The marriage is one of convenience, meaning it is more fragile than it looksby Rupert Stone / February 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Iran and Russia are closer than ever before. They both have tense relations with the west and stand united in opposition to the United States. “Our cooperation can isolate America,” said Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, when Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Tehran last November. Russia and Iran have also been the main supporters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as he battles rebel fighters backed by the US and other countries. And, as violence escalates again in Syria, Moscow and Tehran show no sign of separating. At a meeting with his Russian counterpart this week, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif praised Russia’s “sober strategic perspective” in a gushing tweet.
It was not always this way. Indeed, Iran-Russia relations have been hostile until quite recently. In the early 19thcentury, Russia won two wars against Persia (as Iran was then known), seizing much of the Caucasus in the process. After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which saw the US-backed Iranian king toppled and replaced by an anti-western Islamist theocracy, relations remained poor. The new Islamic Republic of Iran did not share the Soviet Union’s atheist communist ideology. The Soviets also backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. Tensions cooled after the end of the Cold War but rose again in 2010, when Russia backed United Nations sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.
Then, in 2014, Russia’s ties with the west declined sharply after Putin annexed Crimea and incurred fresh sanctions from the US and EU as a result. This drove Moscow into Tehran’s embrace, with Putin and his defence minister making trips to Iran in 2015 to discuss trade and economic assistance. That year also saw the nuclear deal between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council (including Russia), and Germany. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the accord curbed Iranian nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions. Russia was quick to capitalise on sanctions relief, signing deals with Iran to sell weapons and develop the country’s energy sector.
Later that year Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Assad, who was struggling to suppress an armed revolt by Islamic State and other militants against his regime. Iran—a long-time…