August 4, 2023
IntelBrief: The Moscow-Tehran Axis Beginning to Show Signs of Strain
Recent developments are causing experts to temper their analysis of an expanding and enduring Russia-Iran strategic alliance – a relationship that seemed solidified by Iranian sales of its Shahed and Mohajer sophisticated armed unmanned aerial systems to Moscow. The sales – supplemented by Iran’s deployment of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel to assist Russian forces operating the armed drones and by its support for the construction of a factory to build the systems on Russian territory – injected Iranian support into a major war on European soil and in opposition to the NATO countries that are supporting Ukraine. This places Iran in a precarious diplomatic position with European countries that have long advocated nuclear and political compromises with Tehran and sought to temper a more adversarial U.S. position. In return for risking their ties to Europe, Iranian leaders believed they had earned Russia’s unconditional and open-ended diplomatic, military, and economic support that they assumed, in turn, would enable Tehran to expand its strategic influence throughout the Middle East.
Several developments in July, however, suggest that Russia sees Iranian military support for its Ukraine war effort as a short-term transaction that does not require strategic reciprocation. On July 10, a joint statement issued at the conclusion of the Russia-Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Moscow directly contradicted Tehran’s stance on a long-running dispute over three islands in the Persian Gulf (Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs). In 1971, Iran took advantage of a British withdrawal from the region to militarily seize the three islands as the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) coalesced to form the new country. After sharing control of Abu Musa with the UAE for over two decades, Tehran completed its seizure of the island in 1992. While Iran considers its ownership of the three islands incontrovertible and has been unwilling to allow the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on the matter, last month’s statement by Moscow called for “bilateral negotiations or the [ICJ], in accordance with the rules of international law and the United Nations Charter, to resolve this issue is in accordance with international legitimacy.” Iran has been willing to hold occasional talks with the UAE on the dispute, although no set of talks has made meaningful progress. In response, Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said the islands “eternally belong to Iran and such statements are inconsistent with Iran’s friendly relations with its neighbors,” referring to the recent improvement in relations between Iran and the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Iranian officials, as well as citizens, also took offense over the Russian foreign ministry’s reference to the Gulf as the Arabian Gulf, insisting that it be referred to as the Persian Gulf.
This issue coincided with the apparent unraveling of a deal for Iran to buy modern Su-35 combat aircraft. According to diplomats with direct knowledge of the matter, Iran submitted “full payment” for 50 Su-35 fighter jets during the second term of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s second term, which lasted from 2017-2021. Although the deal was finalized before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Iranian officials undoubtedly anticipated that Tehran’s support for Moscow in the war would ensure that the jets would be delivered, reportedly in 2023. However, signs of the deal’s unraveling appeared on July 20, when Iranian defense minister Mohammad-Reza Gharaei Ashtiani said: "At some point, we made a deal for the purchase, but we came to the conclusion that we have the ability to produce (fighter jets) in the country." However, he also mentioned that the authorities could reconsider the purchase. In addition to signaling unexpected tensions in Iran’s relations with Russia, the deal’s collapse would deprive Tehran of an enhanced capability to project conventional military power across the Middle East. Iran has been looking to new conventional capabilities to enhance the strategic reach Iranian leaders have achieved by supporting a large network of pro-Iranian armed factions in many countries throughout the region, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain, as well as the Gaza Strip.
There are several possible motivations for Russia’s perceived distancing of itself from Iran. Facing pressure from Western sanctions, Russia might be trying to tilt toward the UAE and other Gulf states – which have been Tehran’s adversaries, despite recent improvements in Iran-Gulf state relations – in order to expand Russia’s exports to and investments from the Gulf states. Iran, which is also subject to comprehensive U.S.-led secondary sanctions, cannot offer anywhere near the same level of benefits to the Russian economy that the Gulf states can. Russia-UAE trade rose by 68 percent in 2022 to $9 billion, consisting mainly of $8.5 billion worth of Russian exports to the UAE. Russia’s stance on the islands dispute also enables the UAE and other Gulf states to explain their continued cooperation with Russia to Washington by showing how doing so supports their interests. Perhaps seeking a short-term benefit, Moscow might also be attempting to persuade Saudi Arabia to rethink its growing support for Ukraine at a time when Riyadh has been increasing its humanitarian aid for Ukraine and its diplomatic interventions in the war. The Saudis plan to host a large multilateral conference on Ukraine’s ten-point peace plan, set to take place over the weekend. Moscow reportedly has been excluded from the gathering following a visit by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to an Arab League summit in Jeddah in May to press those nations to support Kyiv.
Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently calculates little downside to demonstrating that Moscow has the upper hand in its relations with Tehran. As Russia begins to produce Iran-designed drones on its own territory, and perhaps in Belarus as well, Moscow may cast off its dependence on Iran to supply the drones. Moreover, Iran has few alternatives to dealing with the Kremlin. Iran’s drone sales to Russia have cost Iran any potential meaningful cooperation it might have had with the European countries, all of which support Ukraine, while the United States remains a historic adversary to Iran on a wide variety of issues. China, meanwhile, does not appear to be seeking to support Iran’s strategic capabilities in any meaningful way. Bereft of alternative partners, a widening rift with Moscow will render Iran even more isolated and vulnerable to U.S.-led pressure than it already is. Still, even if their military cooperation might be stalled or in jeopardy, Iran and Russia continue to have a joint interest in sharing information and best practices on how to circumvent Western sanctions. They also share an interest in continuing to jointly support the embattled regime of President Bashar Al Assad of Syria. It can be argued that, although Tehran’s vision of a military and strategic relationship with Russia might not come to fruition, the two powers will continue to share common cause in combatting the U.S.-led West and the West’s perceived economic, military, and political hegemony.