A New Chapter for Iran and Russia

Will Raisi succeed where previous Iranian regimes have failed?

By , the director of the Iran Program and a senior fellow in the Frontier Europe Initiative at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi looks on during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Jan. 19, 2022.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi looks on during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Jan. 19, 2022.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi looks on during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Jan. 19, 2022. PAVEL BEDNYAKOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

On his third foreign outing since he took over as president in August 2021, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Moscow this week. To his supporters, Raisi’s trip, on which he was accompanied by Iran’s foreign, oil, and economy ministers, is a turning point in Iranian-Russian relations, and those supporters might be right.

Hard-liners in Tehran—the advocates of a pro-Russia line—now hold all levers of power, and they are evidently determined to deepen relations with the Russians in a host of areas. No Iranian president since 1979 has made such frequent and consistent public calls for strategic ties with Moscow as Raisi. According to a former Iranian ambassador to Moscow, Seyed Mahmoud-Reza Sajjadi, after Russian President Vladimir Putin returned from a visit to Tehran in 2017, he remarked to his aides that “We have not visited one country but two countries. The country of [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei and the country of [President] Hassan Rouhani.”

While Iran’s most powerful man, Khamenei, has been unwavering in advocating for closer ties with Russia and China, Putin’s suggestion was clear: The government of Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had preferred to focus on mending relations with the West. By contrast, the Raisi team’s message to Putin, and Russian companies, is that Iran is serious about strengthening ties—and that no infighting within the regime will be allowed to derail this mission.

On his third foreign outing since he took over as president in August 2021, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Moscow this week. To his supporters, Raisi’s trip, on which he was accompanied by Iran’s foreign, oil, and economy ministers, is a turning point in Iranian-Russian relations, and those supporters might be right.

Hard-liners in Tehran—the advocates of a pro-Russia line—now hold all levers of power, and they are evidently determined to deepen relations with the Russians in a host of areas. No Iranian president since 1979 has made such frequent and consistent public calls for strategic ties with Moscow as Raisi. According to a former Iranian ambassador to Moscow, Seyed Mahmoud-Reza Sajjadi, after Russian President Vladimir Putin returned from a visit to Tehran in 2017, he remarked to his aides that “We have not visited one country but two countries. The country of [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei and the country of [President] Hassan Rouhani.”

While Iran’s most powerful man, Khamenei, has been unwavering in advocating for closer ties with Russia and China, Putin’s suggestion was clear: The government of Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had preferred to focus on mending relations with the West. By contrast, the Raisi team’s message to Putin, and Russian companies, is that Iran is serious about strengthening ties—and that no infighting within the regime will be allowed to derail this mission.


The broader hard-line camp in Tehran is made up of ideologues who claim to believe in militant Islamism as a way of life and in conducting foreign affairs. “No to the East and No to the West” was one of the cherished slogans that was born with Iran’s 1979 revolution. The Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, famously urged the Soviets to embrace Islam, give up on communism, and join Iran in “confronting the devilish acts of the West.”

But once the Iranian Islamists realized their limitations, they took a different view on the Soviets and later the Russian Federation: not as equals in a drive against the West but with Russia as a source of material support that could keep an isolated Iran afloat. This process began as early as 1989, when Iran and the Soviet Union signed various agreements, including on weapons exports to Iran and the Soviets resuming natural gas imports from Iran.

The promise of strategic Iran-Russia cooperation has remained elusive. Back in the late 1980s, then-Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s overtures to Moscow were as much about using the Soviet card to create leverage with Washington to meet Tehran halfway in ending hostilities between the United States and Iran following the Iranian revolution of 1979. Three decades later, Khamenei sees closer ties with Moscow as an insurance policy against Washington, hoping that the Russians can help him and his hard-line camp keep the West out of Iran. The 82-year-old Khamenei is similarly inclined, and he has repeatedly said, “We should look East, not West.” Khamenei sees Russia not only as a partner in the areas of geopolitics and economic cooperation but also as a pivotal foreign player that can help the hard-line camp stay in power after his death.

The Iranian public is not quite ready to embrace Russia as the national savior. This is why a talking point of pro-Khamenei circles in Tehran is that Russia has changed—it is not the Soviet Union or tsarist Russia, which together inflicted so much pain and territorial loss on Iran over the course of the last three centuries. They also stress that the Russia of today has the same fundamental interest as Iran in rolling back American power whenever possible, and it was this message that was repeated by Raisi in his speech to the Russian Duma on Jan. 20. This is a long-term, open-ended mission. The more immediate question for Raisi and his sponsor Khamenei is what Moscow can do for Tehran in the short term to weather bitter, painful American sanctions.

Russia’s support for Iran during the nuclear talks in Vienna has been palpable, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calling Iran “part of a team.” Iranian officials are publicly grateful. Elsewhere, Russia’s backing in September 2021 for Iran to finally join the Russian- and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization came a month after Raisi took over as president. Tehran had been waiting for full-member admission to the organization since 2005. The Khamenei-Raisi circles took advantage of the timing of the admission and declared that it shows that if Iran is serious about closer ties, then Russia will reciprocate.

There is also talk of increasing cooperation in conflict zones, an area where Moscow and Tehran are likely to be as much rivals as tactical partners, depending on the circumstances. Case in point is the conflict in Syria, where Iran and Russia have since 2015 maintained a tactical partnership but where second-guessing each other’s long-term agenda in that country has been common. Nonetheless, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has suggested that as part of a “20-year road map for long-term cooperation” currently being prepared, Moscow and Tehran can work together on restoring peace in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan.


Absent from Amir-Abdollahian’s remarks was any mention of Russia’s close relations with Israel, Iran’s regional nemesis. In fact, Moscow and Tehran will not anytime soon find harmony when it comes to pursuing their regional agendas in the broader Middle East. But at the moment, there is enough space and potential for cooperation. For example, Syria is still an unfinished file, Tehran and Moscow can always revive their joint efforts in Afghanistan against the Taliban should events in that country call for it, and Iran has even left the door open for a bigger Russian role in the security of the Persian Gulf region.

But it is in the area of economic cooperation that Raisi’s visit to Moscow has to yield concrete results if this trip is to be different from other Iran-Russia summits. The Raisi team has elevated expectations. Oil Minister Javad Owji, clearly overlooking the many previous promises of strategic cooperation in the energy sector, recently said, “We have signed very important documents, and I can say that we will soon see its effects in the field of energy.” The Iranians will need to come up with better incentives for the Russians. Owji’s predecessor, Bijan Zangeneh, not only never really believed in strategic cooperation with Russia in the realm of oil and natural gas—seeing Russia as a natural rival for global market share—but also blamed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for sabotaging his efforts to attract Western companies to Iran. As of today, Russia is still not among Iran’s top trade partners, and it’s way down the list behind such countries as China, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iraq.

Diplomatically, Tehran and Moscow have had a stable diplomatic relationship without any profound crisis since 1989. On the strategic level, it is not Iran’s military cooperation with the Russians in Syria that stands out. It is that Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard sees Russia not only as a partner in the competition for power in Middle East but also as an entity that can help it in domestic power struggles in Tehran. This brings up a third factor in the relationship: Moscow’s soft power among the younger generation of regime officials who will soon take over from those that took part in the 1979 revolution. Thanks to over 30 years of cooperation, Moscow today enjoys more goodwill among key Iranian figures involved in the policymaking process than ever before. One has to assume that Moscow will apply this leverage at the right time when Khamenei’s successor has to be chosen.

The United States has since 1991 largely ignored the Russian-Iranian relationship, or it has at least not prioritized shaping Tehran’s and Moscow’s calculations vis-à-vis each other. There are two exceptions: in the realm of nuclear-military ties and on economic and energy cooperation between the two countries. Thanks to Russia’s rise in the Middle East, as well as the heightened rivalry between the United States and China, the question is how much longer America can neglect Iran’s increasing forced bondage to the Russians and the Chinese, and at what cost.

The emergence of a multipolar world will no doubt spur Washington on in trying to reduce Tehran’s dependence on Russia—and on China. Meanwhile, American strategists are presumably not blind to the fact that Russian-Iranian relations are peppered with historic and contemporary mistrust, which gives Washington some time to concoct a strategy.

Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program and a senior fellow in the Frontier Europe Initiative at the Middle East Institute in Washington. His most recent book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy, and Political Rivalry Since 1979. Twitter: @AlexVatanka

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