing Moscow to embrace Iran as one of its top foreign partners in a bid to secure sorely needed military supplies from Tehran and find lifelines for its sanctions-battered economy—even if that partnership stays below the level of a full-fledged formal alliance.
“The war in Ukraine changed how Russia viewed its ties with Iran,” said Emil Avdaliani, director of Middle East studies at Geocase, a Georgian think tank. “Before 2022, bilateral relations were characterized by ambivalence: high talks but little substance. … With the war, however, Russia’s turn to Asia has become complete and Iran’s support is now seen as critical in [the] Kremlin.”
Deepening relations between Moscow and Tehran could end up prolonging the bloody war in Ukraine, U.S. officials and regional experts said, as Iran provides more military support and resources to Russia. At the same time, it could also endanger U.S. allies in the Middle East that oppose Iran if the Russian government delivers new forms of military technology and high-end weapons systems to the heavily sanctioned Middle Eastern power.
For Russia, the partnership has yielded Iranian-made drones after Russian officials in the late fall of 2022 quietly clinched a deal with Iran to supply hundreds of weaponized drones to batter Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. (Iran has also reportedly sent military trainers to occupied Crimea to train and advise the Russian armed forces on how to use the drones.) Top Russian officials, including Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, have reportedly visited Iran in recent months to finalize a deal to purchase Iranian ballistic missiles.
“It’s hard to come up with an example of another country that has provided as much support willingly to Russia as has Iran,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In exchange for the new wave of support—according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with internal U.S. government assessments—Iran could get high-end military technology and weapons systems from Russia, such as Su-35 fighter jets or Russia’s S-400 advanced air defense system.
“With the shipping of drones, Iran now can push for a fighter jets deal and lucrative economic and trade deals with Russian companies, which so far abstained from investing into [Iran] because of American sanctions,” Avdaliani said.