Iran and Russia cooperate amid suspicion
Iranian and Russian interests have clashed many times over the past two centuries. Tsarist Russia captured territory from the Persian Empire and intervened militarily inside Iran. Soviet Russia occupied northern Iran during the second world war, promoted secession in north-western Iran after both world wars and supported Saddam Hussein during the gruelling 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
The Islamic Republic’s first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was hostile towards the Soviet Union, describing it as the “Lesser Satan” alongside the United States as the “Great Satan.” Even Russian sources acknowledge that the Iranian public views Russian intentions towards Iran as unfriendly.
Despite this legacy, the Russian and Iranian governments became close partners in recent years. Some even see them as allies. Several common interests have led to this. Most dramatically, Iran and Russia have both sent forces to Syria to protect the Assad regime from its opponents backed by the United States and several US allies.
More generally, Russia and Iran both seek to prevent American influence from expanding in the Middle East and to reduce it if they can. The authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Tehran also fear the rise of an internal democratic opposition and both are certain that instances of this occurring were orchestrated by Washington during the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 and the anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia in 2011-12. Both Iran and Russia see Sunni jihadists, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, as a common threat.
Even though their common interests have resulted in closer Russian-Iranian cooperation, each remains wary of the other for many reasons, including differences over Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran views both countries as opponents but Russia sees them as partners. The demarcation of the Caspian Sea, which has remained unresolved since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, also divides the two countries as does Bahrain, where Tehran sympathises with the Shia opposition while Moscow backs the Sunni monarchy.
What worries Moscow and Tehran about each other the most, though, is the fear the other is going to cut a deal with the United States at its own expense. Iranian media commentary about Russia routinely expresses the fear that, even when Moscow supports Tehran, it will stop doing so if it can get Washington to pay a high enough price to induce Moscow to betray Tehran.
Similarly, Russian observers have long expressed the fear that if Iranian-US relations ever improve, Tehran will have far less need of Moscow than it does now and that Tehran would need Washington’s support in its many disagreements with Moscow.
Moscow was especially fearful that the Obama administration’s pursuit of the Iranian nuclear accord would lead to a broader Iranian-US rapprochement but it eventually supported the process. Fortunately for Moscow, Iranian- US differences over Syria, which Russia did much to encourage, prevented broader Iranian-US rapprochement.
With Tehran fearing improved Russian-US relations and Moscow fearing better Iranian-US relations, it would seem Washington could gain advantage over either by improving relations with the other. Indeed, when the Trump administration came into office, it sought to improve ties with Russia in the hope of working with it against Iran.
Despite Russian and Iranian fears, though, differences between the United States and either of them are so great that an improvement in Washington’s relations with either is most unlikely. The Trump administration’s increasing hostility towards Iran is especially reassuring to Moscow.
There are other possibilities, though, for a deterioration in Russian-Iranian ties. One is that if they both think that they have prevailed over the United States and its allies in Syria, Moscow and Tehran may have less need of each other and start pursuing competing interests there.
Russian-Iranian relations are also likely to deteriorate if Israel continues its attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria and if Russia, wanting to preserve its cooperative security and economic ties to Israel, continues to tolerate those attacks.
Improved Russian ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, which Moscow has long sought, would also displease Iran, as would continued Russian support for the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, something that Turkey also disapproves of.
Thus, while Russian-Iranian ties are close, there are many issues that could lead to their deterioration even if the Trump administration does nothing to encourage this.