Enemies of Each Other’s Enemies

In an interview, Nikita Smagin explains what is behind the Russian-Iranian rapprochement, as well as its limitations.

Nikita Smagin, from the Russian International Affairs Council, is an expert on Iran and Russian policy in the Middle East. For three years he worked as a foreign correspondent in Tehran, and has written on international relations for academic journals and media outlets in English, Russian, and Persian. Diwan interviewed him in early December to get his perspective on relations between Russia and Iran, at a time when both countries have enhanced their cooperation and Iran has supplied Russia with drones for its war in Ukraine.

Michael Young: Russian-Iranian relations appear to have improved dramatically since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Can you explain what the main factors behind this are?

Nikita Smagin: Russian-Iranian cooperation had been developing steadily during recent years, so that, for example, by the end of 2021 the turnover in trade between two countries had hit a record $4 billion, even if the war in Ukraine gave further impetus to relations. The main reason for this is that both countries are facing sanctions, while Russia is also dealing with attempts by Western countries and businesses to isolate it. Moscow’s opportunities for economic cooperation are shrinking and it views relations with Iran as one way of bypassing sanctions. That is the reason why we have seen a large number of high-ranking Russian officials visiting Tehran, including President Vladimir Putin himself, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Moreover, hundreds of Russian entrepreneurs who previously had never thought of doing business with Iran have gone to Tehran.

Increased bilateral cooperation has already led to some notable initiatives, such as Iran’s export of cars to Russia, its providing Russia with spare parts for aircraft, and the signature of a memorandum of understanding between Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company to invest around $40 billion in the Iranian oil and gas industries.

Interestingly, this historic rapprochement has occurred when the political, social, and economic systems in both countries are dealing with unprecedented and unforeseen challenges. Iran is facing a deep crisis of legitimacy, with widespread protests inside and outside its borders. The current dynamics show that the existing system for maintaining stability in the country isn’t working anymore. Moreover, protests and state actions to contain them, such as internet cuts, have created new economic and social difficulties of their own. As for Russia, its recent military mobilization destroyed a long-existing social contract between the state and its citizens. This held that citizens would stay away from politics in exchange for the state remaining out of their private lives, and it was a bedrock of stability in the Russian political system.

The problems faced by the Iranian and Russian systems don’t necessarily mean the collapse of those two countries. More likely, both will go through complicated transitional periods. New internal challenges limit the prospects for effective trade between the two countries, as well as economic or infrastructural cooperation. At the same time, they create a perception among the political elites in Russia and Iran that the countries need each other more than ever. That is why security and military cooperation are likely to expand in the future.

MY: To many people, Russian reliance on Iranian drones in the Ukraine war has been a sign of Russian vulnerability. At a time when Moscow seeks to project its invasion of Ukraine as an example of a resurgent Russia, hasn’t this apparent sign of dependency on Iran undermined the image Moscow is seeking to project?

NS: The war in Ukraine has already become a great promotion for Iranian weapons. Until this year, we heard a lot of talk of Iranians interested in buying Russian jets or defense missile systems. This year, that question has been turned on its head. Now it is Russia that is purchasing Iranian weapons. Certainly, this tells us more about Russia’s military power and its ability to conduct a modern full-scale conflict. The current path of the conflict in Ukraine, on its own, has been a serious blow to Russia’s reputation as a leading military power. That is why the dependency on Iranian drones is not as important as other issues, such as Russia’s retreat from Kherson. Under these circumstances, I don’t think that Moscow will really worry about its image because of cooperation with Iran. They have too many other challenges to deal with.

MY: In a recent article for Politika, published by our Carnegie colleagues, you noted that while Russia and Iran have expanded their cooperation on gas, there are many obstacles to this. What are the main problems that both face on this front?

NS: It seems that Russia is really serious about cooperating with Iran in the gas sphere. This is a major shift because in the past, while the Russian gas giant Gazprom had an office in Tehran, it was purely symbolic. The Russian side did not want to risk its Western projects for the sake of developing relations with a sanctioned Iran. Now, Moscow no longer has that problem. There are some joint projects that can be fruitful. The most promising would be for Russia to sell its gas through Iran to neighboring countries. However, these projects cannot be called significant. The bold idea of Russia investing $40 billion in Iranian gas faces obstacles. The major problems are sanctions and the lack of necessary technologies.

For example, industry analysts have cast doubt on two major Iranian fields that Russia is due to help develop—South Pars and Kish—because of the type of tubing that is required. It would necessitate a grade that is not made in either country, and cannot be imported from Europe or Japan due to sanctions. Iran also plans to build its own liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals with Russia’s help, but that won’t be easy either. Neither Russia nor Iran has built a fully functioning LNG terminal of its own yet, and given their technological isolation they will struggle to do so. Moreover, the Iranian gas industry is in deep crisis and, in fact, it’s not in Russia’s interest for Iran to extract itself from this situation. The two countries remain competitors in the gas sphere, not partners. As long as Europe cannot invest in Iran because of sanctions, Moscow will try to take advantage of the situation and obtain some levers of influence over the Iranian gas sector. The Iranians are aware of these intentions and it’s hard to imagine that Tehran will be prepared to resign itself to the role of junior partner for very long.

MY: Given the Ukraine war and the rapprochement between Russia and Iran, is it still realistic to talk about a revival of the nuclear deal with Iran? I realize expectations are very low today, but we have seen a transformation of the Russian relationship both with Iran and with the other states in the P5+1, so does this mean that the negotiating format with Iran on its nuclear program has become obsolete?

NS: The nuclear deal is at an impasse due to disagreements between Iran and the United States. The current protests in Iran and their suppression have added an ideological dimension to the agenda of reviving the nuclear agreement and have made it impossible for Western countries to deal with Iranian issues by adopting a realistic political approach. Iranian drones in Ukraine have only strengthened the image of Iran as a country that threatens international security. Russia is not the reason why the nuclear deal hasn’t succeeded. But in the current situation, Moscow also will do nothing to revive it. It’s not in Russian interest to lift sanctions against Tehran and allow Iranian oil and gas to flood world markets. So, it’s almost impossible to imagine that we will see any kind of a revival of the nuclear agreement in the foreseeable future.

MY: How will the Russian-Iranian rapprochement affect Moscow’s relations with Israel, and with the Gulf Arab states?

NS: Before the war in Ukraine, Israel was one of Russia’s leading partners in the Middle East. The rapprochement between Moscow and Tehran creates a major threat to Russian-Israeli cooperation. Unlike Iran, Israel has condemned Russian actions in Ukraine. Russia will try to keep a foot in both camps, but now it’s much more difficult to do such a thing. Given the current context, Moscow will be more willing to consider Iranian interests in the region than before.

Russian relations with the Gulf Arab states are not affected directly by the rapprochement with Iran. This will be determined by the pragmatic interests of these states with regard to Moscow and the ability of Western countries, primarily the United States, to influence their policies.

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