Perhaps the greatest sleight of hand achieved by the Russian state with respect to Iran has been to reinvent its relationship from that of imperial predator to a fully-fledged member of an ‘axis of resistance’ against the West. It had achieved this once before, when Imperial Russia became the Soviet Union, (symbolised by the 1921 Treaty of Friendship), but it did not take long for Iranian statesmen to realise that the leopard had not really changed its spots. Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Iran no longer shared a border with its nemesis to the north, while its own politics had become decidedly anti-Western.
Initially, the collapse of Soviet Central Asia and the emergence of independent states in the region ignited an irredentist mood, which immediately called for the restitution of lands seized by Tsarist Russia in 1828 at the Treaty of Turkmenchai, the reflexive slogan of choice for all those in Iran who sought to evoke the memory of Russian imperialism. But political dynamics and relationships were changing. Foregrounding this was a development during the First Gulf War when Saddam Hussein thought it prudent to send his air force to Iran for safe keeping. So impressed were the Iranians with the equipment they received that, prevented from replenishing their arms from Western stores, they proceeded to gratefully absorb the Iraqi air-force as reparations for the Iran-Iraq War and promptly turned to Russia as the arms supplier of choice. It proved to be the start of a close relationship, cemented over time in deep personal ties between the military-industrial establishments of both countries – principally, in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
For Russia, emerging as it was from the trauma of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this new lucrative partnership could not have come at a better time providing a firm commercial foundation for wider shared interests that would eventually develop, including a profoundly ideological loathing – among their respective leaderships – of the West. A striking aspect of this development was the ideological synergy that developed between the two states, a shared worldview, in which Russia, far from containing the ideological excesses of revolutionary Iran, appeared to increasingly absorb, digest and amplify these views, creating, in effect, an echo chamber of paranoia.
For much of the 1990s, though, Russia was regarded as neither friend nor foe, as Iran concentrated on its competition with Turkey for influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. However, this pushed Russia and Iran together in ways neither could have foreseen, as both supported Christian Armenia in its struggle against Turkic but Shia Azerbaijan. This did not inhibit other frictions emerging, not least over the status of the Caspian Sea, and there was one important area where Iran and Russia did not see eye to eye. If Russia possessed the largest natural gas reserves in the world, Iran was in possession of the second largest. There might have been a natural synergy, but the Russians were anxious to protect and expand their market and deny any share to Iran, while the West, driven by US antipathy towards Iran, saw its energy security almost exclusively in Russian terms. Few remember the extraordinary sums of money that were thrown at the Russian energy sector — with a significant amount poured into ‘feasibility studies’ — and the reality was that Iran was crowded out and largely ignored. Various pipeline projects to deliver Russian and central Asian hydrocarbons to the West studiously skirted Iran’s borders — going so far at the time to issue a now notorious invitation to the Taliban to explore routes through Afghanistan. Looking back, one cannot but feel there was a good deal of short-sightedness in the dogged American antipathy towards Iran.
With the millennium and 9/11, another important shift took place. Yeltsin had handed over to Putin and the Reformist impulse in Iran was in its death throes. Both countries took an authoritarian turn, with the IRGC more prominent in Iran following the ascension of the hard-liners and the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both post-imperial powers were in search of a role, chafing at the injustice of the international order and the innate wickedness of the West. Business ties were nonetheless beginning to yield political dividends, not least when Iran’s nuclear programme was referred to the UN Security Council. The protective cover of Russia’s veto came into its own while, from Russia’s perspective, the prospect of playing an influential mediating role between Iran and the West enhanced its great power status. Identifying as ‘both East and West’, Russia claimed to understand the Iranians better than any in the West and thus could contribute constructively to the process.
For all the bonhomie, there remained considerable mistrust between the Iranians and the Russians — a running joke among Russian diplomats was that only the Iranians were more mendacious than themselves. The Russians might have embedded themselves with the hard-line establishment, including the careful cultivation of the Supreme Leader, who Putin once reportedly described as possessing the spirit of Jesus, but they seemed less enamoured with the Western-leaning moderate wing of the Islamic Republic. As such, while Russia was keen to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme, they were just as keen in ensuring that Iran remained firmly within a Russian orbit. This was naturally the cause of some friction, and social antipathy towards Russia came to a head in Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, when protesters accused Russia of advising on the best ways to suppress the uprising, drawing comparisons with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. If there was little obvious evidence of involvement, it was clear that both leaderships shared a dislike of ‘Velvet Revolutions’, creating a discourse of shared paranoia.
Nonetheless, in the following year Russia joined its Western allies in rebuking Iran over its failure to come to a resolution over its nuclear programme — most obviously rejecting a Russian plan to resolve the crisis – and set in train a strategy to implement the most severe sanctions on the country. This was taken by Western partners as an indication of Russia’s seriousness; for some Iranians it was seen as more of a targeted rebuke for not playing to Russia’s tune. It suited Russia for Iran to be locked out of the oil and gas markets, they argued. At the same time, Russia persisted in its role as honest broker, generally laying the blame for Iran’s economic woes on the West while at the same time cementing its relationships with elements of the Iranian state. Indeed, in echoes of its Tsarist predecessor, Russia consolidated its grip on the ‘court’ (the Supreme Leader’s office), and the military (the IRGC). (It is worth remembering that the presidency occupies a lower rung in the constitutional ladder than the Supreme Leader.) An opportunity to deepen the relationship was afforded by the onset of the Arab Spring in Syria, where Russia and its IRGC allies found themselves fighting the good fight in the defence of Assad’s autocracy.
It was here that the intimacy of the relationship first became apparent. Once the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed in July 2015, Iran and Russia doubled down on their defence of Assad. Among the first trips by IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani was to Moscow to solicit support. It did not go unnoticed that while Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, with his mellifluous American English, might grace the capitals of Europe, the Supreme Leader’s foreign policy advisors made regular, if more discrete, visits to Moscow. But even more revealing was the fact that Russian aircraft were using an air base in Iran to launch attacks, an impromptu Russian revelation that had embarrassed the Iranian government and was the cause of much consternation among people in Iran. The Iranian leadership were quick to dismiss the development as trivial, but it was increasingly clear that a much more substantive collective effort was underway, and there was some irritation at the dismissive attitude of the Russians.
This became apparent in the leak of an audiotape, in which Iran’s outgoing Javad Zarif had given his views on the progress of the nuclear talks — both the original discussion to 2015 and the concurrent attempts to restore the agreement after Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 — during what was meant to be a confidential ‘oral history’ recording. Quite when this was meant to be released was unknown, but Zarif had clearly touched a nerve — and may have reflected a wider Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) view — that the Russians had been playing something of a double game in the negotiations, supporting the removal of sanctions but unenthusiastic about a potential rapprochement between Iran and the United States. This position was, of course, similar to that charted by the Supreme Leader and the IRGC but, given Zarif had alleged that the Russians had actively sought to sabotage progress, there was some surprise that more opprobrium was not heaped on him. But then he was on his way out, the Russians denied it, and, as Russian commentators pointed out, relations with Iran were cemented at a ‘higher level’ than the MFA.
Indeed, with the impending change in administration — Hassan Rouhani had served out his two terms — the ties that bind became more explicit. The Rouhani administration was in the throes of intense discussions to ‘allow’ the United States back into the JCPOA now that Biden had succeeded to the presidency. The Iranians were justifiably indignant that Trump had unilaterally withdrawn in 2018 but had taken their righteousness to impractical heights. While the Rouhani administration was keen to get the renegotiation settled ahead of the putative presidential election — looking for a win for the outgoing president — the Iranian leadership pressed for guarantees, compensation, and a refusal to contemplate anything beyond the original agreement, that the Biden presidency, with limited political capital to spend on Iran, would find difficult, if not impossible to meet. But, in many ways, the more serious problem was a practical one. Treating the JCPOA as a club that the United States wished to re-enter, the Iranians scrupulously refused to negotiate with them directly and, consequently, a tedious ‘shuttle diplomacy’ had to be implemented by which delegations would run between the main hotel and the one down the street, where the Americans had been effectively quarantined. With the imminent change in administration, this situation was about to become worse.
The direction of travel was already apparent ahead of the ‘election’, which saw Rouhani replaced by the technocratic hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi. The electoral process was widely derided in Iran for its Potemkin qualities. But more than that, for the first-time, prospective candidates appeared to vie for Putin’s endorsement, with one being cold shouldered on a trip to Moscow. Following the inauguration of the Raisi administration, not only were the demands of the US now explicit government policy, but the talks were paused until the new administration could master its brief. The Iranians concluded that the relatively generous American opening offer and Biden’s lack of manoeuvre should be seen as weaknesses ripe for exploitation. As such it was time to double down on demands and, above all, make the West wait. When the Iranians did return to negotiations in late November 2021 progress was further hampered by the fact that Iran’s negotiators were neither willing nor able to negotiate in English. Already engaged in ‘shuttle diplomacy’, this further prolonged a process that was fast running out of time — not only because the terms of the original JCPOA were becoming redundant with every development in the Iranian programme, but because Biden’s political capital was dissipating with every day wasted, which the Iranians compounded by initially re-opening discussion points that had already ostensibly been concluded that summer. They also appeared to have delegated their negotiations to the loquacious Russian ambassador, Mikhail Ulyanov, whose optimistic tweets about the imminent return of the JCPOA were fast turning into parody.
That said, by January 2022 serious progress appeared to have been made. The surest sign that the end might be near was the now routine determination of the Iranians to squeeze every last pip out of the negotiations. This was indicative of one of the iron laws of Iranian politics: that however much they distrusted the West, they distrusted each other more. So as the prospects of a deal became closer it was important for the negotiators to show they had truly gone the extra mile, even if they squandered any goodwill that had been built up over previous months. With the crisis brewing in Ukraine, however, the tone and tenor of the negotiations changed. In the first place, much to Iranian frustration, they were no longer being treated as the ‘priority’ crisis, with pressure mounting to get the deal sealed before anything erupted in Ukraine. The Iranians, with characteristic insouciance, treated this as a further sign of weakness to which the only response was procrastination.
The response to the Russian invasion, when it came, was revealing. There was a clear distinction between the leadership — which blamed the West (and NATO) for the conflict — and the popular mood, which was deeply antithetical to the Russians. As sanctions mounted on the Russians, some Iranian commentators noted that this was a golden opportunity for Iran to occupy the space vacated by the Russian oil and gas industry. Others noted ominously that the JCPOA would now be hostage to the Ukraine war. The pessimists were proved right.
Faced with the prospect that sanctions would now inhibit any possibility of them reaping any commercial reward from the JCPOA, Russia demanded guarantees that their trade with Iran would be protected. While the popular mood — and, we might add, many officials — was aghast at this last-minute Russian intervention, the leadership took the opposite tack, doubling down on their support for Russia, blaming the Americans for the continued impasse (they had refused to remove the IRGC from the Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) list) and endorsing the Russian position on Ukraine, including the need for de-Nazification. (Some hardliners in the regime, meanwhile, have argued that the lesson of the invasion of Ukraine is that states should never divest themselves of nuclear capability.) After some further delay, the Russians eventually withdrew their demands but, arguably, the damage had been done. The impasse continues and the longer it lasts, the less meaningful any return to the original agreement –— with its timeline of sunset clauses — becomes. What we will be left with is an interim agreement in all but name, while the appetite, and capacity for further talks — essential to any process — will have, certainly in Washington, all but vanished. The Iranian Supreme Leader, meanwhile, content with an economy that survives but does not thrive, insists that the negotiations are going very well.
But the stresses and strains of war have revealed something remarkable. Putin appears to have fully absorbed the ideological talking points of Tehran: a healthy dose of Anglophobia, talk of ‘resistance’, the toxic consequences of Western culture, and the need for society to ‘self-purify’. Like the Iranian leadership, Russia also talks of the decline, if not imminent collapse, of the West and seems to relish the prospect of being in a state of perpetual crisis. For anyone aware of Russo-Iranian history, this ideological synergy — if not emulation — is an extraordinary development. It marks Russia’s turn East. Far from tolerating, containing and occasionally harnessing the idiosyncrasies of Iranian revolutionary ideology, the Russian leadership appears to share it, including an alarming sense of mission for a Mother Russia that is increasingly regarded as holy. It is a salutary reminder not to compartmentalise our analyses, and construct hard geographical or cultural distinctions that, in reality, don’t exist. Far from it. The respective leaderships are bound by ties far deeper than geopolitical coincidences of interest: a state of mutual paranoia, reinforced and amplified by a shared conviction about the future, the success or failure of which will rebound on both.