The Russia-Iran alliance: What are its dangers to the world order?

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: The Ukraine war appears to have changed Moscow’s calculations, and now Iran and Russia are working together.

FOREIGN MINISTERS Sergei Lavrov of Russia (center) Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey (right) and Mohammad Zarif of Iran issued a declaration Tuesday on bringing an end to the Syrian civil war. (photo credit: REUTERS)
FOREIGN MINISTERS Sergei Lavrov of Russia (center) Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey (right) and Mohammad Zarif of Iran issued a declaration Tuesday on bringing an end to the Syrian civil war.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Russia is using Iranian drones to terrorize Ukrainian civilians. Reports say Moscow is even bringing in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps technicians to work on the drones. Moscow has reportedly acquired thousands of Iranian-style drones, and these are now harming Ukraine’s power grid and killing civilians.

The Russia-Iran alliance is clearly growing, after years in which it wasn’t clear whether Moscow saw Iran as a regional ally in the Middle East or a strategic partner. Russia and Iran have worked together in Syria, and it was Iran’s IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani who encouraged Russia’s Vladimir Putin to intervene in Syria. But Russia has also been willing to talk to Israel regarding Syria, and Moscow has not always seemed totally pleased with Iran.

The Ukraine war appears to have changed Moscow’s calculations, and now Iran and Russia are working together, as Russia seeks to move away from the West and form a new authoritarian-led world order alongside Iran, China, Turkey and other states.

The origin of the Russo-Iranian alliance

HOW DID the Iran-Russia alliance come about? The story is complex.

In 2009 the Obama administration decided to abandon a missile defense system initiative that would have protected Eastern Europe. The decision to shift the focus away from defending Eastern Europe was apparently made to get Russia on board regarding discussions of Iran’s nuclear program. The New York Times in September 2009 reported that “[Russian President] Putin and other Russian officials who spoke to reporters on Friday did not say whether Russia would respond with concessions to the United States, particularly on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and its overall military capabilities.” Additionally, “The Russian officials did indicate that the Kremlin would withdraw its threat to base short-range missiles on Russia’s western border, in Kaliningrad.”

A drone is launched during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on August 25, 2022. (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)A drone is launched during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on August 25, 2022. (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

It’s often difficult in history to look back and find the seed, the origin, the urtext, that underpins everything that comes after. When we look today at Iran sending drones and even IRGC advisers to Russia to help the Russians with the drones that are now terrorizing Ukrainian civilians, it’s not always clear where to find the origins of the current Russia-Iran alliance. Surely the partnership goes back before 2009. However, in that decision by the Obama administration to shift the focus from defending Eastern Europe to working with Russia on discussions about Iran’s nuclear program, in that decision can be found the origins of today’s tragedy in Ukraine and the Middle East.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the administration in 2009 likely had good intentions. It desired not to provoke Moscow in Eastern Europe, and instead to try to find accommodations that would lead to Russia and the US sharing interests regarding Iran. If Russia could be persuaded to be a good pragmatic negotiator, with all the trappings of what “realists” think makes good foreign policy, then the US and Russia could help pave the way to diplomacy with Iran.

With Iran coaxed into diplomatic engagement, the Iranian moderates would be empowered. Iran would abandon any drive for a nuclear weapon, and then Iran could work with the US in Iraq. The US could then leave Iraq and bring the boys back home, the soldiers whom the Bush administration had sent there, only to get bogged down in an endless war. Iran was targeting those soldiers, but perhaps, with Russia’s help and engagement and a nuclear deal, Iran would stop killing Americans. Then the US could work with Iran and shift away from relying on Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel as pillars of Middle East power. Then the US could draw down forces in the Gulf and focus on Asia, and everything would go well.

We now know that none of this happened.

At the time of the decision to cancel the missile defense shield, there was a debate in Washington over whether this was appeasement. The GOP, which under Bush had grown exasperated with Putin, felt it was. After all, Putin had just bludgeoned Georgia in the Caucasus in a war in August 2008.

In fact, Russia’s war in Georgia was a foreshadowing of its much more brutal war on Ukraine today. Russia didn’t want Georgia to become close to the West, so Russia provoked Georgia by grabbing pieces of it, backing separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When Georgia confronted the separatists, a war broke out. Russia jumped in and crushed the Georgians. Moscow wants to do to the same in Ukraine today, carving out and annexing parts of Ukraine and leaving Kyiv a much reduced polity. The war is more brutal than in 2008 because Ukraine is resisting and Russia is faltering. So Russia has turned to Iranian drones.

Iranian missile threat

Let’s remember now that back in 2009 the US already had intelligence about the rising threat of Iranian missile technology. In fact, Washington cited this “updated intelligence” on Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles as a reason to shift attention from Poland and Eastern Europe to the Middle East, The Guardian reported in September 2009.

“Citing US officials, the paper [The Wall Street Journal] said the White House believes Iran’s short- to medium-range program poses a more potent and immediate danger,” The Guardian noted. In September 2009 Iran tested the Shahab-3 missile and Sejil missile, with ranges of up to 1,200 miles (1,930 km.).

Iran had acquired missile technology from North Korea since the 1980s when it purchased the 300-km.-range Scud-B (Shahab-1). Iran filled its arsenals with missiles from North Korea and China, and then, according to United Against a Nuclear Iran, “Iran collaborated with North Korea throughout the 1990s in the development and procurement of increasingly longer-range ballistic missiles.” According to a report at The Diplomat, the Iran-North Korean missile connection helped both countries, with North Korea learning from Iran’s successes with a 2009 satellite launch and learning from Russian assistance provided to Iran.

A separate report at the Carnegie Endowment, apparently from the late 1990s, notes that “Russian assistance was extremely important in shortening the amount of time in which the Iranians would be able to develop, manufacture and deploy their own MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles].... Russia is also assisting Iran with its nuclear development efforts and is currently the only nation providing assistance to Iran in the nuclear area.”

It’s clear then that Iran was a key conduit for Russian missile technology, and that Iran wanted more support from Russia.

However, Russia zigzagged; first, in the 1990s, agreeing with the US to reduce support for Iran; then moving back in 2000 to lift an arms embargo; then agreeing to work with the US between 2007 and 2010; and then shifting again in 2015. In fact, Russia agreed to sell Iran the S-300 air defense system in 2007, but had to hold off due to a UN ban on arms sales. An article at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in 2015 that “at the apparent request of the United States and Israel, Moscow agreed to extend the UNSCR ban to the S-300 in order to pressure Iran to curb its nuclear program. Russia’s cancellation of the deal was likely facilitated by several prior Israeli decisions – to end military cooperation with the Republic of Georgia in response to Russian requests (August 2008), to sell advanced unmanned aerial vehicles to Moscow (April 2009).”

It’s interesting that back in 2009 Moscow was already seeking to upgrade its drones. Today, Moscow relies on Iran’s drones for its war on Ukraine.

It’s clear that the conflicts in Georgia and Syria loom large over Russia’s calculations in Ukraine and its growing ties with Iran.

The US decision to shift focus in 2009 may have enabled Iran to grow its ties to Russia, emboldened Moscow in Syria, and left Israel worrying about what might come next.