In the over-excited language of state-run propagandists, the West is beginning to tremble at the emergence of a fearsome new Russo-Iranian axis that promises to multiply their joint strengths and ruthlessly exploit weaknesses in the liberal democratic order.
There are certainly things to be concerned about, especially on the security and sanctions fronts. On March 8, Sky News released an investigation into the delivery of a large batch of ammunition from Iran to Russia. According to the broadcaster, approximately 100 million bullets and around 300,000 shells for the Russian armed forces were transported across the Caspian Sea in January. According to a Sky News security source, the ammunition was intended for machine guns and rifles, as well as rocket launchers and mortars. In addition, the cargo included helmets and body armor.
There is more. On March 11, Iranian state media reported an agreement to buy advanced Su-35 combat aircraft. The decision, not yet confirmed by the Kremlin, would be a significant development in the region given the Iranian air forces’ current, antiquated inventory. It is thought the sale would be a quid pro quo for Iranian military aid to Russia, which has included suicide drones used to attack Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
Cooperation has also extended to space, with Russian launching an Iranian satellite in September, which caused US concern that this would give the regime and its militia allies across the Middle East a significant new capability.
None of this should come as a surprise. Back in December, US National Security Council coordinator, John Kirby, said that relations between Russia and Iran have strengthened into a full-fledged defense partnership, which can be regarded as a global threat. The two countries are now providing each other with unprecedented military support and are also considering the possibility of joint production of combat drones. Naval vessel cooperation and other defense programs are also under consideration.
In fact, the rapprochement of the two regimes began even before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. After the assassination in a US airstrike of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, the Russian Foreign Ministry erupted with angry statements, saying, “this US step lies outside any legal framework.”
Russian Orthodox radicals from the Tsargrad TV channel, which echo government themes, proclaimed Soleimani and his militants were heroes fighting, “servants of the coming Antichrist – the occupiers of the Holy Land and their overseas curators.” Soleimani has been praised by the Russian military for his effective hybrid war against the United States in Iraq, as well as for nurturing Hezbollah and saving Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
So the roots of the relationship already existed, but they have been boosted by the all-out war and the huge slew of sanctions imposed on Russia (the two countries are the world’s most-sanctioned states.)
In early March, experts from one of Russia’s most influential think tanks, the Valdai Club, published an article on “Russian-Iranian relations under new conditions.” It noted intensifying cooperation in the energy and oil and gas sectors.
In particular, this involved the development of Iranian oil and gas fields, building gas pipelines, implementing liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects, and dealing in natural gas. In addition, the article says that the allies are studying plans to create joint ventures in the field of mechanical engineering and aircraft building, as well as shipbuilding, railway transport, and pharmaceuticals.
These are not chosen at random; they are Russia’s most sanctions-hit industries. One of the most famous state media outlets in Russia, Izvestia newspaper, admitted that Russian auto factories produced 64.2% fewer cars from January to August than in the corresponding period of 2021. The output of trucks decreased by 20.1%, minibuses by 41.9%, and buses by 10.2%. The publication noted that in early spring, production at vehicle plants inside Russia, including those of Volkswagen, Skoda, Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, BMW, Ford, and many others, was suspended. Most remain idle.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is especially fascinated by how Iran has evaded and continued to live under sanctions. Russia’s leading publications have printed articles about how its friend has survived for decades under sanctions, with comments on how its experience can be used in Russia. Special attention has focused on the use of shell companies.
Energy cooperation has been intensified. In early 2022, Russia provided a $1.4bn credit line for the construction of a thermal power plant in Iran. In July, Gazprom and the Iranian National Oil Corporation signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation, which resulted in the development of projects estimated at $40bn.
Russian media say the Kremlin is particularly interested in transporting hydrocarbons to Iran through Azerbaijan and from there to the markets of the Asia-Pacific region.
So far, so good from the Russo-Iranian viewpoint. But there are some major buts.
Carnegie Center experts note that cooperation with Iran can only help to a limited extent. According to its estimates, current trade ties account for less than 1% of Russia’s total foreign trade. In addition, even experts loyal to the Kremlin say that Iran’s aircraft and mechanical engineering industries are lacking. For example, Vladimir Sazhin, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Rossiyskaya Gazeta that Iranian airlines are considered among the most unsafe in the world, given its fleet of old aircraft and a shortage of spare parts. After the tightening of sanctions in 2018, efforts to buy Western aircraft were halted, and the situation became even worse.
Russia’s troubled civil aviation industry will get little help from its ally. The car industry is likewise archaic, and any new trade route through Azerbaijan faces considerable problems and anyway cannot, the Carnegie Center says, replace Russia’s traditional east-west trade routes now snarled by sanctions.
And while Iran is indeed a world leader in sanctions evasion, the results are questionable. Sazhin said that such efforts cost up to $25bn annually in the banking system alone. Payments are made through a chain of 10-15 banks in different countries, but each transaction costs money, and the prices of some products, he said, have skyrocketed by 300% as a result. Inflation is over 50%, and the currency has lost about half its value.
There is another problem. Despite the Kremlin’s desire to “lead the anti-colonial struggle of the global South against the Western yoke,” many Iranians recall its imperial past and its efforts as a colonial force to control local resources. Opinion polls show that approval ratings for Russia’s actions plummeted after the start of the invasion.
In short, it is likely that over time the Russian authorities will draw the same disappointing conclusion as their new Iranian ally. Sanctions can be mitigated but not neutralized.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.