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Lessons of History: The Fleeting Nature of Iran-Russia Collaboration

Isolated from the international community and full of antipathy toward the West, Iran and Russia have steadily grown closer over the past year. The two countries have voted together at the United Nations and collaborated on economic issues, and Tehran has even supplied Shahed-136 drones to Russia to aid in its war of aggression against Ukraine. Given the often-problematic relations between these countries over the past two centuries, however, their continued partnership is anything but certain.

The Great Game

Given its geographical position at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Iran in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the object of competition between Great Britain—intent on securing the frontiers of its colony in India—and Russia, which sought to expand its borders into northern Iran. Dubbed the “Great Game,” both the British and the Russians sought zones of influence within Iran and attempted to gain control over its natural resources. Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia sought to secure a warm water port and eyed the Persian Gulf coast for this purpose. As the Russians moved south, they took more territory from Iran and their merchants were able to secure special privileges in the country.

One of the most egregious episodes of Russian intervention and interference in Iran came during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution, from1905 to 1911. Most Iranians are justifiably proud of this revolution, which is usually considered the first constitutional movement in the Middle East that sought to restrict the absolute power of a ruling monarchy. From the north, however, the Tsarist government in Russia saw this revolution as a threat to its own political system, and Moscow cooperated with regressive elements in Tehran to put it down. In 1908, Colonel Vladimir Liakhov, head of the Russian-led Cossack Brigade in Iran, worked with Iran’s Qajar monarch to bombard the Majlis (parliament) in Tehran and suppress the emergent constitutional order. A year later, pro-constitutionalist forces from both the northern and the southern parts of the country marched on Tehran to restore the parliament and the constitution, but Russian pressure once again forced the Majlis to disband in 1911.

The “Lesser Satan”

After the October Revolution displaced the provisional government in 1917, the new Bolshevik-led Soviet government repudiated Russia’s old treaties and concessions in a display of friendship toward Iran. However, Moscow’s traditional geopolitical concerns quickly returned to color its relationship with Tehran. In conjunction with the British, the Soviets invaded Iran in 1941, overthrowing the monarch Reza Shah and gaining almost exclusive control over northern Iran. The Soviet Union also helped to form the Tudeh (“masses”) party, Iran’s equivalent of a communist party, which functioned as Moscow’s vehicle for influence in Iran until its disbandment after the 1979 revolution.

Under the government of the newly-installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Allied powers agreed to withdraw their troops from Iran six months after the end of World War II. While British and American forces adhered to this deadline, the Red Army did not. Instead, in December 1945, a few months before the withdrawal deadline, the Soviets helped to set up the separatist republics in Iranian Azerbaijan and Iranian Kurdistan, sparking the first diplomatic incident of the fledgling Cold War. A combination of American pressure and shrewd diplomacy by Iranian Prime Minister Qavam Soltaneh—who promised the Kremlin an oil concession in the northern part of the country, knowing full well that the Majlis would never approve it—brought about the eventual withdrawal of Soviet troops from Iran. Nevertheless, Soviet machinations in the immediate postwar era were perceived by most Iranians as an affront to the country’s sovereignty and left a lasting mark on Russian-Iranian relations.

After the Iranian revolution of 1979 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power, many outside observers and policymakers in Washington feared that Tehran’s about-face regarding its relations with Washington could push the country to align more closely with the Soviet Union. Such fears, however, proved largely unfounded. While it is widely known that Khomeini condemned America as the “Great Satan,”  he also referred to the Soviet Union as the “Lesser Satan”—perhaps a reflection of its policy of suppressing religious beliefs, but also a certain reference to Moscow’s historical interference in Iranian politics. Although the Tudeh party saw a brief resurgence after the fall of the anti-communist Shah, Khomeini and his cohorts viewed the party as a fifth column with Soviet-leaning tendencies and were particularly brutal in suppressing it in the years that followed.

A Marriage of Necessity, Not of Amity

In the modern era, the Iranian regime may see tactical advantages to aligning with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Both governments find themselves isolated on the international stage—Iran for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Leaders of both nations have promoted defiant, anti-Western foreign policies to bolster their domestic legitimacy. However, the clerical regime’s coziness with Moscow does not reflect the feelings of the majority of Iranian people, many of whom recognize Russia’s meddling in recent centuries. The provision of Iranian drones to Russia and reports that the Russians are giving advice to Iranian authorities to help them suppress widespread protests against the regime have likely only added to the Iranian public’s anti-Russian sentiment.

Whether the Iranian regime will fall because of the protests is not yet clear. However, if the regime does fall or its political nature is transformed—either through reforms intended to assuage public anger or through a coup—one can expect that any new Iranian government, wishing to better reflect the people’s will in its foreign policy, will distance itself from the Kremlin. History holds painful lessons for Iranians looking to do business with Russia. Regardless of the regimes that have governed in Moscow or Tehran over the past two centuries, one constant has held: a lasting bilateral friendship between Iran and Russia is difficult to maintain and easily shattered.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Professor Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, and a Senior Professorial Lecturer at American University where he teaches courses on U.S. foreign policy. Professor Aftandilian is also an adjunct faculty member at Boston University and George Mason University, teaching courses on Middle East politics. Previously, he worked for the U.S. government for over 20 years in such capacities as Professional Staff Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Middle East Analyst at the U.S. Department of State. He holds B.A. in History from Dartmouth College, M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from University of Chicago, and M.Sc. in International Relations from London School of Economics.

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