The war in Ukraine is causing Russia to get closer to pariah nations: Belarus, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, to mention a few. This is probably not the multi-polar world Vladimir Putin, and before him the Russian geopolitical heavyweight Yevgeny Primakov envisaged, but that’s what for dinner.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met for a much-heralded meeting in Tehran on July 19th to discuss energy policy, maritime security, and Syria. Many are eager to portray the meeting as a convergence of principled anti-western leaders who will challenge the international system. At the very least, it seemed likely Russia and Iran would cooperate given the fact that the Iranian Supreme Leader lauded Putin for starting the war in Ukraine.
The timing of their meeting to respond to Erdoğan’s threats of a new offensive into Northern Syria against Kurdish militants, and to President Joe Biden’s lackluster trip to Saudi Arabia, suggest grandstanding, not grand strategy. True, Russia has announced the purchase of 1,000 Iranian military drones – a humiliating step for the country that once pioneered manned orbital flight.
There were quarrels as well. During the meeting, Iran chastised Turkey for its policy in Syria, and the Ayatollah came out fully in support of Russia – something Turkey did not appreciate or support. The Ayatollah’s move caused Ukraine to break relations with Iran. This was a meeting of strange bedfellows, not a summit of allies.
Nevertheless, Iran and Russia are broaching deeper cooperation and attempting to coordinate, albeit with difficulties. During the visit, Putin and Raisi announced a deal between Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company. With the help of Russian investment, Iran has the potential to become a major gas producer in the Middle East and the world. The plan entails Iran buying Russian gas and selling its own gas to countries in the region, helping to undermine sanctions.
While Russia and Iran are moving towards energy cooperation, they still have many diverging interests. The temptation to undercut the rival to undersell oil is always there, especially during a war. Cooperation is already unraveling, with Russia and Iran scrambling to undercut each other for dominance of the vital Chinese market. Russia’s search for alternative buyers is hurting one of its closest allies. Ironically, as Russia becomes more dependent on markets in Asia and the Middle East, Iran may need to look West to sustain its exports.
Russo-Iranian cooperation is limited by Russia’s balancing act between Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran and its desire to employ Iran as a cudgel to harm Western interests. Russo-Saudi cooperation within OPEC+, the oil quasi-cartel, is beneficial for both parties and will continue to be one of the major determinants of the global oil supply, even when it hurts Iran.
During the war, Russian fuel-oil exports for electricity production to Saudi Arabia increased and freed more Saudi crude for export (as the U.S. asked for). With the balance of power in the Middle East shifting, the US-Saudi alliance wobbly, and Saudi-Iranian rivalry at a historic high, Russian relations with Riyadh are a threat to Tehran.
The current geopolitical climate and Russian-Iranian political and security cooperation incentivize both sides to sustain ties even as they remain rivals in the commodity market. While there may have been disagreements in energy policy, Russia’s engagement to develop two new nuclear reactors at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant late last year, coupled with technical assistance provided to Iranian nuclear engineers and scientists indicates that Moscow seeks to continue its cooperation with Tehran in the strategic nuclear energy sector. Much-needed assistance to develop Iranian LN
The ongoing war in Ukraine and the Western measures against Russia are pushing Moscow and Teheran to more military, nuclear, and fossil fuel energy cooperation.
Moscow and Tehran are already allies with coinciding geopolitical aims. Russia is the sole source of nuclear technology for Iran. Russia is Iran’s primary supplier of advanced conventional arms, including ballistic missile technology and chemical and biological warfare programs. Moreover, Russian plans for procuring Iranian military drones for use in Ukraine demonstrate that the two seek to expand their security cooperation.
The Russo-Iranian de facto alliance is already here, but it is not fully consolidated. This alliance will only be consolidated when Russia and Iran can cooperate in an energy market where they are currently competitors. The West must do everything it can to prevent the alignment of energy interests between Moscow and Tehran.