Iran-Russia arms trade will permanently shift Iran’s global role - analysis

Iran can no longer pretend that its nuclear program is the only thing standing between itself and good relations with the West.

 An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. (photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022.
(photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

Iran has provided Russia with thousands of drones and may be prepared to send even more weapons to Moscow to help with its war on Ukraine.

Recent reports from CNN say that “Iran is preparing to send approximately 1,000 additional weapons, including surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missiles and more attack drones, to Russia to use in its war against Ukraine,” officials from a Western country that closely monitors Iran’s weapons program told CNN. 

This is a new phase in the Iran-Russia alliance.

Although Moscow and Tehran have worked together for decades, it was usually Iran that needed know-how and weapons, so it usually relied on Russia as the senior partner in the relationship.

Iran was also under sanctions and needed Russia’s help with the Western powers. Back in 2009 when the US under the Obama administration decided to shift policies on Russia and Iran, Tehran saw an opening with the West. In those days, Iran was using its nuclear weapons development as blackmail, which would eventually result in the Iran deal of 2015.

The US at the time thought that working with Russia could help open a channel to Iran. Russia, playing the “good cop” in the strategy where Iran is the “bad cop,” agreed to help the West pave the way to new ties with the Islamic Republic. Russia would benefit on the sidelines of the deal. 

 Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building in Vienna (credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER/FILE PHOTO) Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building in Vienna (credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER/FILE PHOTO)

When the US walked away from the deal under the Trump administration and then pivoted back to considering a return to the deal under the Biden administration, Russia was always on the sidelines like a mafia boss offering “protection” to help get Tehran back into the fold.

Everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine

But Moscow’s decision to launch a war on Ukraine in February 2022 has changed the Iran deal talks. Now it can no longer pose as the “good cop” and work with the US as a conduit to Iran. Instead, America is now leading sanctions against Russia and Iran. As such, the Iran-Russia alliance, which always existed in the shadows, has now come out into the open.  

RUSSIA WANTS to wage its war on Ukraine using inexpensive weapons, such as Iranian drones, that are expendable and can terrorize Ukrainians. Russia has been using the drones to attack energy and infrastructure in its beleaguered western neighbor, plunging Kyiv into darkness and harming Ukraine’s infrastructure before the onset of the brutally cold winter.  

This is all about total war from Moscow’s viewpoint; crushing Ukraine by terrorizing the people, rather than through a military offensive. Iran’s weapons are a key part of this strategy because they are cheap and are the kinds of weapons that don’t win wars. Iran’s ballistic missiles and drones are perfect for non-conventional wars – like the one that Iran seeks to wage against Israel in the Middle East by empowering proxies such as Hezbollah. This is why Tehran’s weapons make sense for Moscow. 

Now the reports from CNN say that more weapons could be on their way from Tehran to Moscow. “The shipment is being closely monitored because it would be the first instance of Iran sending advanced precision guided missiles to Russia, which could give the Kremlin a substantial boost on the battlefield,” the report says.

“The last shipment of weapons from Iran to Russia included about 450 drones, officials said, which the Russians have already used to deadly effect in Ukraine. Ukrainian officials said last week that they have shot down more than 300 Iranian drones.”

Iran's nuclear program is no longer an excuse for poor ties with the West

THE KEY change here is that Iran can no longer pretend that its nuclear program is the only thing standing between itself and good relations with the West. In the past, Tehran used to claim that if the West made a deal with it, then it would put the nuclear program on ice and trade could resume. Western countries were eager to trade with Iran back in 2015. Countries like Germany, especially, wanted to trade with Iran as well as with Russia.  

In the days of the Iran deal, the Islamic Republic used to push talking points in the West that made it seem like Israel was the main issue standing in the way of positive Iran-West relations. Some talking points would even go so far as to claim “not another war for Israel in the Middle East” or “don’t let Israel drag us into another war.”

But the fact that Tehran is now sending weapons to Moscow shows that these narratives were incorrect. Iran’s weapons are a danger not only to the Middle East, but also to Europe and the world. Its drones are terrorizing Ukraine, but they could be used in other places as well. Iran’s nuclear program is not the only issue threatening the region; the missiles and drones are in the spotlight of sanctions being prepared in the West.  

There used to be a narrative, pushed in part by Iran’s foreign ministry and its friends in the West, that Israel stood in the way of positive relations between the West and Iran, which was a pragmatic actor and could be trusted. However, its decision to supply Moscow with weapons shows that Iran today is part of a pro-Russia alliance system, that its weapons are a major threat and that Israel-Iran tensions are not the major driver of Iran’s moves in the Middle East or globally.  

IRAN HAS shifted course with its decision to supply Russia with weapons. This is a decision by Iran to tie itself to Moscow, which is also using Iran in this relationship, isolating it from the West as part of a gamble by Moscow and Tehran that the West is permanently in a state of decline and they no longer need to play “good cop, bad cop” with the US or Europe.

As the weapons trade opens up between Moscow and Tehran, there could be more technology and weapons know-how knowledge sharing – which could impact the nuclear program as well. However, the fact that Iran has toned down rhetoric on the nuclear issue appears to show that it feels it no longer needs to wring concessions from the West regarding the nuclear program.

The Islamic Republic has shifted its policies a bit to focus on how it can best work with Russia. Moscow used to sell the West its role as an interlocutor with Iran, but it no longer needs to do this, and the Iran-Russia military alliance can therefore come out into the open more than in the past.

Iran is still careful to publicly pretend it isn’t sending drones and missiles to Russia, or sending IRGC members to work with the Russians in Crimea – but increasing evidence points to an emerging alliance in which Russia relies on Iran for cheap weapons to terrorize Ukraine. In this scenario, the West will permanently alter its view of Tehran – because an Iran that is complicit in Russia’s war in Ukraine is an Iran that cannot be trusted with any kind of deal, especially a nuclear one.