The dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, a pair of islands near the Strait of Hormuz, is one of a handful of minor territorial disputes across the Middle East, and there is little to gain for an outside power—and much less a world power—to take a position in the dispute. For this reason, it came as a surprise to many that during the recent joint statement of the Sixth Russia-GCC Ministerial Meeting for Strategic Dialogue, all of the parties in attendance—including Russia—agreed to support “all peaceful efforts, including the initiative and endeavors of the United Arab Emirates, to reach a peaceful solution to the dispute over the three islands; Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa, though bilateral negotiations or the International Court of Justice, in accordance with the rules of international law at the UN Charter.” Although this statement is ostensibly neutral on the issue, its support for the UAE’s mediation proposal—which Iran has flatly rejected—was regarded in Tehran as a diplomatic snub. In response to the statement, Iran’s foreign ministry summoned the Russian ambassador and lodged a diplomatic protest. Iran, which exercises de facto control over the islands, considers them as “perennially belong[ing] to Iran”—and therefore regarded the statement as “in contradiction to Iran’s friendly relations with its neighbors.”
The Russian statement on the Tunb islands’ ownership is an illustrative case in practice of Russia’s ongoing “pragmatic approach” to dealing with its Middle Eastern partners, balancing between adversaries rather than forming firm alliances with some states at the expense of relations with others. Although some dynamics are changing in the region, such as with the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iran’s relations with the Kingdom and other neighbors remain fundamentally strained, and trust across the Gulf is limited. Other factors are also at play. Prior to the onset of the war in Ukraine, Iran was a crucial security partner for Russia—particularly in Syria, where both nations sought to keep Bashar al-Assad in power—but more recently the Kremlin has expanded its relations with the Gulf countries, which have greater clout in the energy trade and greater investment opportunities for Russia, in addition to their religious soft power. As Russia continues to face stiffening international sanctions and a plunging economy throughout the Ukraine conflict, both sides of the Gulf are becoming especially important for the Kremlin’s objectives; Iran remains a major military and trade partner, but the GCC states, and their position in global energy markets, are increasingly vital to Russia’s economy.
According to the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, armed collaboration between Russia and Iran has evolved from “virtually nothing after the 1979 revolution to a strategic partnership” by 2023. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that followed, the two sides saw the opportunity to promote bilateral ties as a shared necessity, given their isolation from the world economy. Military ties between the two sides have also developed considerably since 2015, when Russia first intervened in Syria to stabilize the Assad regime’s grip on power; that year, Russia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq built a joint intelligence center in Baghdad to direct their separate operations against the ISIS self-declared “caliphate.”
The following year, Iran allowed Russian military planes to take off from the western Hamedan Airbase to assault ISIS targets. The Ukraine crisis further strengthened their collaboration; in the aftermath of the invasion, Moscow and Tehran developed “a new and unprecedented strategic alliance,” including the sale of hundreds of drones to Russia for use on the battlefield in Ukraine. Furthermore, Iran sent drone experts to Crimea to train the Russian military in their use. In return, Tehran sought to purchase Russian helicopters, fighter jets, combat trainer aircraft and radar. Russian forces also began to train Iranian pilots on the Sukhoi Su-35. On the recent visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Tehran, Iran’s official IRNA news agency commented that his visit was linked to the “development of defense diplomacy”, which is key in conceptualizing the recent engagements between Iran and Russia.
However, even against such “defense diplomacy”, the economic strength of the GCC countries has become fundamental to Russia’s economy, especially during the Ukraine crisis. According to Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, “That is a big incentive for economic cooperation—because who else can they turn to? So there is common ground for new ways to pool resources.” Iran alone cannot save Russia, as bilateral trade volume between the two countries is still small outside the military domain. To save the Russian economy under heavy Western sanctions, energy deals were crucial, and that meant deals with the GCC countries. For example, OPEC+’s decision to reduce production in October 2022 and April 2023 clearly favored Russian interests in maintaining high global oil prices. The GCC states have benefited from the higher prices, but the benefits for Russia are much more significant, reducing the impact of sanctions from a predicted 15% cut to GDP in FY23 to estimated reductions of only 7-10%. The GCC’s actions have enabled Russia to maintain its important gas and oil income, while establishing alternative export routes to Western supply chains. These are not the only reasons for the Russian push toward closer relations with the GCC, but are the most fundamental.
There is one fundamental difference in the building and balancing of ties between Iran and Russia and Russia and the GCC. The historical and longer-term relationships between Russia and Iran have boosted trust, closer collaborations, and understanding at the elite level. By contrast, given that the Gulf states have built long-term relations with the West, embracing closer GCC-Russia ties without skepticism has been difficult for both sides. The outcomes of the Sixth Russia-GCC Ministerial Meeting, where Russia stood with the UAE over the three islands, can be an example of this; as well as the statement on the islands, both sides agreed to develop new partnerships in many fields (including climate change, environmental and natural resource matters, agriculture, health, higher education and scientific research, cultural and educational exchanges, tourism, and people-to-people diplomacy), but these initiatives have tended toward rhetorical support, while concrete actions remain relatively small. The many initiatives that exist in potential or early stages are vital for the Kremlin to build close links with the GCC countries, and these in turn could greatly benefit from more coordinated expertise. The importance of an institute to promote and coordinate collaboration between Russia and the GCC is becoming clear. This could bring together the limited number of specialists in both the GCC and Russia, offering in-depth analyses to systematize and boost relations between the two sides in this time of transformative geopolitics.
Here, the GCC states’ pursuit of soft power politics could be useful. The GCC’s judicious use of soft power, notably through universities and research institutes, has been amply well-documented; these programs have mostly been focused on the West, but there is no reason that they could not be established in Russia as well. Education programs are known to embed visible and long-lasting relations and can be key to building trust and dialogue. Collaborative educational program can conquer the “hearts and minds” of both Arabs and Russians and can inform decision making in both the GCC states and Russia. This will fast-tract efforts of improving relations between Russia and the GCC countries; it could even serve as an effective counterweight to the “defense diplomacy” of Russia and Iran. In other words, the balancing functions between Russia and the GCC can be maintained through economics, education, and other “soft power” entities, while the defense ministers already play an essential role in maintaining special relations between Russia and Iran. In this sense, and perhaps over the longer term, soft power will play out at least as effectively as hard power, and is already a crucial cog in the machinery of Russia’s “balancing act” in the Gulf region.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.