At Tuesday’s funeral in Tehran of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key figure in the 1979 Islamic Revolution who later pushed for reconciliation with the West, reformist mourners not only chanted for the release of hunger-striking rights activists held in Iranian jails but also called for an end to their country’s burgeoning alliance with Moscow.
Video clips posted on social media sites showed groups of mourners shouting “Death to Russia” and “The Russian Embassy is a nest of spies” as they passed Moscow’s diplomatic mission in downtown Tehran. It was an indication of their fear that collaboration between Iran and Russia won’t help advance reform.
After the 1979 overthrow of the shah, “No East, No West” was a popular refrain in Iran, but in the past few years an alliance — at times shaky — between Moscow and Tehran has developed. Since 2014, Iranian-Russian ties have strengthened as the pair closely coordinated battlefield efforts to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a mutual ally.
A durable alliance?
For Iran, the cooperation has amounted to the most significant military engagement it has had with another country since the shah’s ouster. Last August, Iran allowed Russia the use of one of its air bases for airstrikes inside Syria. The country’s defense minister, Hossein Dehghan, has visited Moscow half a dozen times in the past three years.
With the city of Aleppo back fully in Syrian government hands because of brute Russian air power and Iranian-organized ground forces, questions are left hanging over the Middle East. Is the alliance between Russia and Iran durable now that Assad’s survival has largely been assured? Do the two countries have common interests beyond Syria?
With the death of Rafsanjani, a backer of the Iranian nuclear deal and a proponent of more political openness, some reformers predict Moscow’s and Tehran’s hard-liners will reinforce each other in ideological hostility to the West. They see Iran embracing Russia as a counterforce to the United States, and Putin viewing Iran as a useful ally as he seeks to reassert his country on the world stage.
“For the past 10 years, within the upper echelons of power, Rafsanjani was the main protective shield for Iranian reformists and other similar factions currently out of power,” according to Reza Haghighat Nejad of IranWire, a group of exiled Iranian journalists. He argues it remains to be seen whether anyone will be able to replace Rafsanjani as a brake on prominent hard-liners, who back closer Russia ties.
An early test of the durability of the alliance between Moscow and Tehran may come soon with a clash over the Iranian nuclear deal. Under that landmark accord reached between Iran and six major powers, the Islamic Republic agreed to curb its disputed nuclear activities in exchange for relief from international sanctions.
Criticism from Trump
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump pledged on the campaign trail to “dismantle” the agreement, which was struck in July 2015. Critics have called it “the worst deal ever negotiated.”
And Trump’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, tweeted the day before his nomination: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
Some Iranian hard-liners, who point to past Russian double-dealing, have publicly worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin could side with Trump in the event the incoming U.S. president decides to rip up the nuclear deal — especially if Washington offers, in exchange, recognition of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Those worries may be misplaced, say analysts. “Russia has more financially to gain with the deal being in place, or at the very least the arms embargo being lifted in a few short years,” said Boris Zilberman, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They are lining up billions in arms deals.”
Michael Rubin, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a research group, agreed. “Russia wants the Iran nuclear deal to persevere,” he said. “The Kremlin recognizes the nuclear deal empowers Iran relative to the United States and its allies.”
Rubin, who served as Iran country director in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense during George W. Bush’s first presidential term, predicted the Russia-Iran alliance would outlast the Syria conflict. “The warmth in ties between Russia and Iran has expanded beyond the short-term tactical,” he said.
“The Iranians hope to purchase Russian weaponry in a few years when the Iranian nuclear deal allows them to do so, and this will make more permanent the relationship as Iran becomes reliant on Russia for spare parts and training. We may very well be in a generational détente,” he told VOA.
Still, he added that “the confluence of interests between Moscow and Tehran may not be permanent and that Putin, when it is in his interests to do so, could throw Iran under the bus.”
Russia and Iran have not been natural allies. “Iranians hold a deeply rooted historical mistrust of Russia,” argued Mohsen Milani, a professor at the University of South Florida, in an article recently for Foreign Affairs magazine. The mistrust dates to the period after World War II, when the Red Army refused to leave Iran, and has been reinforced by Russia’s past use of Iran as a bargaining chip in its dealings with the United States.
Zilberman said, “I don’t think either of them trusts each other. It is a partnership of convenience and largely transactional. Many in Moscow view Iran as a partner but explicitly not an ally. They work together where their interests align.”