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Ukraine war strengthens ties between Russia and Iran

Western relations with Iran and Russia cannot improve until or unless the Iran nuclear deal is restored and the assault on Ukraine ends

The war in Ukraine is consolidating the unorthodox political, military and economic alliance of convenience between Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is difficult to imagine more dissimilar populations, and neither country’s citizens are clamouring for closer relations. They have in common repressive systems of government, pariah status and the need to circumvent sanctions imposed on Russia for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and on Iran for its nuclear programme.

Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, discussed military co-operation with his Iranian counterpart, Shahram Irani, in Tehran last week

Iran has been “Russia’s top military backer” since February 24th, 2022, according to John Kirby, co-ordinator for strategic communications at the US national security council.


Kirby said earlier this month that Iran has provided Russia with more than 400 unmanned aerial vehicles or drones since last August. Moscow uses the Shahed drones to attack Ukrainian infrastructure and civilians. They carry high explosives and hover above targets before diving on them, similar to second World War kamikaze pilots.

Russia and Iran plan to build a joint drone factory capable of producing at least 6,000 such weapons in Russian Tatarstan, and Iranian instructors are training Russian soldiers in Crimea to remotely pilot the drones, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Media reports also say Iran has transported millions of rounds of ammunition and hundreds of thousands of artillery shells across the Caspian Sea to Russia.

Russia had neglected rudimentary technology in favour of high-tech weaponry, which Tehran now seeks to buy. Kirby said Iran is offering billions of dollars for Russian attack helicopters, radars and YAK-130 combat trainer aircraft. Iran said last month that it had finalised a deal to purchase top-of-the-line Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets from Moscow.

Iran has long been divided between anti-western hardliners led by the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and moderates who sought accommodation with the West. The moderates lost all influence when Donald Trump renounced the Iran nuclear accord.

The hardliners unabashedly support stronger ties with Moscow, while Khamenei even parrots the Kremlin’s claim that Nato was preparing to attack Russia.

Ebrahim Raïsi, the ultraconservative Iranian president, visited Moscow on his first trip abroad, on January 19th, 2022, six months after his election.

By the time Putin called on Raïsi in Tehran on July 19th, 2022, the war in Ukraine was well under way. Russia’s ambassador to Tehran told the Iranian newspaper Shargh the two countries had “near identical points of view” on everything from shoring up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to the causes of the war in Ukraine, the “illegality of western sanctions” and “the absurd values of homosexuality”.

Russia and Iran see the West as a threat because it seeks to isolate them, and they suspect the West is behind protest movements and uprisings in their own countries.

International bodies

With Russia’s blessing, Tehran has joined two international bodies, the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group of rapidly developing economies, and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a club of Eurasian dictatorships which was founded by Russia, China and five central Asian former Soviet republics in 1996.

Members of the Shanghai group are united in their rejection of western domination. The 14 countries in the organisation represent about 40 per cent of the world’s population, 40 per cent of its natural gas resources, 30 per cent of uranium and 20 per cent of petroleum.

Iran was an observer in the Shanghai group for 18 years before it was invited to join at a summit in Samarkand last September, at the time when Iranian woman Mahsa Amini was killed in police custody for violating the dress code.

Close economic relations between Russia and Tehran are based on the mutual need to circumvent sanctions, a matter in which Iran has vast experience. Both countries have sold petroleum to Gulf sheikhdoms who re-exported it under their own flags. Other techniques include turning off signals to make ships untraceable, and transferring petroleum between tankers at sea. Russia was able to export nine million barrels by using such methods in January, according to the Financial Times.

When Putin visited Tehran last July, the National Iranian Oil Company and Gazprom agreed that Russia would upgrade Iranian oil and gas fields to the tune of $40 billion. Russian deputy prime minister Alexander Novak and Iranian oil minister Javad Owji reviewed that co-operation in Tehran last week.

Novak told a press conference that the two countries now conduct 80 per cent of their business in roubles and rials. Chinese yuan and cryptocurrency are welcome. Dollars and euro are not.

Mutual protection

Russia has the world’s largest gas reserves; Iran the world’s second largest. They are competitors on the hydrocarbons market, but the strategic imperative for mutual protection appears to trump concerns about competition. The threat of western retaliation dissuades some would-be trading partners from dealing with them, but Russia and Iran can trade uninhibitedly, because neither has anything to lose.

Iran’s foreign minister says Russian-Iranian trade doubled in 2022. Finance minister Ehsan Khandozi says Russia has invested US $2.76 billion in Iran this year, making it Iran’s largest foreign investor.

Over the past week, in Tehran and at the Russia-Islamic World economic forum in Kazan, Russia, Moscow and Tehran announced progress on at least 10 areas of co-operation, including joint commissioning of cargo ships, a customs agreement, the use of Mir credit cards (the Russian equivalent of Visa) in both countries, the opening by Iran of a chamber of commerce office in Russia, tourism and fisheries.

Russia’s second-largest bank, VTB, has opened a branch in Tehran and two Iranian banks are to open in Russia.

By video link, presidents Putin and Raïsi witnessed the signing of a deal to finance a new railway line between the Iranian city of Rasht and Astara, on Iran’s border with the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. The 162km railroad along the Caspian Sea coast is part of a $25 billion north-south transport corridor which would enable Russian ships to avoid the hostile waters of the Baltic and facilitate unfettered trade with Iran and other countries of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.

Russia and Iran also want to deepen the Volga-Don Canal so that bigger ships can travel from the Caspian to the Black Sea and Azov Sea, whose Ukrainian coastline is occupied by Russia. The Tehran Times described the corridor as “a 7,200km-long transport artery from St Petersburg to ports in Iran and India”. It will have two branches, both of which will cross Iran. Russia predicts the network of railway and sea routes will rival the Suez Canal.

Western relations with Iran and Russia cannot improve until or unless the Iran nuclear deal is restored and the assault on Ukraine ends; at best distant prospects. In the meantime, the pariahs can be counted on to stick together.