Since the full-scale war in Ukraine began, Russia and Iran have advanced their ties in the military, economic, and intelligence spheres. The established narrative has been that the two are now nearing the creation of a de facto alliance.
Animated by opposition toward the West, their growing closeness seemed ever-expanding. This still might be true, but recent events have shown how fragile is their all-time high alignment. Iran may be forced to reconsider some aspects of its reliance on Russia.
On July 10, Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states released a joint statement after a meeting in Moscow. It indirectly challenged Iran’s claim to three small Gulf islands (Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa) that sit athwart major shipping routes and are claimed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE.) The three have been Iranian-occupied since the pre-revolutionary era (1971.)
Iran’s reaction showed not only bewilderment at the Kremlin’s behavior but also a lack of trust. It summoned the Russian ambassador and the country’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated that Iran makes no concessions “to anyone regarding Iran’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” Other top Iranian officials such as Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, and former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, all likewise criticized the UAE and Russia.
It is not the first time Iran has found itself in a difficult spot. Last year China and GCC signed a joint statement where the issue of the three islands was also mentioned, and again in a manner not to Iran’s liking. Back then, Tehran expressed dissatisfaction with China though in measured tones, indicating it understood which country has the whip hand. China has served as a pivotal state in Iran’s strategy of balancing the pressure from the United States, and many among the political elite seemed willing to compromise with it.
Yet with Russia, where Iran has a troubled history, Tehran is more vocal. Following initial protests on July 17, the Iranian foreign minister revealed that the Russians had provided some explanations, but said they were inadequate.
The diplomatic discomfort continues; Iran is not yet willing to return to business as usual. Mutual distrust has grown, and the incident has awakened many in Iran to the realization that the growing alignment with Russia is founded solely on their shared opposition to the West.
There are other reasons for Iran to be concerned. Russia seems to be indefinitely postponing the dispatch of Sukhoi Su-35 combat aircraft which Iran’s aging air force badly needed and for which the Islamic Republic has already paid. Brigadier General Hamid Vahedi, Iran’s air force commander, said in a TV interview that Iran does not know when they will be provided by the Russians.
Beyond these immediate concerns, there is a broader problem for Iran. It supported Russia by sending massive numbers of suicide drones and other military technology for the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. It has — rhetorically and diplomatically — upheld a near-identical position on NATO and its alleged expansion as a cause for Russian military aggression. This support further widened the already extreme differences between the Islamic Republic and the collective West, and now it discovers that the Kremlin’s gratitude is, well, limited.
Russia needs investment and help with access to banking networks. The GCC can provide what Iran cannot. The UAE in particular has accepted a flood of Russian assets, Russian nationals, and Russian sanctions-busting businesses.
Iran’s “look East” policy provides little comfort either. This aims to balance difficult relations with the US and Europe through closer ties to Asian countries. The scale of this shift has been incomparable with any previous periods in Iranian foreign policy. To take just one example, the country has recently joined the Chinese-run Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which it hailed as a major strategic success. Yet in reality, membership does not provide much. It is highly unlikely that Iran will win foreign investment because of Western sanctions, nor, as the Russian incident showed, can it expect wider political support. The loose nature of SCO is thus both a boon and a disadvantage to Iran.
Ultimately Iran’s disagreement with Russia will likely be resolved, but tensions will remain.
The two dearly need each other economically and politically, and Iran’s disagreements with the West are simply too large to bridge anytime soon. Yet, the GCC-Russia incident shows that the talk about some kind of Eurasian axis is premature.
The sides still have to resolve multiple outstanding issues and their seeming unity is based less on respect for each other than animosity toward others.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.