Despite Russian Reliance on Iranian Drones, Tehran’s Leverage Over Moscow Is Limited
To the extent that ties between Moscow and Tehran could be characterized as a patron-client relationship, in the past Russia was clearly the patron and Iran the client. This seemed especially true about their arms trade: Russia provided weapons to Iran, not the other way round. As the war in Ukraine has dragged on though, Russia has reportedly become unable to replenish diminishing stocks of certain weapons requiring Western inputs that Moscow can no longer obtain due to international sanctions. As a result, Moscow has been buying weapons from Iran (and North Korea), and Russian forces have been launching hundreds of Iranian drones against Ukrainian targets. There have also been reports of Iranian personnel in Crimea helping to launch these weapons and getting killed in the process, as well as of plans to launch production of Iranian-designed drones in Russia and of Moscow’s plans to buy Iranian surface-to-surface missiles. Further, while Iran was only a minor trade partner for Russia in 2021 (see Table 2 below), Russian-Iranian trade is reported to have grown dramatically since the outbreak of the war.
Has this recent Russian dependence on Iranian arms given Tehran a greater degree of leverage over Moscow than it had before, particularly over Russia’s policies in the Middle East? While Western and Ukrainian sources have claimed it has, Russia's desire to maintain good relations with America's traditional allies in the region—particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, neither of which has joined in Western sanctions or other efforts against Russia—will serve to limit what Moscow is willing to do for Tehran.
Impact on Iran’s Nuclear Program
Both Kyiv and Washington have claimed that Tehran will use its new-found leverage in relations with Moscow to demand “Russian assistance for the Iranian nuclear program.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said as much to an Israeli audience in late October; Zelensky, of course, has an obvious interest in pointing out to Israelis—who have thus far resisted calls to provide Kyiv with much needed air-defense systems—how closely Russia is working with their arch enemy, Iran, in order to motivate the Jewish state to be more supportive of Ukraine. The U.S. Intelligence Community reportedly also believes that Iran is seeking Russian assistance in acquiring additional nuclear materials that “could potentially further shorten Iran’s so-called ‘breakout time’ to create a nuclear weapon.” Whether or not such assistance has been or will be forthcoming is not yet clear. Russia’s efforts to help revive the Iran nuclear deal, meanwhile, have essentially been on pause since just before the Feb. 24 invasion.
What does seem likely, then, is that negotiations to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord is known, will be unsuccessful.1 In the past, Russia had worked with the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and China in support of the JCPOA, and the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons seemed to be one Moscow shared with the West despite stark differences over many other issues. Even throughout 2021, when Russia’s relations with the West were extremely strained, Russian diplomats tried to facilitate talks aimed at the deal’s revival and even criticized Iranian obstructionism; however, as arms control researcher Hanna Notte observed earlier this month, since its invasion of Ukraine Moscow has largely halted efforts to push Iran to rejoin the JCPOA or to facilitate related talks.
Tricky Balancing Acts in the Middle East
In the Middle East, Russia has close relationships with two U.S. allies that see Iran as a rival and threat—Saudi Arabia and Israel. In both cases, closer Russian-Iranian ties introduce new tensions and challenges.
The more Saudi Arabia sees Russia actively supporting Iran, the greater the possibility that Riyadh may end its cooperation with Russia to reduce oil production via the OPEC+ format—which has served to raise oil prices—and instead increase production, thereby driving oil prices lower, in order to curry favor with Washington.
In the case of Israel, much of Jerusalem’s concern about Russian-Iranian closeness focuses on Syria. According to journalist Arie Egozi, “One of the reasons Israel so far has not supported Ukraine has been that … Russia has allowed Israel to operate with a relatively free hand in Syria, where Jerusalem strikes suspected Iranian proxy targets and weapons shipments.” Meanwhile, reporting by The New York Times and Al Jazeera suggests that Russia has pulled S-300 air defense systems out of Syria in order to strengthen its air defenses in the Ukrainian theater. This has raised the prospect that Russia is handing off more responsibility to Iran in Syria while Moscow focuses on Ukraine, but also that Russia may now be in a weaker position to deter Israeli strikes in Syria that Moscow disapproves of. Additionally, as an Israeli military source told Egozi, Jerusalem fears that Iranian involvement in Russian drone attacks on Ukrainian targets will improve Iranian capacity to use the drones against Israeli targets.
One development to watch will be the return in Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is forming a government coalition amid increasing security threats. In past years Netanyahu maintained remarkably good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the Israeli leader’s neuralgia about the Iranian threat to his country could result in an Israeli strike against Iran that significantly undermines Russian-Israeli relations. Iranian involvement in the Ukrainian conflict might also serve to increase Israeli willingness to support Ukraine against the common Iranian threat. Indeed, such a shift may have already begun: One Ukrainian official told The New York Times “that Israeli intelligence officials were providing their Ukrainian counterparts with information about Iranian drones.”
It may seem to some that with Moscow backing off from its efforts to persuade Iran to rejoin the JCPOA and reducing Russian capacity to maintain balance between Israel and Iran in Syria, Putin is actually encouraging both Iranian-American and Iranian-Israeli conflict in order to divert American attention and resources away from Ukraine. But this is doubtful, in my view, as the risks of such a strategy for Russia would likely outweigh any potential rewards. Either conflict could provide the opportunity for American and allied forces to degrade or destroy the Iranian drone- and missile-producing capacity that Moscow is now relying on. Neither America nor Israel would attack any Iranian production line set up in Russia, but where components for it are manufactured in Iran could be. Even if it wanted to support Iran in such a conflict, Moscow is hardly likely to divert much of its military resources from Russia’s higher-priority fight with Ukraine in order to do so. And any Russian effort to come to Tehran’s aid might damage Russia’s ability to maintain cooperative relations with both the Arab Gulf states and Israel, as Moscow has done up to now despite its close ties with Iran.
Iran’s Limited Options Weaken Its Leverage
In addition to Moscow’s need to balance its Middle East relationships, Iran’s leverage over Russia may be constrained by Tehran’s dearth of alternative partners—a problem its rivals in the region do not have. While Iran is neither willing nor able to turn to America and the West for support if it is displeased with Moscow, America’s Middle Eastern allies that have improved their ties with Moscow can all turn back to Washington and join its efforts to isolate Moscow if Russian actions threaten their interests. Moscow’s desire to avoid losing the important cooperation it now has with Israel, Turkey and the Gulf Arabs, then, may serve to limit Russian support for Iran despite Moscow’s growing dependence on its weapons.
- Since the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran has been progressively exceeding the limits placed on it by the agreement, which Tehran had previously been abiding by. Although the Biden administration has sought to restore the JCPOA, doing so has been hindered mainly by Iranian demands for “guarantees” that a future U.S. administration not withdraw from it again, but this is not something Biden can promise.
Mark N. Katz
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Student associate Vlad Wallace researched and systemized data for tables in this article.
Photo by Student News Agency shared under a Creative Commons license.