The Strategic Partnership of Russia and Iran

By Jalali, Ali A. | Parameters, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Strategic Partnership of Russia and Iran

Jalali, Ali A., Parameters

Russian-Iranian relations have come under increased international attention since Moscow's announcement in the fall of 2000 to resume arms sale to Iran and expand technological cooperation with the Islamic Republic. This decision ended the 1995 Gore-Chernomyrdin pact, which committed Moscow not to sell military equipment to Iran. The Moscow-Tehran alliance gained a new momentum following the official visit by Iranian President Hojatoleslam Sayed Mohammad Khatami to Russia in March 2001, an event Khatami hoped would mark "a new spring" in the two countries' cooperation. Most recently, Russia signed an agreement on 2 October 2001 to sell Iran up to $300 million a year in conventional arms. (1)

Iran's need to rebuild its conventional forces following the end of its war with Iraq (1989) drove the Islamic Republic to closer military ties with Russia. The relationship developed into a wider strategic partnership during the closing decade of the last century as international competition for influence in the region intensified. Inspired by similar geostrategic perspectives, Tehran and Moscow worked together on a number of issues despite their conflict of interests in some other areas.

The new arms deal is widely seen as a means to consolidate the evolving partnership between Russia and fran at a time of strategic congruence of the two countries' national interests. Prompted mostly by transnational factors, the alliance places strong emphasis on political and security issues. This involves a concerted response to common challenges ranging from US penetration of the region to proliferation of religious extremism and instability from the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The partnership is based on a near-term strategic need that surpasses latent bilateral differences, many of them long-standing. Therefore it is subject to change with new strategic shifts in the region as well as changes in the two nations' interactions with third parties. Iran's possible reconciliation with the United States could bring a dramatic shift in the nature of the Tehran-Moscow relationship, as could a mutually beneficial deal between Moscow and Washington.

This article looks at different aspects of the Russo-Iranian strategic partnership and its impact on the two countries' short-term and long-term political and economic interests. It also examines the intensity of the factors that drive the two nations into a strategic alliance and those that could put them on opposite sides of future issues.


Historical ties between Iran and Russia have often been contentious. For many centuries their competing drives for influence on a volatile frontier and the southward projection of Russian-based dynasties have troubled relations between the two countries. Iran lost significant swaths of territory to imperial Russia in the 19th century and suffered from Russian competition with other foreign powers to carve spheres of influence in Iran in the first half of the last century. During the Cold War, Russian-Iranian relations were influenced by the worldwide alignment of forces in a bipolar geopolitical setting. Iran, allied with the West, faced its Soviet neighbor across the East-West ideological standoff.

Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979 sharpened the ideological split in a new way. The United States and the Soviet Union were both vilified in Iran's "neither East nor West" revolutionary worldview. However, Tehran's confrontational foreign policy transformed into a more pragmatic approach as the realities of international relations and domestic challenges blunted the country's militant mood. Iran finally decided to improve relations with the "lesser Satan" by signing a wide-ranging economic protocol with Moscow in 1986, hoping that the move would discourage the Kremlin from aiding Iraq, which was then locked in a devastating war with the Islamic Republic. Moscow expected better relations with Tehran would encourage the clerical regime to turn a blind eye on the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan.

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