With both countries now isolated by the West, the emerging alliance is based on common opposition to Western domination and a mutual need to circumvent sanctions
Iran and Russia are nearing the signing of a comprehensive agreement on expanded cooperation. Relations between the two historic rivals have long been viewed as failing to reach their potential, but Iran’s tilt toward Moscow during the war in Ukraine has shifted the dynamic. Indeed, the two Eurasian powers have finally managed to find common ground on critical global and regional questions.
From a historical perspective, the Iran-Russia convergence is especially significant. At no point since the late 16th century, when Muscovy and Safavid Iran shared opposition to the expanding Ottoman Empire, have the two Eurasian states had such close ties. Most Iranians still distrust the Russians and remember how imperial and later Soviet Russia occupied portions of the Persian empire.
However, Russia was perceived as less of a threat after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Post-Soviet Russia became an important supplier of arms and nuclear technology to Iran. With both countries now isolated by the West, the emerging alliance is based on common opposition to Western domination as well as a mutual need to circumvent sanctions.
Iran can be highly pragmatic. Officials in Tehran have seen how Russia has failed in its ambition to fully impose its will on Ukraine, forcing Russia to become dependent on fellow Eurasian powers. If previously Tehran unsuccessfully pushed for implementation of numerous long-stalled projects, now it is Russia that is more in need of Iran.
Much has been written about growing military and cyber cooperation. Less noticed are burgeoning trade relations and the planned expansion of the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC). The initiative was introduced in the early 2000s but failed to materialize because of lack of investment due to Western sanctions imposed on Iran. At the time, Russia was also less interested in southward trade.
In light of the war in Ukraine, however, the corridor has gained new relevance. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran in July 2022 and both sides pledged to pursue completion of the corridor. Iran hopes to see the launch of the route by 2025. So far, expanding use of the corridor has already led to a doubling of cargo transportation; From January to March of 2023, cargo shipments exceeded 2.3 million tons.
The INSTC shortens transit time from India to Europe and can link Russian ports with the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. The corridor consists of three main branches: Trans-Caspian, a western “branch” along the west coast of the Caspian Sea, and a Central Asia route through Turkmenistan. Moreover, for Iran, the corridor opens access to ten cities populated by a million or more consumers along the Volga River. It is also a link to wider Central Asia and potentially Azeri and Georgian ports on the Black Sea.
However, it should be also noted that the completion of the INSTC is far from guaranteed. The operation of the corridor depends on many variables, including increasingly tense Iran-Azerbaijan ties, which have grown unstable since Baku’s decisive victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. Tensions flared early this year with a deadly attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran. More recently, Iran has objected to the opening of an Azerbaijani embassy in Israel and Baku arrested six alleged Iranian agents that it said were plotting a coup. Since the western branch of the INSTC passes through Azerbaijan’s territory, much will depend on whether Baku and Tehran can tone down their differences.
Analyses of Iran-Russia relations usually cite other disagreements that have historically hampered ties. This time, however, differences are becoming less and less salient. The Islamic Republic has always opposed the U.S.-led world order, but Russia, while distrustful and even hostile to the West, was more hesitant. After the invasion of Ukraine, however, Moscow’s reticence has faded away, and Tehran and Moscow share a radical, militarized scenario to upend the liberal system and create a true multipolar order.
In this new order, the concepts of spheres of influence and regionalism have re-emerged. While Russia’s sphere of influence is comprised of its former imperial territories, for Iran it is its immediate neighborhood. Both are reliving their imperial past, but this time they are more agile at deconflicting and are trying to construct a different order. For instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, both countries are embracing the idea of regionalism. Ideas like the 3+3 (Turkey, Iran, and Russia plus Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) reflect this thinking.
Yet Iran-Russia convergence should not be seen as leading to a definitive alliance. In fact, in the new Eurasian world order that Moscow and Tehran envision, official alliances are not seen as definitive. Both argue that they do not need to form an actual alliance because that would constrain their ability to maneuver in the new multipolar age. Both will use the other to strengthen their respective bargaining positions on the global stage. Russia, for example, sought concessions on Ukraine as the price for its continued support for a revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; Iran, for its part, is less willing to revive the deal with the U.S. because it enjoys Moscow’s tacit support.
Iran is not naïve, but rather pursues a highly pragmatic policy toward Russia. For Tehran, Russia is just one element in its larger effort to build a more versatile foreign policy that includes strengthening ties with Eurasian neighbors and the recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia in a deal mediated by China. For Tehran, closer ties with Russia are seen as ushering in a truly multipolar Eurasian order with increased maneuverability and a bigger pool of foreign policy choices.
As is the case with Russia’s growing ties to China, Moscow’s convergence with Tehran should increasingly be seen as a long-term development. The war in Ukraine will likely continue for some time, as will growing U.S.-China competition and a gradual strengthening of Beijing’s posture in the Middle East. These major trends will only solidify Tehran-Moscow cooperation moving forward.