Russia-Iran Cooperation in the Changing World

Both have the USA as an opponent, but a;so differing hydrocarbon interests

Russia and Iran are becoming closer in terms of security and defense. They are working on a long-term agreement to cooperate more in other areas. This collaboration covers various aspects including trade, investment and joint projects.

The relationship between the two countries has strengthened especially since the conflict in Ukraine. Iran says that trade between them has doubled and Russia is now the largest foreign investor in Iran. Both countries believe the West poses a threat to their interests. They think that Western powers are limiting their actions on the world stage and supporting movements that aim to change their governments. Both Moscow and Tehran see the West as a common enemy. This shared perception of threat and common interests is the foundation of their growing cooperation.

However, within Iran there is a disagreement about the value of Russia as a partner. Hardliners see closer ties with Russia as a way to protect Iran against the West while others, including many Iranians, think that direct talks with the USA and a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal would be better for Iran. This division in opinion is not likely to go away soon and Western powers may try to take advantage of it. The moderate and pragmatic wing in Iran is doubtful about Russia’s role and sees promises of strategic relations with Russia as unrealistic.

The USA should keep working with Russia on Iran’s nuclear issue. This is important now that Russia seems more willing to cooperate with Iran on its nuclear programme. It can prevent Russia from using Iran’s nuclear programme to play a dangerous game. It also makes sure Russia sticks to its commitment to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and considers the long-term risks of a nuclear Iran. Russia likes being seen as a partner in this, the West gains more strategic benefits by talking to Moscow about Iranian nuclear programme

They see a common threat with Russia and believe that working together is crucial for their mutual security. Even though there are disagreements, they prioritize their strategic goals. The leaders in both Iran and Russia feel that not cooperating could be costly for both countries and there are benefits to working together. Russia is seen as a crucial supporter for Iran internationally, especially in the tensions with the West. The war in Ukraine has increased the importance of the alliance for both nations. While there is no formal alliance there is an unwritten commitment between Moscow and Tehran for mutual protection. Despite past obstacles, the two countries have started to strengthen ties particularly in the energy sector.

Before 2022, Russian companies were cautious due to Western interests but this changed when a $40 billion agreement was signed in July 2022. The deal involves upgrading Iranian oil and gas sectors with a focus on projects like the North Pars gas field. However, questions arise about the reliability of the partnership specifically considering past withdrawals from projects. Iran also faces challenges in attracting foreign investment due to sanctions and economic issues.

Despite assurances from Iranian officials, doubts exist about the long-term significance and success of the deal, given the geopolitical nature of the cooperation rather than purely commercial reasons. Someone from Iran criticized a deal between the Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Russia’s Gazprom. They questioned whether Russia would help Iran build the necessary infrastructure to export gas to Europe. The critics think it is not logical for Gazprom to invest in Iranian LNG (liquefied natural gas) infrastructure because they lack experience. They also doubt Russia’s commitment to investing in Iran.

The criticism in Tehran is based on two points. First, Iran hasn’t prioritized developing its LNG industry like Qatar. Second, there is a feeling that Russia pressures Iran to stay out of the European gas market, as Russia doesn’t want Iran to become an alternative energy provider to Europe.

Russia, led by Putin, sees energy exports as a tool in its geopolitical competition with the West. Russia has no reason to help Iran upgrade its energy infrastructure for European markets and some in Tehran believe Russia might invest in Iranian projects to gain control over them and slow down Iran’s emergence as an alternative oil and gas exporter to Europe.

There is a competition between Iran and Russia in Asian oil markets. Some in Iran suggest exporting more oil to Europe instead of competing with Russia in Asia. Those in Iran supporting closer energy ties with Russia argue that Iran should think globally and prioritize political ties over economic gains. They see Russia’s separation from the West as an opportunity for Iran. They believe that aligning with Russia helps the survival of the Islamic Republic as an anti-American model.

It looks like the USA and Europe can’t do much to stop Moscow and Tehran from getting closer. This is because they are working together in a way that makes leaders in both countries less worried about a big threat. Without a new nuclear deal and with Iran doing bad things, like violating human rights and hurting innocent protesters, becoming friends with the current leaders in Tehran seems unlikely. European countries might consider putting a lot of pressure and more tough actions on Iran. This could make Iran feel vulnerable and give them a reason to get closer to Russia.

The same thing is happening on the Russian side. Russian actions in Ukraine have made it hard for them to become friends with the West in the near future. Instead, when the West puts pressure on Russia, it strengthens the reasons for Moscow to be friends with Iran. In simple terms, as long as the West keeps up the pressure on both Russia and Iran, Moscow and Tehran will probably work together more.

In these circumstances, there are a few ways that Western countries can deal with the growing friendship between Russia and Iran. First, the USA should talk to China about this. It is not clear if China is happy with Russia and Iran getting closer and both China and the USA want stability in the Middle East.

Second, the Western alliance should keep making it costly for Iran to help Russia with security. This means doing more than just making strong statements and symbolic sanctions. The West should send clear military signals to Iran. NATO can help by working with Arab states to show Iran that supporting Russia won’t make them more secure.

The USA should keep working with Russia on Iran’s nuclear issue. This is important now that Russia seems more willing to cooperate with Iran on its nuclear programme. It can prevent Russia from using Iran’s nuclear programme to play a dangerous game. It also makes sure Russia sticks to its commitment to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and considers the long-term risks of a nuclear Iran. Russia likes being seen as a partner in this, the West gains more strategic benefits by talking to Moscow about Iranian nuclear programme.

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Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
The writer has a PhD in Political Science and can be reached at [email protected]

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