Iran’s relations with Russia are becoming increasingly important as the Islamic Republic seeks to strengthen its defense sector and develop a new national security strategy. Given Russia’s strong position in the global power hierarchy, Iran-Russia defense cooperation can provide important achievements for Iran and regional stability.
Defense diplomacy is part of the national power of a country that, along with foreign policy, enhances the capacity of action of a country in foreign relations. Indeed, the link between defense and military activities and diplomatic actions can be a powerful interconnected tool of national power. Defense diplomacy can be effective both in times of war and peace as well as in preventing conflicts.
Accordingly, defense diplomacy allows Iran to withstand efforts to harm the country’s reconstruction and prosperity. The achievement of large capabilities in defense diplomacy requires a deep understanding of Iran’s position in both regional and global affairs.
Iran is considered to be a regional power whose indigenous defensive capabilities have grown in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Because of cross-border security conflicts in Iran’s regional environment, bilateral defense treaties can be desirable for Iran. Russia is of interest to Iran in this regard.
On January 20, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Iranian counterpart, Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, signed an intergovernmental agreement on “long term and multifaceted” military cooperation in Tehran, Iran. It is the first time in 15 years that a Russian defense minister has visited Iran and underlines the growing military and diplomatic ties between both countries united by their joint opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle Eastern region and beyond.
For example, Russia and Iran are both continuing their support of the Assad regime in Syria.
As of now, there are two major obstacles to deeper Iranian-Russian military cooperation. First, Moscow has to persuade Tehran to withdraw its lawsuit from the OSCE Court of Conciliation and Arbitration Geneva. In 2007, Russia agreed to sell five S-300PMU-1/SA-20 Gargoyle SAM systems (40 launchers) to Iran for $800 million. However, as a consequence of a UN Security Council resolution of June 2010 imposing sanctions — which included a ban on the sale of modern weapons — on Iran over its controversial nuclear program, Russia cancelled the delivery of the missiles and stopped all military-technical cooperation. In return, Iran demanded $4 billion in compensation.
Second, full-fledged military cooperation between Iran and Russia can only happen once UN sanctions have been lifted. This largely depends on Tehran’s willingness to reach a mutually acceptable agreement in the P5+1 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Only then can full-fledged arms sales resume. In October 2011, Russia made its last and so far only public arms sale to Iran in the form of a radar-jamming station. Back in the year 2000, Iran was the fourth largest importer of Russian military equipment placing right after China, India, and the United Arab Emirates, buying 6.1 percent of Russia’s total arms exports. Sputnik News quotes the Center for the Analysis of World Arms Trade in Moscow, which estimated that the Russian defense industry has lost around $13 billion in arms sales due to UN sanctions against Iran.
For now, the military cooperation agreement focuses on deeper cooperation in the field of counter-terrorism, exchanges of military personnel for training purposes, and an increase in the number of reciprocal port visits by the Iranian and Russian navies. Russia’s stance vis-à-vis Iran is intrinsically connected to its relations with the Western world. Should NATO-Russia relations deteriorate further, Moscow will make an even stronger effort to improve ties with Tehran.
The gradual increase of Russia’s political and military power in global and especially regional affairs has encouraged Iran to seek a new and broader level of relations with Moscow. Although there are still different perspectives in Iran on Russia’s position in the global system, the commonalities of these perspectives indicate that Russia’s place in the hierarchy of global power is steady. Hence, defense cooperation between Iran and Russia can be a major achievement for Iran to achieve regional stability and strengthen deterrence.
There are two perspectives in Iran regarding the relationship with Russia. One sees Russia’s approach to Iran as opportunistic and believes that the Russians are primarily thinking of their own economic and political interests and are only playing the “Iran card.” Other Iranians believe that Russia supports Iran but with limitations. Evidence of both views is apparent in Russia’s approach to UN Security Council’s resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program.
However, both Iran and Russia have a common interest as regional powers in limiting US influence in the Middle East. Therefore, the logic of close proximity between Russia and Iran is important from a strategic point of view, based on the reduction and if possible, elimination of the American threat and the expansion of Iran-Russia military and defense cooperation. Iran recognizes that the Persian Gulf states, Pakistan and even Azerbaijan have made significant deals with the United States and Israel in the field of military capabilities and weapons, which has altered the balance of power to the detriment of Iran.
In response to this trend, along with domestic capabilities, the conclusion of military agreements with Russia, the exchange of information, as well as the exchange of military advisers in a regular program to respond these regional challenges by the United Sates seems necessary. A proper understanding of Russia’s future military capabilities will provide a better prospect for Iran’s military commanders to realize the above-mentioned goals.
Russia’s ties to other great powers in the framework of “peaceful development” opens the door to serious restrictions to Iran-Russia relations. At the same time, the United States is trying to scale back its military involvement in the Middle East and gravitate toward Asia and the Pacific. Such a shift in US strategic priorities and policies toward Asia-Pacific can be a comparative advantage for Iran in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
Therefore, it seems that Iran would be in a better position to bargain with Russia. On this basis, the activation of the Iran’s defense diplomacy with Russia will be an effective step towards increasing national power.