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A New Axis Takes Shape: The Tentative Partnership Between Russia and Iran

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a strengthening of the strategic relations between Russia and Iran.

Mehr News Agency /

As two of the most sanctioned countries in the world, both face significant barriers to participating in the global economy and are often at odds with the majority of the world.

Engaging in ongoing armed conflicts well beyond their borders has resulted in increased international hostility, condemnation, and in some cases, retaliation.

As a result of having fewer and fewer allies over the past decades, these two states have begun connecting in new ways to form a resistant structure to the largely unipolar world order.


The Enemy of my Enemy

Relations between the United States and Iran have been steadily eroding since the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal framework in 2018. Similarly, the international paradigm has completely shifted since Russia invaded Ukraine just a year ago. While much of the world openly condemns the actions taken by these pariah states, they have forged more concrete relations with one another.

The first international trip Russian president Vladimir Putin made since the beginning of the war in Ukraine was to Tehran to meet with state leadership on strategic resistance to escalatory tactics by Western powers in their respective regions.

Real commitments were made following this meeting, including honest demonstrations of partnership. One such deal included the Iranian delivery of specially modified Shahed 131 and Shahed 136 kamikaze drones, as well as Mohajer-6s, to the Russian Federation. In return, Russia gave nearly $150 million in cash, as well as a variety of American and British weapons that were captured in Ukraine to Tehran.


Shared Strategic Military Projects

The Wall Street Journal has recently reported that Iranian military officials have visited the Russian city of Yelabuga with a plan to construct a munitions factory capable of producing at least 6000 drones in the next few years.

After numerous back-and-forth visits between delegations of government officials, Iran tapped its defense and aerospace partners to spearhead the facility and its production. This continuation of strategic military progression between the countries contradicts prior claims that Iran has made regarding respecting the sovereignty of Ukraine’s territory.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is cashing in on this multifaceted alliance with the Kremlin, to the tune of $1 billion. Not only is this partnership extremely financially lucrative, but also serves to strategically benefit the IRGC in their own military ambitions.

In addition to the procurement of confiscated Western technology for the purpose of reverse engineering, Foreign Policy reported that Russia is also providing Iran with advanced air defense systems and fighter jets.

The value of the Russian S-400 air defense system for Tehran is significant, allowing for a more complete defense against drone attacks on key Iranian sites and infrastructure. The addition of Russian fighter jets would help bolster Iran's aerial capabilities and help modernize its air force.


How to Evade Sanctions

The two partners are finding other ways to evade sanctions by the West. Iran has long been one of the most sanctioned countries in the world; often because the United States uses this tool as a punishment for Tehran’s actions which are adversarial to the White House and its allies.

Russia too is often at the receiving end of Western sanctions for similar reasons. Repeated incidents of the largest economy in the world targeting its adversaries have forced alienated countries such as Iran and Russia to adapt their economic practices and participation in the global marketplace.

Iran circumvents international financial sanctions in several ways, one way being the operation of proxy and shell companies, oftentimes officially listed as being based in other countries.

However, the most commonly used method, and the primary source of state revenue for Iran, is the sale of extracted oil and natural gas.

Iranian oil reserves span across the world from terrorist organizations like Hezbollah to more legitimate nation-states. Iranian oil that has circumvented U.S. sanctions has even been found in Western-friendly countries like Turkey, Japan, India, and South Korea.

Financial Times reports that Iranian ghost fleets (ships operating under illicit means such as false names and registration) have also begun to move Russian crude oil.

This transportation network has proven lucrative as Iran and Russia cooperate to move resources around the Caspian, Caucasus, and Middle East in defiance of international shipping regulations.

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) is a Belgium-based financial network that allows members from countries around the world to communicate and provide operational instructions under a standardized system.

Following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, some European and North American leaders requested that Russian financial institutions be barred from having access to the SWIFT network, with the intent of complicating and hindering Russian banking operations.

Iran, having already been sanctioned by the EU and the U.S. from using SWIFT, announced they would be developing an alternative banking system with Russia and more than a dozen other countries.

Still, it remains to be seen if this economic relationship will come to full fruition. Russia and Iran do not share many commonalities, aside from being diametrically opposed to the United State and its Western allies.


Balancing International Relationships

There is also some speculation that Iran and Russia will look to further align with China to strengthen their position against the Western coalition.

This would likely take form on the economic front, with China being the primary importer of Iranian oil and a key trading partner of the Kremlin, but it seems unlikely either Moscow or Tehran would be interested in becoming involved with China’s strategic projects, especially if the situation with Taiwan and the greater Indo-Pacific region continues to heat up, or escalates to the point of international armed conflict.

Russia, which enjoys a close relationship with Israel, may also not be terribly enthusiastic about isolating its partner in the Middle East by aligning with Israel’s foremost adversary.

While weapons sales and the emergence of a shared economic corridor will have some influence on improving Russian-Iranian relations, the strategic desires of each nation might sour some diplomatic goodwill between the parties.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has gone on the record saying they do not recognize territories occupied by Ukrainian separatists as belonging to Russia, and the Kremlin has historically supported UN sanctions against Iran in response to Tehran’s weapons programs.

Perhaps instead, Russia and Iran will pivot to finding commonalities on tactical and strategic objectives elsewhere, such as the ongoing security quagmire in Syria.

Developments related to contributions or promises from other international partners (namely China, Turkey, and India) will also indicate the direction in which this strategic partnership heads.

While Russia and Iran are influential in their own regard, it is less likely for the cooperation to succeed without support from other powerful parties.

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