Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought Russo-Iranian relations to the spotlight. Contrary to the global condemnation of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Tehran has showed strategic sympathy for Russian claims in its war of aggression. In a talk with Putin in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that “if Russia hadn’t sent troops into Ukraine, it would have faced an attack from NATO later.” Tehran has also cautiously supported Moscow in international forums like the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, either by voting to abstain or not taking part in the votes.
The most controversial development that highlighted Moscow–Tehran relations was Iran’s decision to deliver security assistance to Moscow. Despite repeatedly declaring its neutrality and rejection of war as a means to solve disagreements, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hamid Amirabdollahian admitted that his country had given UAVs to Moscow, among them Mohajer-6 and Shahed-136/131 drones – a costly decision that has brought the Islamic Republic under renewed international scrutiny with no immediate gain. These developments raise the question as to what has changed in Russo-Iranian relations since the start of the war in Ukraine.
This analysis argues that the Russian collision with the West has created new drivers for cooperation with Tehran. The Kremlin perceives an urgency and is reviewing its stance on Iran in its foreign policy. In addition, both countries’ unprecedented domestic instabilities are adding to mutual challenges of regime security, which calls for greater coordination and assistance on internal security matters – a fact which is becoming another driver in bilateral ties. On the other hand, a series of developments since the start of the war, coupled with the dominance of conservative forces in Tehran, is eroding some of the limits that have previously constrained cooperation. The US factor is also no longer a major limitation, as neither side anticipates normalization with the West anytime soon. In addition, historical mistrust on the Iranian side has been replaced by strategic sympathy for Russia. Finally, there are signs that the two countries’ economic competition in the energy market is transforming into renewed energy diplomacy, which holds prospects for mutual economic benefits.
Contrary to several analyses claiming that Russia and Iran’s ties after the war in Ukraine continue to be business as usual and do not go beyond “ad hoc cooperation” on specific issues of shared interest, relations since the start of the war have entered into a new phase and should be viewed differently. The two states are becoming increasingly interdependent – a development which reinforces the hypothesis that Russian-Iranian alignment is steady and supported by underpinning principles.
A new driver: Moscow’s urgency
Iran’s “Look to the East” policy manifested the Islamic Republic’s decision to shift towards Eastern powers as a solution to Trump’s “maximum pressure” and Europe’s inability to preserve trade. The US sanction regime raised the strategic value of the East as an alternative in Tehran’s calculus, and now Moscow is in a similar situation. For Moscow, strengthening its ties with Iran gained urgency after Western sanctions systemically constrained its capacity for international cooperation. Global condemnation of the Russian war in Ukraine is reducing Putin’s options and forcing him to work with those states that are in a similar situation outside the Western sphere.
Before the war, Russia had more attractive partners than Iran. Trade and business with Europe and the US were more lucrative. Moreover, it was more straightforward, affordable, and cost-beneficial from an operational point of view. In contrast, doing business with Iran was technically tricky and traditionally not common among Russian companies and government agencies, as it was seen as a time-consuming process that needed to be built from scratch. But things changed after February 24. As one Russian businessman stated, “Russia cannot do without Iran now, so we will work with them.”
A hybrid war between Russia and the US and Europe has made the “Turn to the East” policy no longer an option but a necessity, thus forcing the Russian state to adopt a new approach. This has led to a gradual change in the position of Russian government agencies on Iran; they are showing less resistance and more willingness for cooperation. As one Russian expert argues: “Before the conflict in Ukraine, Russian authorities beyond the foreign policy-oriented government agencies, such as state and private companies, had little reason to collaborate with their Iranian partners. Now Iran is among their top available and desirable options for international cooperation.”
Tehran and Moscow seem to be aware that their collaboration is not an absolute response to the various needs of the two sides and that it will not fully compensate for what they have lost in their relationship with the West – particularly since their economic, political, and security cooperation has developed in various ways and depths. However, officials seem to view cooperation as a valuable approach and an appropriate response to the emerging needs. As an advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader put it: “The sanctions are the context that facilitates Russia-Iran collaborations.”
In July, both sides agreed to double their trade volume to $8 billion in the short-term and $15 billion in the mid-term, from $4 billion in 2021. Although trade volume between Russia and Iran is expected to see a growth of 30% in 2022, it is still relatively low when compared to the growth of Russian-Turkish (198%) and Russian-Indian (310%) trade volume since the start of the war. As a strategy to boost trade, Moscow and Tehran signed a number of memorandums on interbank cooperation in July 2022. Subsequently, the Tehran Stock Exchange launched Iranian rial/Russian ruble trading in an attempt to replace the SWIFT inter-bank payment system with national financial messaging instruments, ultimately aimed at de-dollarization of mutual trade.
Furthermore, Russia’s Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company signed a $40b memorandum of understanding (MoU) for oil and gas projects and technological cooperation. In their 16th Joint Economic Commission held in Moscow on October 31, officials seemed determined to move forward with contracts and the operationalization of the MoU. During the meeting, several areas received particular attention including activating logistical routes like the North-South Corridor, establishing Free Trade Zones, coordination on standardization of industrial and agricultural products, and agreement on state export credit guarantees. There have also been efforts to activate region to region trade, especially with regard to the North Caucasus and Middle Volga regions, which is expected to strengthen Russo-Iranian relations at the grassroots level.
Despite these efforts, bilateral trade will only play a minor role in addressing Russia’s vast needs and will do little to resolve Iran’s economic hardships. However, the situation in the political and security domain is different. This year has seen a record number of meetings between senior Russian and Iranian officials, the most notable of which was Putin’s visit to Tehran in July. Tehran’s security assistance to Moscow came at a time of urgency and has proved to be significant for Moscow. With the heavy expenditure it incurred from February to June 2022 and the need to maintain a contingency stockpile to deter NATO, Russia ran uncomfortably low on missile stocks. Thus, the Iranian-supplied drones and the operational training given to the Russian army have become critically important in maintaining Russia’s long range strike capability and in sustaining the strategy of hitting Ukrainian infrastructure.
Moscow is also increasing its coordination with and reliance on Iranian forces in Syria, in order to maintain the status quo and free up its resources so as to concentrate on its strategic interests in the East Mediterranean. This is, of course, due to Russia’s prolonged war in Ukraine, the resulting deficit in military resources, the challenge it faces in projecting power in the long term, and the confusion surrounding its strategy in the Middle East. These assessments explain the new division of labor between Tehran and Moscow, according to which the Iranian forces are in charge of confronting the revival of radical armed groups and maintaining pro-Assad positions in eastern and central Syria.
Standing back-to-back for regime security
Russia has no agenda for regime change in Iran, but like the Iranian leadership, it sees the expansion of Western values and political structure as a threat. Both states perceive Western values like freedom of speech and human rights as a security threat, endangering their state identity, civilizational narratives, and regime stability. In addition, elites on both sides view internal order as the state’s top priority and share a similar view on means of fighting Western intervention. Thus, they back each other’s approach to suppressing opponents when regime security is at stake. Moscow likely sees Iran as one of the few middle powers that relies on authoritarian governance. This means that Russia would have little to share on such a vital matter as regime security with democracies like India and Brazil, or middle powers in the Global South and post-soviet space.
Putin and Khamenei have faced unprecedented domestic instabilities this year, which is a factor likely bringing them closer in domestic security cooperation. Russia witnessed public discontent and large-scale anti-war protests following its war against Ukraine. Nationwide protests also erupted in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini, which has shaken the Islamic Republic’s stability more than at any other time since 1979. US sources have indicated an increase in cooperation between Russia and Iran on domestic security matters, with White House officials stating: “We are concerned that Moscow may be advising Tehran on best practices, drawing on Russia’s extensive experience of suppressing open demonstrations.”
On 25 April 2022, the Iranian government approved an information security cooperation (ISC) agreement with Russia, paving the way for collaboration on cyber security and information protection. The agreement includes important provisions such as establishing a joint coordination mechanism between government agencies to exchange information on cyber security threats and monitor emerging threats against state security. This agreement complements previous routine channels of engagement between the Russian and Iranian national security councils and intelligence services under a counter-terrorism rubric.
The statement by the Iranian ambassador to Moscow that military-security cooperation between Iran and Russia “is not limited to the purchase of military equipment” is an implicit acknowledgment that both states are involved in wider security cooperation, such as the exchange of best practices, joint operations, etc. This becomes more important when considering that both states rely on similar techniques for guaranteeing domestic security, which include internet blackouts, the tracking and monitoring of protesters on cyberspace, crackdowns on oppositions, intensive pro-regime influence operations, and suppression of independent journalists and media. These points form part of the two states’ security dialogue as indicated in the ISC agreement, highlighting a growing mutual commitment to guaranteeing each other’s regime security.
The US factor less of a concern
The transatlantic factor has been a vital variable in formulating Russo-Iranian relations. Both sides have been pragmatically adjusting their collaborations depending on the state of their engagement with the United States and Europe. For years, Russia saw Iran as a radical, anti-Western and anti-systemic actor and viewed close ties with Tehran as more costly than beneficial. In addition, considering itself a broker, Moscow aimed to benefit from coordination and negotiations with Washington over Iranian issues. The Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement and Russia’s role in nuclear talks with Iran are just two examples through which the Kremlin attracted political and international recognition. Indeed, the strategic value of Iran for Moscow varied depending on how US-Russia relations developed. Similarly, Tehran has always been cautious about positioning itself too close to Russia. Almost all Iranian administrations before Ebrahim Raesi favored a balanced approach towards Moscow so as not to jeopardize its relations, especially with Europe, and find itself stranded in the Russian conflict with the West.
The situation has now changed in a way that has made transatlantic concerns less of a limiting factor in Moscow-Tehran relations. Both countries are finding themselves at a historically low level of engagement with the West. Thus, the role of the Western perception in their mutual ties is gradually losing importance. Besides, the possibility of using each other as a leverage to bridge with the West has reduced, especially for Moscow. Putin now views a collective West in a war with Russia. As one Russian observer writes, Moscow, Beijing and other centers of the non-Western world need to prepare themselves for long-term enmity with the cohesive West.
A similar view has prevailed among the Islamic Republic leaders. In particular, the shift in the Iranian perspective of Europe after the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was a critical factor in the new perception of the West. Tehran considers Europe as having limited strategic autonomy due to its failure to protect EU-Iran trade from US sanctions. With the decline in the position of European countries in the Islamic Republic’s calculus, the general value of the West is shrinking too. The war in Ukraine has reinforced this assessment. Many in Tehran have started to argue that the global balance of power is shifting against the West. Contrary to former president Rouhani’s “Look to the East” policy, which was not aimed at excluding the West, President Raisi’s administration is following a strategic direction of coupling with Moscow and Beijing, even if it means alienating the West.
Moscow and Tehran seem to be of the view that their relations with the West are unlikely to normalize anytime soon. More than at any other time in their history, Russia and Iran perceive the West as a shared threat. Thus, they are pursuing a common goal of immunizing themselves against Western pressures. This situation is not comparable with the post-2000 era in which Russia and Iran each had their hope for rebuilding relations with the US and Europe, thus remaining reluctant to forge a united anti-Western front. Now, for both sides, the West is no more an alternative.
Historical mistrust replaced by strategic sympathy
Iran’s historical mistrust of Russia has now been replaced by sympathy for the Russian government’s grievances with the West. Historical mistrust, especially on the Iranian side, has often been cited as an obstacle to bilateral relations. However, this seems to have changed since conservative forces consolidated power with the election of Ebrahim Raisi. The general public and reformists/moderate politicians have often made reference to historical events as a basis for their mistrust and questioning of Russia’s reliability as a partner. But these groups are primarily outside today’s decision-making processes and have a minimum impact on actual policies. In the absence of an influential opposition group, concerns about Russia’s past behaviors hardly find way into decision-making cycles.
The security establishments and conservative government forces responsible for shaping policies view Moscow as a partner in difficult times. They are less preoccupied with historical memories like the nineteenth-century Russo-Iranian wars. Instead, they recall Moscow’s assistance in Syria, support for regime security, technical military-industrial support, and the non-confrontational positions of Moscow towards the missile program and Shite proxies. These groups explain post-Soviet foreign policy shifts, such as former Russian president Medvedev’s support for UNSC Resolution 1929, as Moscow’s natural pragmatic interest-based policy.
More importantly, conservative forces view Moscow as a victim of Western hegemonic policy and feel a moral obligation to help Putin in his fight against US pressures. As a result, the limits posed by historical mistrust are largely marginalized by the prevailing strategic culture of the security establishments towards Russia.
From energy competition to energy diplomacy
Russian and Iranian economies depend on the revenue generated from exporting oil and gas – which is a source of competition between the two sides in the energy market. Though the war in Ukraine has raised speculations about intensifying competition between Moscow and Tehran for China’s oil market, it seems that the continued sanctions on the Iranian oil and gas industry will likely transform this competition into cooperation.
As Hossein Hosseinzedeh, a member of the Iranian Parliament Commission of Energy, stated: “The Iranian Ministry of Petroleum is shifting from competing to interactively cooperating with Russia…Such a cooperation can help us reach our objective of energy diplomacy.” This statement is supported by the fact that the Minister of Petroleum heads the Iranian delegation for a Joint Russo-Iranian Economic Commission, signaling a bigger share in energy deals in bilateral trade.
In the absence of a Western presence, and China’s reluctance to invest due to US sanctions, Russia is emerging as the only foreign investor in Iran’s oil and gas industry. So far, Russian companies have signed several Iran Petroleum Contracts (IPC) and have established joint Russian-Iranian ventures to develop seven oil and gas fields. Javad Owji, Iran’s Minister of Petroleum, announced that Russian companies have signed contracts worth $6.5 billion since 2018 and that projects have progressed between 7 to 35%. Meanwhile, negotiations continue with Gazprom to sign new contracts as part of the $40 billion MoU. Under the MoU, Russia also agreed to build the main gas pipelines and help Tehran in implementing LNG projects.
However, as one energy expert in Tehran believes, the presence of Russian companies will not be limited to IPC contracts. Small and medium size Russian industrial manufacturers in the oil and gas sector are also approaching Iranian counterparts to sell spare parts and secure joint productions. Iran has, indeed, for years been seeking to cooperate with Russian suppliers and are welcoming their technical assistance in strategic sectors of the oil and gas industry, such as drilling and upstream operations, which are critical areas in preserving production levels.
In addition, Iran is finalizing discussions on buying Russian gas and making swap arrangements. For a long time, Tehran has aimed to become a regional hub for gas and thus sees the current situation as an opportunity to play a more active role in re-exporting Russian gas. Iranian officials also aim to buy Russian gas for internal usage and free up part of their capacity for export. But these plans should be followed with caution given that Tehran is faced with regional competitors like Turkey and that past business deals between Russia and Iran have always experienced delays and uncertainties.
At least for now, competition in the energy market is less echoed as both sides seek to reduce friction points in this sector. Meanwhile, as faith in the revival of the JCPOA is low, there is no immediate threat to Russia from Iran’s return to the European energy markets. Even if Iranian oil and gas export to Europe resumes, it will threaten Russian interests less than before, as Russia’s presence in European energy markets has evaporated and seems unlikely to return to normal anytime soon. These developments do not mean that the conflict of interests between Moscow and Tehran will disappear; in fact, cooperating amid competition is making relations more complex.
It is too soon to argue that Russia and Iran have gone beyond their classical situational and ad-hoc cooperation model, especially as obstacles to boosting ties persist. It is also difficult to predict whether any strategic alliance is emerging. But what can be said is that the strategic landscape of Russo-Iranian relations is changing. New drivers are emerging while some old limits are fading. As a result of these developments, interdependence between the two sides is increasing.
Interdependence in world politics refers to “situations characterized by reciprocal effects among countries or among actors in different countries.” In the Russo-Iranian context, there are many examples of these reciprocal effects. For example, if Russia loses the war in Ukraine, the effects can be pretty costly for the Islamic Republic, as Tehran will be left with a weaker supporter on the international stage and will likely be faced with a stronger and more cohesive West, which would be able to corner it more easily. Moreover, if regime change in Iran becomes a reality, Moscow will lose a significant partner in the Middle East and feel further encircled by the West on its southern flanks.
These examples show that in addition to losing out on the benefits of cooperation, Moscow and Tehran may pay the cost of not cooperating with each other. In other words, they are becoming more sensitive and vulnerable to the political and security failures of the other side. For the time being, the political-security strand of interdependency remains stronger, while a meaningful mutual economic gain can only materialize in the medium term.
 Nasser Karimi and Vladimir Isachenkov, “Putin, in Tehran, Gets Strong Support from Iran over Ukraine,” AP, July 20, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-putin-syria-iran-289c3422c8980e7650dbde2c326d248a.
 “Iran Says It Shipped Drones to Russia Before Ukrainian War,” Reuters, November 5, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/iran-acknowledges-drone-shipments-russia-before-ukraine-war-2022-11-05/.
 Nikolay Kozhanov, “The Limits of Russian-Iranian Cooperation,” Chatham House, November 27, 2015, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2015/11/limits-russian-iranian-cooperation; Taehwa Hong, “Axis of Convenience: Limitations to Russia-Iran Cooperation,” The Yale Review of International Studies, January 2019, http://yris.yira.org/comments/2856#_ftn67.
 Ghoncheh Tazmini, “Russia and Iran: Strategic Partners or Provisional Counterweights?” in Russian Foreign Policy Towards the Middle East: New Trends, Old Traditions, ed. Nikolay Kozhanov (Oxford University Press, 2022).
 Timofei Bordachev, “Russia’s Turn to the East: Between Choice and Necessity,” Valdai Discussion Club, September 1, 2022, https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/russia-s-turn-to-the-east-between-choice/.
 Author Interview with Adlan Margoev, November 4, 2022.
 Ali Akbar Velayati, “What Does Reason Say? Should We Go to the West, Who Has Always Been an Enemy, or Russia, Who Has Always Helped?” Khabar Online [Persian], July 31, 2022, http://bitly.ws/wvAZ.
 “Iran, Russia Bid to Wipe Dollar Off Their Trades,” Islamic Republic News Agency, July 19, 2022, https://en.irna.ir/news/84825899/Iran-Russia-bid-to-wipe-dollar-off-their-trades.
 “Trade Volume between Iran, Russia Has Increased by More Than 30%,” Iran Press, August 26, 2022, https://iranpress.com/content/64768/trade-volume-between-iran-russia-has-increased-more-than-30.
 Lazaro Gamio and Ana Swanson, “How Russia Pays for War,” New York Times, October 30, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/10/30/business/economy/russia-trade-ukraine-war.html.
 Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds, and Jack Watling, “The Russian Air War and Ukrainian Requirements for Air Defense,” Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), November 7, 2022, https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/special-resources/russian-air-war-and-ukrainian-requirements-air-defence.
 Anonymous speaker, Chatham House and UCLA Burkle Centre closed-door discussion on “The Ukraine Effect: Great Power Relations and the Middle East,” October 18, 2022.
 Hamidreza Azizi, “The Impact of the Ukraine War on Iran-Russia Relations in Syria,” Expert Brief, Al-Sharq Strategic Research, June 17, 2022, https://research.sharqforum.org/2022/06/17/iran-russia-relations-in-syria/.
 Maegan Vazquez, “White House Claims US Is Seeing Signs Russia May Be Advising Iran on How to Crack Down on Protests,” CNN, October 26, 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/10/26/politics/white-house-russia-iran-protests/index.html.
 Office of the President of Islamic Republic of Iran, “An Agreement on Information Security between the Governments of Islamic Republic of Iran and Russian Federation,” April 25, 2022, https://media.dotic.ir/uploads/org/2022/06/26/165623686688291500.pdf.
 J. Dana Stuster, “Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria to Share Intelligence on Islamic State,” Foreign Policy, September 28, 2015, https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/09/28/russia-iran-iraq-and-syria-to-share-intelligence-on-islamic-state/.
 Under the agreement, Russia received a prominent role in two international arms-control bodies in exchange for ending arms delivery to Iran.
 Abdolrasool Divsallar and Pyotr Kortunov, The Fallout of the US-Iran Confrontation for Russia: Revisiting Factors in Moscow’s Calculus, Research Project Report, Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies and Russian International Affairs Council, December 22, 2020, https://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/69699/QM-01-20-780-EN-N.pdf.
 Andrey Kortunov, “Western Consolidation and Asymmetric Bipolarity,” Working Paper N.69 (Russian International Affairs Council, 2022).
 See Abbas Amanat, “Russia and Iran: Three Centuries of Contention (1722-2022),” Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Rethinking Iran Project, March 30, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTzMDmjY3cI.
 Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, “EU Embargo of Russian Oil Spells Trouble for Iran,” May 31, 2022, Bourse and Bazaar Foundation, https://www.bourseandbazaar.com/articles/2022/5/31/eu-embargo-of-russian-oil-spells-trouble-for-iran.
 Author Interview with an oil and gas expert in Tehran, October 25, 2022.
 Author Interview with a CEO of a private sector oil company in Iran, November 3, 2022.
 Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, Power and Interdependence (New York & London: Longman, 1977): p. 8.