Iran and Russia: Strategic Alliance or Strategic Cooperation?

These years, many journalists ask about the nature of relations and cooperation between Tehran and Moscow. Last month, a seminar was held in Tehran on the anniversary of 515 years since the beginning of formal relations between Iran and Russia. In practice, Iran and Russia had significant security cooperation in the past few years of the Syrian crisis and this extended to the operational level in the military field. Although this cooperation is vital and effective for their interests and for stability and security in the Middle East, but can we really consider these actions as a strategic alliance or strategic cooperation?

First of all, we should separate the two concepts of “strategic alliance” and “strategic cooperation.” I believe that a strategic alliance is based on cooperation against a specific state threat, and has a long-term institutional basis. The second concept is not aimed against another state and has a short-term and case-by-case character.

In the quarter-century since the independence of Central Asian and the South Caucasus countries and the crisis in South Asia, Tehran and Moscow began constructive and effective cooperation for stability in this region. Iran and Russia were extremely concerned about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, civil war in Tajikistan and the power of Taliban in Afghanistan. The two countries have tried to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and hosted a series of meetings between the parties during the civil war of Tajikistan, which led to a compromise in 1996. Moreover, Iran-Russia cooperation in support of the Afghanistan Northern Alliance against Taliban attacks from 1996 to 2001 can be mentioned. Despite of important differences in regional issues in the post-Soviet space, Tehran and Moscow  both believe that extremist ethnic and religious movements in common areas between the two countries can jeopardize their interests.

After the events of the Arab Spring, and the crisis in Syria since 2012, Iran-Russia cooperation to secure the Syrian government has gradually progressed. Diplomatic, intelligence, technical and operational cooperation between two states to contain the Syrian crisis as well as spread of terrorism in the region has been going on in the past five years. This included the use of an Iranian Air Base by the Russian Air Force to bomb terrorists’ positions across Syria.

If Tehran and Moscow did not cooperate in the South Caucasus and the Middle East, instability and changes of the balance of power would sweep the regions, to the detriment of both Iran and Russia. Despite the fact that Tehran and Moscow have the same ideas on regional stability, combatting terrorism, maintaining the regional balance of power and safeguarding territorial integrity, it appears that the Syrian crisis and the security cooperation between Iran and Russia could be a foundation to make strategic cooperation between the two neighboring states feasible.

Tehran-Moscow regional cooperation could be called strategic because both governments have been cooperating operationally and militarily on the civil war in Tajikistan, the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the recent Syrian crisis, in the name of confronting insecurity, establishing stability and maintaining the status quo in the region.

Therefore, the military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow can be viewed in a regional context, as one of a strategic nature and in line with restoration of stability and security to the region. This level of strategic cooperation is extendable, and is not necessarily directed against the interests of other states. In this regard, security cooperation between Russia and Iran in the Syrian crisis is very important, but should not be considered as a “strategic alliance”, because as previously mentioned, strategic alliances constitute primarily on a common and a specific threat, are long-term and directed against other states. The strategic documents, especially documents of Russian foreign policy in 2016 and, of course, the relations between Russia and Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, show that the Russian government is not willing to enter into such an alliance with Iran and, of course, Iran also for political reasons, could not be a strategic ally with Russia. In fact, this cooperation should be called strategic partnership or strategic cooperation that limited and temporary, and in a specific context to cooperate against a threat is considered non-government.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.