Over the past two decades, Russia has been one of Iran's primary supporters at a time when Tehran was relatively isolated in the international community and had hostile relations with many Western powers. However, Moscow and Tehran never shared any particular affinity. In fact, Russia and Iran have historically competed for influence in Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia. During the imperial periods, Persia and Russia fought several large wars from 1722 to 1828. While the Soviet Union was the first state to recognize the Islamic republic in 1979, relations between the two were cool, in part because Tehran condemned Moscow's restrictions on religion and the Soviets were already allied with Iraq.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, relations between Tehran and Moscow began to warm while Iran's international isolation was growing. Russia committed to take over construction of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant and became a source of military hardware for Iran. Russia has also provided Iran with intelligence on a range of matters, including Israeli networks in Lebanon and U.S. and British plans to destabilize the Iranian government by, for example, taking advantage of the 2009 "Green Revolution" protests.
For much of the 2000s, U.S. attention (military and otherwise) was focused on the Islamic world, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the standoff with Iran. Moscow took advantage of Washington's preoccupation to start rolling back Western influence in Russia's borderlands. In addition, Russia could leverage its ties with Iran in negotiations with Washington on other matters, such as U.S. support for anti-Russian governments in Ukraine and Georgia. The relationship with Iran was also a way for Russia to secure its southern flank and limit Iranian-Russian competition in the region.
Indeed, Moscow has found the standoff between Iran and the United States to be a particularly useful foreign policy tool. For example, during Moscow's negotiations with Washington over U.S. missile defense installations in Central Europe, Russia threatened to counter by selling S-300 missile defense systems to Iran. But Russia has been careful not to support Iran too much, both because a strengthened Iran would threaten Russia's southern flank and because it could provoke the United States and its allies into taking action against Moscow.
From Leverage to Liability
Russia is comfortable and familiar with partnering with a U.S. foe, though in the past such relationships have not proved durable. During the Cold War, Moscow assumed that the United States and China would remain adversaries because there were too many constraints on either side to ever reach a compromise. Following the Sino-American entente in 1971, the United States became a swing player in Sino-Soviet relations, and China became the same in Soviet-American relations. A similar phenomenon is now taking place with Iran. Russia knows that any agreement between Iran and the United States does not mean the two will become allies, and a change would not necessarily affect Russia immediately. But Russia's leaders past and present have had to be long-term strategists, and the Kremlin is weighing the ramifications of an U.S.-Iran entente well into the future.
First, should there be a true rapprochement with Iran, it could free Washington to focus more on other parts of the world. Moscow is worried that Washington would expand its attention both in Russia's periphery, where it has been attempting to boost its influence, and inside Russia itself, where the United States has actively supported anti-Kremlin groups. Russia would not be able to use Iran to counter any U.S. activities against Moscow's interests, and it has little else that is comparably effective in negotiations with Washington.
The second concern is how much the U.S.-Iranian relationship warms in the long term. Iran alone cannot threaten Russia in the region, since the Islamic republic is much smaller economically and militarily. However, U.S. backing could allow Iran to weaken Russia's regional position. Moscow cannot be certain that improved U.S.-Iranian ties would not eventually lead to increased military cooperation and support similar to Washington's relationship with Tehran in the decades before Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Moscow's Areas of Concern
A U.S.-backed Iran increases the vulnerability of Russia's southern flank. Specifically, there are three regions that Russia is concerned could once again fall away from its influence: Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Namely, Iran has the potential to be a regional energy competitor to Russia, and it can act as a land bridge for Eurasian transit through the Russian borderlands to the Persian Gulf.
Turkey is Russia's second-largest energy consumer, as well as another regional rival to Moscow's influence in its borderlands. Ankara has been looking for alternative suppliers for energy in order to reduce its dependence on Russia. Though there are minor alternatives such as Azerbaijan, Iran has the potential to seriously compete with Russia on the energy production front. Iran is already a minor energy exporter to Turkey, but with increased foreign investment and support in Iran's energy sector — particularly from U.S. firms — the country could increase its production on a scale that might challenge Russian energy dominance in the region. In addition, the historical geopolitical competition that saw Russia spar with Ottoman Turkey and Persian Iran — with the countries alternately aligning with and against one another — could resume.
The second region where Russia's sway could be undermined is the Caucasus, where Russia relatively successfully increased its influence this year. Currently, Armenia is isolated and reliant on its relationship with Russia in nearly every respect. Georgia has ushered in a government that is more cooperative with Russia, and Russian troops are still stationed in the country's breakaway territories. Azerbaijan has become more accommodating to Russian interests to avoid isolation as the rest of the region moves closer to Moscow. Russia will want to solidify its position in the Caucasus in the short term in case Iran (possibly with U.S. backing) attempts to undermine Russia's position. For example, Iran could offer Azerbaijan an alternative land route for transporting energy to Turkey and Europe or the Persian Gulf. Iran could also boost trade and energy exports to Armenia or Georgia, challenging Russian influence there.
Lastly, Moscow's grip on Central Asia — a region already seeing increased Sino-Russian competition — could be jeopardized. The current struggle between Moscow and Beijing has centered on the flow of energy out of Central Asia. Russia has strengthened its control over the pipelines that run between Turkmenistan and China through Kazakhstan. However, Turkmenistan's largest natural gas fields are on the border with Iran, making Iran an option for increasing Turkmen energy exports to the Persian Gulf or the West. Iran could become a transit corridor for Kazakh and Uzbek energy as well. For Central Asian states concerned about possible instability in Afghanistan, Iran could also prove to be a useful security partner on intelligence or even military cooperation in the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal.
The Kremlin understands these vulnerabilities, but it also sees that there is little it can do to interrupt the trajectory of U.S.-Iran negotiations. Instead, Russia has to be thinking of how to protect its position in a changing world. If Iran is no longer an option, finding a new tool to counter U.S. actions and shoring up the southern borderlands will be at the top of Moscow's list of priorities.