September 27, 2023

IntelBrief: Iran’s Strategic Partnership with Russia Continues to Expand

General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Iran’s missile and armed drone technology advances continue attracting interest from Russian military leaders eyeing new ways to support Moscow’s faltering war effort in Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin appears interested in new, highly capable Iranian cruise missiles similar to those that Tehran is supplying to its regional allies, such as the Houthi movement in Yemen.
  • Amid Russia’s battlefield struggles in Ukraine, Iran is stepping up its efforts to assist the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to pressure U.S. forces in the east of the country.
  • Tehran’s naval drills in the Persian Gulf indicate that tensions with the United States might not ebb following the U.S.-Iran prisoner swap in mid-September.

Since 2015, Iran and Russia have been strategic partners in the Middle East, as the two countries teamed up to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against a 2011 nationwide armed rebellion that nearly toppled his government. In 2022, Moscow turned to Tehran to supply it with Iran-designed sophisticated armed drones of the Shahed and Mohajer series, which Russian forces have used mostly - and with mixed success - to attack Ukrainian civilian and military infrastructure. In 2023, Russia joined with China in bringing Iran into several multilateral partnerships that are intended, at least in part, to challenge U.S. and Western dominance of the global political and financial system. In July, Iran completed its accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian security grouping, and in August, Russia as well as China arranged for Iran to join the BRICS grouping that hopes to undermine U.S. influence over the global economy.

In mid-September, Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu visited Iranian military facilities as a sign of Moscow’s interest in Tehran’s new missile and armed drone technology under development. According to Russia’s Ministry of Defence, Shoigu visited Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) during his trip to Iran and "saw missile weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as Iranian-made air defense equipment." In televised footage of Shoigu’s tour, a cruise missile with a range of approximately 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) was seen; the missile appeared identical to the “Quds-3” missile that Tehran supplied to Houthi forces in Yemen. The Houthis have used the weapon to significant effect against infrastructure targets in Saudi Arabia, and, in September 2022, they displayed the Quds-3 in a military parade in Yemen’s Houthi-held capital, Sanaa. It is believed to be a longer-range variant of the Iranian Soumar cruise missile. Experts assess that Shoigu likely seeks to procure that and other Iranian weaponry for use against Ukrainian targets as part of an effort to rebuild and improve the stockpile of long-range weaponry that Moscow has depleted since its February 2022 invasion. According to defense experts, the Quds-3 missile is much faster than propeller-driven attack drones that Iran has sold to Russia, giving it a better chance of getting through Ukraine’s air defenses. Images and footage from Shoigu’s visit indicate the minister viewed Iran's "loitering" anti-aircraft munitions, known as the 358 missiles, as well as varying generations of Iran’s arsenal of armed drones, including Mohajer, Ababil, Amin, Arash, Kaman, and Shahed. In June, Iran claimed to have produced a hypersonic missile, the Fattah, boasting that it has a range of 1,400 km [870 miles] and “is capable of penetrating all defense shields," according to Iranian aerospace chief, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh.

Shoigu’s visit to Iran coincided with a visit by IRGC Qods Force commander Esmail Qaani to another theater where Iran and Russia are cooperating – Syria. According to Iranian media, the purpose of his trip was to supervise a joint military drill with the Syrian army. Qaani “has conducted a significant visit to Syria, overseeing a joint Iran-Syria military exercise aimed at assisting Syria in addressing military and security challenges,” the IRGC-linked Tasnim news agency reported. The visit suggested that Iran might be escalating its operations in Syria in support of Assad as his regime faces renewed protests primarily in the southern Syrian province of Sweida. According to Reuters, demonstrators have accused members of pro-regime forces of using violence to crackdown on the dissent, with activists and community leaders stating that Ba’ath party guards fired at and injured at least three protestors in mid-September. Some of the protests spread into other areas of Syria, leading Syrian and Russian forces to conduct air strikes on opposition-held positions in northern Syria. Iran and Russia have repeatedly thwarted U.S., UN, and multilateral attempts to broker a political solution in Syria that would dilute Assad’s authority. Assad is Iran’s closest Arab ally - in part for his role in allowing transshipments of weaponry to Lebanese Hezbollah - and Tehran has been willing to expend substantial resources and political capital to keep him in power.

Iran is also stepping up its operational tempo in Syria in order to compensate for Russia’s reported redeployment of some commanders, forces, and military assets to Ukraine, which is a higher priority for the Kremlin. Both Russia and Iran seek not only to support Assad but also to counter U.S. forces in Syria. In July, an unnamed senior U.S. military official was quoted by the news outlet Al-Monitor as seeing signs that Russian military commanders in Syria have been quietly coordinating with the IRGC on long-term plans to pressure the United States to withdraw its forces from the country. Al-Monitor quoted the official as saying: “I see evidence of operational-level planning between mid-level Quds Force leadership that's operating in Syria [and] Russian forces that are operating in Syria.” The past year has witnessed several missile and drone attacks carried out by Iran-backed groups against Washington’s military bases in the east of the country. In one such attack in March, a U.S. contractor supporting the U.S. military was killed. In June, the Washington Post published a leaked Pentagon document dating to late January, reporting that high-ranking Russian and Iranian military and intelligence officials had agreed to form a joint coordination center to align their efforts to put pressure on U.S. forces in Syria.

Iran has also given other indications that neither a modest 2023 U.S. military buildup in the Gulf, nor a U.S.-Iran prisoner swap completed on September 18, would cause Iran to cease its provocative naval activity in the Persian Gulf. The prisoner swap included an exchange of five Americans imprisoned in Iran in exchange for five Iranians jailed on various charges in the United States – as well as the release of $6 billion in Iranian assets held in South Korean banks for use by Iran to purchase humanitarian goods. U.S. officials assessed that successful completion of the swap, which had been in the works for some time, might help de-escalate U.S.-Iran tensions on several issues, including Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program, its operations in Syria, and its attacks on commercial shipping in the Gulf. However, in early August, before the Shoigu visit and a military parade in Tehran commemorating the 1980 start of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran deployed speedboats and other vessels carrying missiles in a drill in the Persian Gulf. The drills reflected Tehran’s intent to signal defiance and a refusal to be intimidated by Washington. At the Tehran parade, Iran’s President Ibrahim Raisi renewed criticism against foreign military presence in the Persian Gulf, maintaining that Iran "stretches hands" to regional states for cooperation to take control of regional security from "the strangers," whose presence has only "caused problems rather than solved them." Raisi’s Tehran speech echoed his address, a few days earlier, to the UN General Assembly in New York, in which he accused the West of Islamophobia and described U.S. policy as a “velvet glove hiding a cast-iron hand.” He also claimed in the address that Western countries and their intelligence services underestimate Iran’s power.