Iran’s Strategic Pivot
Decades of Western sanctions against Iran, combined with the open hostility of the US toward the Iranian theocracy, have pushed Iran out of its historically Western-oriented trajectory, toward a new and expansive relationship with Russia, China, Eurasia and the developing South (Africa and South America). This pivot has manifested itself in a strengthening military relationship with Russia, and Iran’s membership of organizations designed as alternatives to Western geopolitical dominance. The Iranian trajectory is a game changer that will redefine global strategic relationships for years to come.
A recent drone attack on Iranian defense industry infrastructure has put the issue of Iran’s expanding military-to-military contacts with Russia back on the front page. This raises questions about the impact of this relationship both from a regional security perspective, and on more expansive geopolitical questions such as the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Initial forensic evidence related to the attack in Isfahan suggests it was carried out by anti-regime Kurds, operating from inside Iran using technology like that used by Israel in the past. However, Mykhailo Polodyak, a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, hinted at a possible Ukrainian connection. The Ukrainian government has condemned the ongoing military cooperation between Iran and Russia, especially Iran’s provision of drone technology that has been used by Russia to great effect on the battlefield in Ukraine and in attacks against critical Ukrainian infrastructure.
The cooperation between Iran and Russia on drones is just the latest manifestation of a larger “pivot” by Iran over the past decade away from the West, toward the East and the developing South. This pivot is of strategic geopolitical significance, as it redefines long-standing economic and security concepts that have served as constants when evaluating Middle East relationships in the decades following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The shift by Iran away from the West toward Russia and Eurasia is the very definition of “game changer,” and underscores the reality that the Western effort to contain Iran economically and militarily has failed. Moreover, by liberating itself from the constraints of a West-leaning policy construct, Iran has expanded its opportunities for economic growth and enhanced regional and global relevance and influence.
A History of Tension
The road to Iran’s pivot was neither smooth nor direct. This is especially true when dealing with Iran’s relationship with Russia. Tensions derived from the interface between an expanding Russian empire and an Iranian empire in decline defined relations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Soviet occupation of Iran during World War II, as well as Soviet efforts to encourage the creation of an independent Soviet republic among the Azeri population of Iran in the aftermath of that conflict, further soured relations. Iran became a frontline state in the Cold War, joining the anti-Soviet Central Treaty Organization (Cento). Soviet military support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War only reinforced anti-Russian sentiment.
The collapse of the Soviet Union changed the geopolitical landscape between Iran and Russia. Gone were the extensive land borders between Iran and the Soviet Union, and the simmering tensions that arose due to the violent suppression of the Iranian Communist Party (Tudeh) during the 1980s evaporated as the influence of the Russian Communist Party in post-Soviet Russian affairs faded. As Iran’s fears of Russia diminished, opportunities for enhanced collaboration arose. These opportunities became more pronounced in the 1990s, as both Russia and Iran were confronted by Western policies that sought to constrain and contain them both.
The Road to Improvement
Iran’s compelled isolation from the West, driven by a combination of US animosity dating back to the Iranian Revolution and concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, forced Iran into the pivot. Despite the close geographic proximity of Iran to the Eurasian landmass, the level of economic and political integration with Central and South Asia had, until recently, been extremely limited. The West’s efforts to contain Iran, both economically and militarily, pushed Iran to look eastward. Over the course of the past decade, Iran has begun a process of integration, joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to join the Brics grouping, and increasing its coordination with the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization. These relationships will redefine Iran as a Eurasian power in the years to come, further strengthening its regional posture in the Middle East and expanding its influence globally.
Iran’s relationship with Russia has likewise expanded from one of mutual convenience in the face of Western sanctions, to one of shared ambitions as both nations seek to redefine their global geopolitical posture independent of Western influence and encumbrances. Iran has become a critical economic corridor for Russia, allowing Russia to engage with the developing South via the Caspian Sea and land routes that connect to Iran through the Caucasus and Turkmenistan. The growing cooperation between Iran and Russia in energy security matters reflects the reality that both nations have a shared interest in surviving, and indeed thriving, in the face of Western sanctions designed to starve them of critical energy-derived sources of income. The July 2022 $40 billion memorandum of understanding between Russian energy giant Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Co. stands out in this regard. Recent reports that Iran and Russia are moving to combine their banking systems to bypass the US-dominated Swift system is indicative of the level of strategic cooperation between these two nations.
The Way Forward
Iran’s decision to provide drone technology to Russia is part and parcel of a growing strategic relationship based on military-to-military cooperation and coordination dating back to Iran’s decision in 2014 to request Russian military intervention in Syria to prevent the collapse of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The close coordination between the Iranian and Russian militaries that grew from this intervention helped define a relationship based on shared strategic objectives, where the strategic interests of one party became the strategic interests of the other. This helps explain Iran’s decision to support Russia in its ongoing war in Ukraine through the provision of sensitive military technologies, and points to even broader cooperation going forward.
While Iran’s pivot toward the East and developing South has been decisive, it does not foreclose the possibility of continued relations with the West going forward. Key to such a prospect is the future of stalled talks between Iran and the US about the status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, better known as the Iran nuclear deal. Iran has presented a final text of an agreement to its JCPOA partners, which it is prepared to act on. The US was unable to act on this agreement last fall due to political concerns by the Biden administration about being seen as too conciliatory during critical midterm elections.
With the US elections in the rear-view mirror, there are reports of back-channel communications between the US and Iran designed to finalize this agreement and breathe new life into the moribund JCPOA. Should this happen, Iran would most likely re-engage with the West economically. But the likelihood of political reconciliation is slim, meaning that Iran’s strategic trajectory for the foreseeable future, from a geopolitical context, will continue to be eastward.