Iran, Russia, and the Challenges of “Inter-Pariah Solidarity”
On March 31, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new Russian foreign policy concept that hailed the ongoing “formation of a more equitable multipolar world order.” The concept highlighted Moscow’s intent to strengthen its ties with the non-West, in particular “developing full-scale and trusting cooperation” with Iran and other states discontented with Western policies toward their countries. While the Russian-Iranian relationship has been strengthening for years, this showed that the alliance was deepening, especially as a result of the war in Ukraine.
This partnership is not merely a transactional alliance of convenience; it is a complex and multifaceted relationship with a long and fraught history. Over the course of the past 20 years, Russia and Iran have espoused shared perspectives on many global issues and affairs. The two countries are first tied by a shared animosity with the “collective West,” whose values and strategic objectives present, according to their perspective, a hostile ideological challenge that can endanger their social cohesion and political stability. Russia and Iran also share a common concern for regime survival. They both have faced internal upheaval and international sanctions that have led them to develop mirror narratives centered around resilience, self-sufficiency, and resistance. This has drawn the two states closer.
Unwilling to counter this partnership militarily, Western countries have implemented policies including sanctions, economic decoupling, and diplomacy to isolate these two countries. Commentators and officials characterize Iran and Russia as “pariah states” to the West. However, declaring Russia and Iran “pariahs” and isolating them economically will not necessarily make them so. Since the early 2000s, Iran and Russia have worked in tandem to build a global network of solidarity with countries similarly distanced from Western powers, such as Venezuela, Syria, and North Korea, which has contributed to their resilience. Despite “maximum pressure” exerted by the Donald Trump administration on Iran, for example, or European “sanctions packages” on Russia, Western powers have not managed to change the strategic path of these regimes, nor to fully deprive them of their domestic and international supports.
Western powers should, therefore, consider whether these policies of ostracism are effective. While Western states should certainly defend their interests and values, they should also accept that they may not be able to decouple Iran and Russia. Instead, Western powers should accept a form of “strategic patience”; it rarely proves productive to engage these states in dialogue, nor is it effective to respond to their provocations. These standoffs ultimately validate their narrative.
Western powers should instead adopt a three-pronged approach: First, they should hedge against the threats posed by these regimes through strengthened deterrence, resilience, and contingency; second, they should engage the diaspora and civil societies from these two countries to clarify that they are opposed not to their countries or population but to the regimes who oppress them; and third, they should engage further the club of countries or “middle powers” that provide vital support to these regimes, offering a listening ear to their concerns rather than summoning them to take sides.
From Foes to Partners
Russia and Iran are somewhat surprising political allies considering the salient tensions that have historically marred their relations. After the rise of Peter the Great and the fall of the Safavids in the 18th century, the successive dynasties of the Russian and Persian empires had mostly hostile relations, punctuated by five wars that ultimately resulted in Russian victory.
Throughout the 20th century, regime changes in Russia and Iran — the foundation of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty and, later, the Islamic Republic of Iran — led to hostility between the two states. Only during the Mikhail Gorbachev era, from 1985 to 1991, did Moscow and Tehran develop more diplomatic, military, and economic ties, which included arms sales and civilian nuclear cooperation.
The relationship during the 1990s fluctuated as post-Soviet Russia worked to build a more cooperative relationship with the United States. Between 1995 and 2000, Russia suspended its advanced weapons trade with Iran to relieve some pressure from Washington over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
When Putin took office in 2000, however, he realigned Russia toward Iran. He restarted Russia’s arms sales to Iran and hammered out a 20-year cooperation agreement with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2001. The exposure of Iran’s secret nuclear program in the early 2000s created renewed problems for Moscow with the United States, and Putin limited relations with the Islamic Republic. He and his government also supported several United Nations Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Moscow’s worries escalated in 2009 when the United States, the United Kingdom, and France revealed Tehran’s plans to build a second enrichment facility. Russia under President Dmitry Medvedev imposed further sanctions, including a prohibition on selling the S-300 system to Tehran.
However, the first decade of the 21st century made increasingly clear that Russia and Iran harbored similar discontent with the international system and had aims at reshaping regional orders. With the hardline conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as its president from 2005 until 2013, Iran adopted a confrontational stance toward the West and an opportunistic regional policy. The country took advantage of chaos in Iraq and in Lebanon to strengthen its influence through its proxies in these countries, including through Shia militias such as Hezbollah or Asa’ib Ahl al Haq. In Russia, Putin resented the wave of antiregime protests in Central Asia known as “color revolutions” and NATO’s expansion eastward in formerly Soviet countries, which he perceived as a U.S.-led enterprise to antagonize Russia. As he said in his annual news conference in December 2021: “You promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly.”
From Like-Minded to Brothers-in-Arms
The nature of Russian and Iranian cooperation changed during the Syrian civil war. In the context of the “Arab spring,” a wave of upheavals that deposed a series of autocrats in the Arab world in the early 2010s, Iran and Russia did not want Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his government to meet a similar end. Both regimes have had ties with the Assad regime since the 1970s, and the geographic location of Syria makes it essential for both regimes: for Russia, it provides the sole direct access to the Mediterranean through the naval base of Tartus, and for Iran, the country serves as a land link between Iraq and Lebanon, two countries under strong Iranian influence.
In 2013, Iran and Russia received confirmation that Western states would not militarily confront Assad’s regime after the Barack Obama administration backpedaled on its chemical weapons “red line.” The road to Damascus was wide open. The two countries decided in 2015 to coordinate their military operations in Syria — Russia entered the Syrian war with Iran as its ally in September 2015, tipping the balance of power.
Their strategic success on the battlefield, as they managed to stop a range of armed opposition groups and to reclaim large swathes of land, emboldened Russia and Iran in their beliefs of their own military prowess.
A “Strategic Pariah-nership”
The two regimes are now cooperating more than ever before as a result of the war in Ukraine. Although Russia has maintained an upper hand in the bilateral relationship as a superior military and economic player and a key oil and gas exporter, its struggle to secure victory in Ukraine has led to a rebalancing of the relationship. Moscow has now needed to ask for Tehran’s help.
In July 2022, Putin visited Iran, his first trip to a foreign country outside the former Soviet Union since the start of the war in Ukraine. There, he received vocal support for the war: Khamenei offered a strongly worded endorsement, saying that Russia was confronting NATO as a “defensive act.” Iran has provided Russia with hundreds of drones and sent trainers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to Crimea to aid Russian Armed Forces in drone warfare. The Islamic Republic likely receives, in return, sophisticated military platforms including satellite imagery, fourth-generation Su-35 fighter jets, and air defense systems.
Beyond the war, Moscow and Tehran are also working on a strengthened 20-year strategic partnership to update the one signed in 2001. The two countries also signed a key memorandum of understanding between Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant, and the National Iranian Oil Company to export liquefied natural gas, and they have established direct links between their banking systems
However, the deepening of the bilateral relationship is not enough for these countries to withstand the impact of Western sanctions and ostracization. The two countries have, therefore, turned to a largely similar playbook to evade sanctions and consolidate a multilateral order.
A Global Solidarity Network
To offset the effects of sanctions and policies of ostracization, the two countries have strived to build their own international networks of solidarity. They worked, either jointly or in parallel, on two axes: they shifted to the East and took advantage of other countries’ discontent with the current international order.
First, as Russia and Iran became pariahs to the West, they have sought to strengthen partnerships to their south and east. Iran’s Look to the East (Negah-e beh sharg) strategy was developed under the mandate of Ahmadinejad in 2005, and Russia’s Pivot to the East (Povorot na Vosotok) strategy was announced by Putin in 2012.
China is now the most powerful partner for both regimes. Beijing has left Russia and Iran to fight their own local wars, in Syria and in Ukraine, without being directly involved or intervening, but it is also not neutral. China has been the main beneficiary of discounted oil and gas that Iran and Russia cannot export elsewhere due to international sanctions. Recent Chinese sponsorship of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow are also clear signs of the rising profile of China as the “main Eurasian power.” The Iranian and Russian regimes, therefore, will be increasingly dependent on China for their survival.
Russia and Iran have also managed to maintain balanced relations with both Pakistan and India. Russia has become India’s top oil supplier in 2022, while remaining India’s major arms supplier, but also maintains a close relationship with Pakistan. Iran’s trade with India and Pakistan has been affected by U.S. sanctions, but it remains substantial and is set to grow. Tehran also has key shared interests with New Delhi, in Afghanistan, and on regional connectivity, including through the port of Chabahar strategically located on the Indian Ocean, where India has built two terminals.
Second, Russia and Iran are also trying to exploit grievances against the current international order across the low- or middle-income countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, known as the “global south.” Both countries have a long history of cooperating with countries like North Korea and Belarus, considered pariahs in the global diplomatic community. However, in the past decade, the two countries have dedicated special efforts to alliances in Latin America and Africa. In the former, they both have developed close ties with Venezuela. The three countries held joint drills in 2022, while Caracas and Tehran signed a 20-year cooperation plan. Moscow and Tehran’s chief allies in the region also include Nicaragua, where Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was in June, and Cuba.
Russia and Iran have also actively sought to develop their influence on the African continent. Both countries have three main targets. First, they want to maintain close relations, economically and politically, with regional powerhouses such as Nigeria, which has signed agreements for military cooperation with both Iran and Russia, Algeria, and South Africa. Second, resource-rich countries, such as Angola, Mozambique, and Equatorial Guinea, are former USSR partners who are still important clients for Russian arms. Finally, both countries target crumbling regimes where they can either present themselves as last-resort guarantors, as Russia did with Sudan in 2017, with the Central African Republic in 2020, and with Mali in 2021, with the Wagner group mercenaries. Iran also exploited weaknesses in Somalia and Eritrea, gaining footholds and economic concessions in return for security guarantees.
Can the West Shape the Limits of the “Pariah-nership”?
Efforts to drive wedges between Iran and Russia have not proven successful because shared interests between the two countries far outweigh their differences. The “pariah-nership” between Iran and Russia is therefore likely to endure as long as the current regimes are in place.
In the face of the resilience of these regimes, Western nations should not stand idle, but should instead adopt “strategic patience” and acknowledge that they have few levers to change the strategic path that Russia and Iran have chosen. They should instead redirect their energy toward the parties that might be able to actually affect these regimes: civil societies within Russia and Iran, and the global partners that support these two regimes.
Build Strategic Patience, Covered by Deterrence and Resilience
When dealing with regimes seeking international attention, Western countries should avoid engaging them in ways that allow them either to “save face” or to “lose face.” The first condones them, the second emboldens them. The 2015 Minsk agreement with Russia to halt the war in Ukraine or the talks with Iran over its nuclear program show that engagement can slow down, but not alter, these regimes’ plans. This is not because the initiatives were misconceived, but because these regimes are not programmed to concede or compromise. Rather than seeking changes of behavior, Western powers should therefore accept “strategic patience,” which means remaining in a position of strength while avoiding political moves that could fuel Moscow’s and Tehran’s narratives of Western hostility toward them.
To do so, Western powers should be perceived as the ones seeking solutions through public diplomacy. Cognizant that these regimes consider talks to be transactional standoffs, Western-led initiatives should not be too explicit on potential concessions and should, rather, be designed to assert interests while showing openness to dialogue, as was with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan for Ukraine.
When the two regimes resort to provocation, notably through “nuclear blackmail,” as has been the case with Iran’s uranium enrichment and Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling in Ukraine, cool-headed reactions based on international law and obligations, rather than rhetorical escalation or additional sanctions, will be the best way to deescalate.
Concurrently, Western countries should hedge against the most acute threats posed by Iran and Russia to their security. This would involve a wide spectrum of efforts, starting with robust nuclear deterrence, including continued aircraft carrier deployment and the deployment of dual-capable aircraft to the region, despite the priority given by the United States to the Indo-Pacific. This would also require addressing the technological challenges posed by these two countries through the development of new, highly lethal capabilities, such as hypersonic and directed energy weapons, or unmanned vehicles. Finally, it would entail building resilience against cyber and hybrid threats and fighting against disinformation or destabilization campaigns.
Redirect the Energy to Civil Societies and “Swing States”
As argued by Agathe Demarais in her book, Backfire, efforts to decouple people from their regimes through sanctions that affect their daily lives generally end up turning the people against the state issuing the sanctions. Western states should recalibrate their approach and support civil society in Iran and Russia, which will be key to potential change in the event of a weakening or a collapse of these regimes. This strengthening of civil society could be achieved through better calibrated public communication that clearly makes the distinction between the population and the regimes, or through increased engagement with the diasporas of both countries.
Finally, should Western states really want Russia’s and Iran’s regimes to become pariahs, they should engage primarily with those countries that keep them as key allies. The United States and its closest partners should focus on the big “swing states”: countries that value liberal-democratic standards while also sympathizing with the discontent of countries like Russia or Iran with the current international order. This club includes eight of the G20 countries: Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey. These are major economies and rising powers that Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran to varying extents are actively trying to influence.
As suggested by Tim Sweijs and Michael J. Mazarr in their article for War on the Rocks, “Mind the Middle Powers,” Western powers need to recalibrate the way they engage with these countries, “toward a more inclusive and less coercive approach,” treating them as peers rather than as variables in systemic competition. Western reengagement should not resemble a “neo–Cold War” approach, forcing countries to take sides through “carrots and sticks.” Instead, it should be a strategic dialogue aimed at better understanding main drivers of the key swing states to maintain ties with Russia and Iran, to assess if the West can offer something more attractive.
These efforts combined might have little to no impact in the short run, but in the long game that Russia and Iran are playing, they can help to thwart the consolidation of a “multi-pariah order” that the two regimes are building.
Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS, Mr. Droin served as deputy head of the strategic affairs unit at the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs (MFA). He previously served in the French embassies in Kuwait, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.
Dr. Nicole Grajewski is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affair’s Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard’s Kennedy School. She received a PhD in International Relations and MPhil in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Oxford.
Image: Mehr News Agency