Just as Russia and Iran worked around their conflicting strategic objectives in Syria, the relationship between the two remains likely to weather the current storm clouds.
On March 15, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Moscow to hold talks with Russian officials on the war in Ukraine and the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Ukraine component of this trip was shrouded in ambiguities. Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised Iran’s “objective position on what is happening in Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also spoke with Amir-Abdollahian and stated unambiguously that “Iran is against the war in Ukraine.”
The JCPOA dimension of Amir-Abdollahian’s trip was apparently more successful. Ahead of Amir-Abdollahian’s visit, Russia emphasized its desire to prevent Western sanctions imposed after the onset of Russia’s war in Ukraine from restricting its JCPOA-permitted economic cooperation with Iran. This issue was resolved in tandem with Amir-Abdollahian’s visit, as Lavrov stated that Moscow had received U.S. guarantees that sanctions would not derail Russo-Iranian commercial cooperation.
Despite these ups and downs, Amir-Abdollahian’s visit reflected continuity in Russia-Iran relations. Regarding the Ukraine war, Iran has expressed solidarity with Russia’s security concerns, but has refused to support the invasion. On the nuclear issue, Russia continues to back the JCPOA’s restoration but has sought to ensure that its own economic interests are protected by the nuclear deal’s terms. These continuities ensure that despite episodic frictions, strategic cooperation between Russia and Iran will persist.
Iran’s Balancing Act on the Ukraine War
Iran’s policy of “sympathy without alignment” towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine mirrors its responses to Moscow’s past military interventions. During Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed NATO’s provocations for the conflict, while simultaneously ruling out formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two pro-Russian secessionist regions in northern Georgia.
Similarly, after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized sanctions against Russia as the “wrong tool” and Iranian lawmakers blamed the crisis on Western interference. Iran maintained neutrality on the status of Crimea, refusing to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and declining to vote in the March 2014 UN General Assembly Resolution 68/262 on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Reflecting its own concerns about irredentism, Iran regards the emergence of pro-Russian separatist militias in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region with trepidation. Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati stated in February 2014 that “separatism is a serious threat against Ukraine and the security of the Caucasus region,” and claimed it must receive “special attention.”
Iran’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has followed these precedents. Hours after the invasion on February 24, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi decried NATO’s eastward expansion as a “serious threat” to the security and stability of independent nations. The Iranian Foreign Ministry echoed Raisi’s rhetoric, while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the war on the actions of the U.S. “mafia regime” and the legacy of repeated U.S.-backed “color revolutions” along Russia’s borders. Notwithstanding this rhetoric, Iran did not join its erstwhile allies, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Yemen’s Ali Mohammed al-Houthi, in recognizing the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Tehran also abstained from the March 2 UNGA resolution that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Beyond maintaining policy consistency, Iran’s position on Ukraine balances conflicting domestic opinions and aligns with its long-standing strategy towards the post-Soviet region. Iran’s hardline “Kayhan” newspaper justified the war, stating in a March 13 article that, “if Putin is talking about deterrence, or if he is talking about a serious security threat to his people, there is evidence.” On the other side, Elahe Kolaei, a professor at the University of Tehran, contended that the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s values would support the “free choice of the Ukrainian people,” but urged Iran to stay neutral and accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of stoking Russian aggression as he claimed Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili did in 2008. Iran’s reformist faction has condemned the war in more explicit terms, and one reformist commentator, Sadegh Zibakalam, even publicly apologized to Ukrainians for the Iranian government’s stance.
Iran’s position also gives it an opportunity to revive its historical balancing act between Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. While Tehran’s relations with Russia and Belarus have remained cordial, the shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January 2020 seriously strained Iran-Ukraine relations. Tehran’s refusal to support Moscow’s invasion, in stark contrast to the more enthusiastic support of Russia’s other regional partners, could help to ease bilateral frictions with Kyiv.
Russia’s Position on the JCPOA Negotiations
Since multilateral JCPOA negotiations resumed in November 2021, Russia has consistently supported the deal’s restoration and used the Iran nuclear talks as an avenue of communication with the West. In December, Russia’s Permanent Representative to International Organizations Mikhail Ulyanov joined Iran in praising the progress of talks, even as Western powers resisted Tehran’s demands for the removal of sanctions without preconditions. Ulyanov’s regular consultations with U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley persisted, even as tensions spiked between the U.S. and Russia over Moscow’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine. This assuaged the concerns of some Russian experts, such as Moscow State Institute of International Affairs (MGIMO) professor Nikolay Surkov, who feared that Western countries would attempt to exclude Russia from future JCPOA talks.
Despite Russia’s superficial alignment with Iran on the JCPOA, mutual tensions have surfaced in recent weeks. Russia has viewed the re-entry of Iranian oil into Western markets with concern, as it would ease price hikes and restrict Moscow’s capacity to weaponize energy in retaliation for sanctions. Russia’s push for sanctions exemptions also slowed down the JCPOA’s progress and clashed with China’s desire to expedite the re-entry of Iranian oil into global markets. These areas of discord were magnified by simultaneous disagreements between Russia and Iran over Yemen. In a reversal of its previous position, Russia’s UN mission supported a UN Security Council resolution on February 28 that described the Houthis as a terrorist group, and Moscow has expressed firm solidarity with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) against Houthi drone strikes.
Iranian commentators have also expressed concerns about Russia’s self-serving approach to the JCPOA negotiations. These trepidations have come across Iran’s political spectrum. Hossein Alaei, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy commander, urged new deals under the twenty-year Russia-Iran Treaty of Friendship to be “mutually beneficial” instead of “solving Russia’s long-term problems.” Entekhab published a headline entitled “Putin’s Grenade under the Negotiating Table,” and other reformist outlets have expressed growing frustrations with Russia’s linkage of the JCPOA to its objectives in Ukraine.
Although Russia and Iran do not completely align on the Ukraine war, and latent frictions surfaced during the JCPOA negotiations, the trajectory of their bilateral relationship remains positive. Iran’s exports to Russia soared by 60 percent in 2021, and overall trade between Moscow and Tehran exceeded $4 billion. This positive momentum will persist if Russia secures sanctions exemptions, and Russia’s isolation from the West might make it more willing to sell military hardware, such as the S-400 air defense system, to Iran. Just as Russia and Iran worked around their conflicting strategic objectives in Syria, the relationship between the two remains likely to weather the current storm clouds.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.