Los Angeles, October 28, 2023 - The recent conflict in Gaza marks another tragic chapter in the ongoing struggle between Israel and Hamas. However, this conflict is more than just a regional skirmish; it reflects the changing dynamics of the Middle East, where emerging alliances are reshaping the political landscape. While the Biden administration and Israel's allies have been advocating for closer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, an opposing force is also emerging – the strengthening relationship between Iran and Russia.
From Tehran's perspective, the idea of aligning with Russia may seem unusual, given their historical differences. Iran and Russia have been longstanding rivals, with Iran's former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini harboring a deep mistrust for the Soviet Union, just as he did for the United States. Khomeini vehemently opposed godless communism and viewed the Soviet Union as an aggressive power seeking to undermine Iran's revolutionary government. However, in today's context, an alliance with Russia offers Iran strategic advantages. While Moscow's weaponry may not match Western standards, it can provide Iran with the full spectrum of arms it urgently requires. Furthermore, Russia's presence on the UN Security Council gives Iran diplomatic leverage. Their shared rejection of democracy and human rights further strengthens their partnership.
Understanding Russia's interest in Iran is more complex. It stems from a shared anti-U.S. sentiment, a mutual aversion to democratic values, and concerns about Sunni Muslim fundamentalism. The modern Iran-Russia relationship initially evolved from cooperation between their intelligence agencies to monitor Sunni fundamentalist groups in the Caucasus and Central Asia after the Soviet Union's collapse. In the Middle East, they both share concerns and opportunistic interests, fearing that regional unrest could jeopardize anti-Western allies such as Bashar al-Assad, yet hoping to exploit the turmoil to expand their influence.
The Iran-Russia alliance is a dangerous development that could destabilize the Middle East and the world. It is a marriage of convenience between two authoritarian regimes that share a common interest in undermining the United States and its allies. - 26th United States secretary of defense
Their cooperation, however, has had its limitations. While they worked together in Syria, Russia didn't provide Iran with top-tier weapons like the latest fighter aircraft. Additionally, Moscow couldn't shield Iran from economic coercion by the United States to rejoin the nuclear deal. This relationship often seemed like a way for Russia to gain leverage in other areas. Moscow would occasionally dangle arms sales in front of Iran but then relent under U.S. and European pressure, often trading its support for Iran for Western concessions regarding Russia's actions in places like Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as addressing its domestic dissent and dissident assassinations.
However, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the dynamics shifted dramatically. In a surprising reversal of roles, Iran now supplies Russia with crucial weaponry, including highly functional suicide drones, which have been used to devastating effect in Ukraine's cities. Iran also provides Russia with additional munitions, technicians for their weaponry, diplomatic support, moral backing, and even some relief from sanctions. There are even unconfirmed reports suggesting that Iran is willing to deploy members of its Middle Eastern Shiite militias to Ukraine's front lines.
This sudden turn of events has created a scenario where Russia needs Iran almost as much as Iran needs Russia. Moreover, there are no credible incentives from the Western powers to deter Russia's deepening ties with Iran. Comprehensive sanctions have been imposed on Russia by the United States and its allies, and significant arms support has been extended to Ukraine. There is little willingness in the West to offer any concessions to Russia to weaken its links with Iran.
The growing rapport between Iran and Russia has played a crucial role in the events unfolding in the Middle East over the past few years, including the recent conflict in Gaza. Iran's assertiveness has increased as the U.S. adopted a more restrained regional approach under the Obama and Trump administrations. Tehran has grown confident that Russia will back it both diplomatically and, to some extent, militarily, as it did in Syria. Russia's motivation stems from its desire to enhance regional influence and counter the United States, making support for Iran a strategic choice. Moreover, Russia's use of private military companies, such as the Wagner Group, has allowed it to become a significant player in regional conflicts at minimal cost. Iran can leverage this expanding Russian influence even when it wasn't the original intent.
There's also the possibility that Russia's bolstered support encouraged Iran to back and embolden Hamas during its assault on Israel. Although Iran's support wasn't the primary reason for Hamas's actions, it played a role. Having a major power backing it provided Tehran with a more secure footing, enabling it to push its regional terrorist allies towards greater aggression.
The trajectory of this alliance suggests that it will continue to strengthen in the future. The conflict in Ukraine shows no sign of abating, and Western sanctions are unlikely to ease any time soon. NATO is expanding its presence and increasing defense spending. Russia's need for Iran appears to be growing, given the challenging geopolitical landscape. Meanwhile, Iran shows no inclination to reach a deal on its nuclear program, and its outlook on the West remains antagonistic.