Moscow-Tehran relations are shaped and constrained by ideological and geopolitical developments in the Middle East and beyond.
Many in the West have long considered the Islamic Republic of Iran to be Russia's ally. The reality, however, is more complex.
Ties between Russia and Iran would be better characterised as a "marriage of convenience" – if not even a "competitive partnership". They lack strategic depth and the supposed shared ideological foundations that underpin their relations are situational.
Today, the politico-military sphere of cooperation between Moscow and Tehran is limited to the Syrian dossier and mutual trade does not exceed $4 billion (compared to $25 billion of trade between Russia and Türkiye).
Of course, Moscow-Tehran relations are experiencing a certain renaissance, but their relations have been marked by ups and downs over the decades.
Until the reign of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, there had been numerous Russian-Persian wars and Soviet interventions in Iran, which cast a shadow on the modern relations between the two countries.
Even though the shah was considered a close ally of the United States, he had close contact with the USSR. In the 1960s and 70s, the Soviet Union built factories and gas pipelines in Iran and equipped the Iranian military with modern weapons, making this period the best in Russian-Iranian relations.
Soviet-Iranian cooperation came to an abrupt end with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who came to power afterwards called the USSR a "small Satan" (the "big Satan" was the US) and began to support the mujahideen who were fighting against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
In Lebanon, a leader of the pro-Iran Hezbollah, Imad Mughniyeh, was behind the abduction of Soviet diplomats and the murder of one of them, in 1985.
It was not until 1989 that Soviet-Iranian relations began to normalise and continued to improve in Yeltsin's Russia. However, the essence of this cooperation was purely transactional: Iran wanted the latest Soviet/Russian arms, and the USSR and then Russia sought to get billions of dollars from sales.
More recently, many in Iran perceived Russia as a hostile state during the latter's use of the Hamadan Airbase in Iran to strike Daesh positions in 2016. Russia's publicising this information caused a stir among Iranians, who felt Russia’s use of the base echoed Soviet intervention between 1941 and 1945. As a result, Tehran cancelled the deal for the use of the facility for Russian military aviation.
The basis of the partnership
Iran would likely have remained Russia's minor partner in the Middle East if not for the Arab uprisings and the Syrian revolution, which led to a gradual politico-military rapprochement between the two.
The ties between Tehran and Damascus were much deeper than those between Moscow and Damascus. Syria was an important element of the "Axis of Resistance," which has an ideological and even a religious and spiritual component, as it is supposed to lay "the international and regional ground" to ensure the return of the 12th Shia Imam from hiding.
Naturally, Russia did not share such attitudes and its cooperation with Iran — and the Assad regime – in Syria was purely pragmatic. Even though they both supported the Assad regime, tensions started as soon as Moscow became involved in Syria.
The countries had contrasting visions: Moscow was interested in normalising relations between Syria and its neighbours, using the country as a springboard to enter the "big game" in the Middle East, while Iran tried to turn the country into its military springboard for attacks on its neighbours.
At first, these differences appeared more technical, mainly concerning, for instance, the question of how agreements with the Syrian opposition on the cessation of hostilities were to be implemented. At the time, Russia sought a relatively more moderate approach compared to Iran and the Syrian regime. For instance, it brought in Sunni Muslim and Chechen military police into Aleppo after the city had been taken over by the regime — in part to prevent massacres of Sunni residents by pro-Iranian Shia militias.
In other areas, like Wadi Barada, there were incidents between Russian military police and pro-Iranian militias.
Tehran's dominance in Syria's economy also began to displease Moscow since too few business spheres were left for Russian oligarchs.
Even though it was somewhat more profitable for the Assad regime to enter into contracts with Russian companies, Iran retained its influence both through official channels as the regime's main sponsor, trading partner and supplier of oil products; and unofficial channels: and pro-Iran militants reinforcing Tehran’s policies.
Finally, Russian-Iranian tensions reached a new level in 2018 after Israel and an American military contingent stationed in Syria began striking pro-Iranian formations in the country. With this came the risk of a direct military clash between Iran and the US and Israel, which Moscow wanted to avoid.
In southern Syria, Iranian formations reached Israeli and Jordanian borders after a 2018 military campaign. Based on agreements with Washington and Tel Aviv, Moscow prevented Tehran from establishing lodgings in Daraa and Quneitra.
Russia also tried to limit Iranian expansion in northeastern Syria near the borders with Iraq, between the cities of al Mayadin and al Bukamal, where a pro-Iranian-controlled enclave was effectively formed, bringing the risk of a clash with US troops on the other side of the Euphrates.
However, given Israel's pro-Ukraine stance and the US military assistance to Kiev, Moscow may reconsider this approach.
On the other hand, Russia is interested in maintaining friendly relations with the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Jordan, for which the strengthening of Iran's position in Syria also poses a threat. Therefore, Russia might continue its policy of restraining Iranian ambitions but keeping an eye on the Arab states rather than on the US and Israel.
A new field of competition
However, the contradictions between Russia and Iran are gradually moving beyond the Syrian dossier and may spread to the post-Soviet space, particularly in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
Iran has become more active in its Caucasus policy after the Armenian-Azerbaijani war when Armenian leadership considered Russian assistance in its war with Azerbaijan insufficient. Instead of increasing its military support to Yerevan, Russia concluded an alliance agreement with Azerbaijan.
Iran is now trying to pressure Azerbaijan by conducting military manoeuvres under the pretext of alleged military ties between Baku and Tel Aviv and offering itself as a more reliable partner for Yerevan than Moscow.
In Tajikistan, Iran is trying to compete with Moscow on security issues. Moscow is trying to develop constructive dialogue with the Taliban despite Dushanbe's hesitancy regarding the new government in Kabul. Meanwhile, Tehran has already offered Dushanbe new forms of interaction in the military sphere, including opening a new factory to produce Iranian-made drones.
Against the backdrop of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, where Moscow is rapidly using its resources, Russia's Central Asian and Caucasian allies may be feeling increasingly insecure. Therefore, Iran has an opportunity to fill this security vacuum.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to firstname.lastname@example.org