By Girish Linganna
Sunday (February 11, 2024) marks the 45th anniversary of the overthrow of US-supported Iranian King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (commonly referred to in the Western world as Mohammed Reza Shah) by public revolt, leading to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This event greatly changed Iran’s relationship with Moscow.
Trade between Iran and Russia changed a lot in the 30 years after the erstwhile Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It went down by 65% from 2010 to 2015 because of UN sanctions on Iran and then, rose almost four times by 2022 after the sanctions were removed, a new trade path was made and their military partnership got stronger. “We, in Iran, are fully open to improving our relationship with Russia,” President Ebrahim Raisi said to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2022. By 2023, trade got even better, particularly with secret military deals.
Tehran and Moscow both faced challenges after being cut off from the global trading system and Western markets. Iran was under international pressure because of progress in its nuclear programme starting in 2019 and Russia was criticized for attacking Ukraine in 2022.
According to Alex Vatanka, who leads the ‘Iran Program’ at the Middle East Institute, in May 2023, Iran and Russia have become the two countries with the most sanctions in the world. He mentions that this is the force that makes them work together economically as they do not have many other partners. They find common ground to share resources and support each other.
However, Iran has not been a big help in improving Russia’s economy because their trade is still quite small. In 2022, Iran’s trade with Russia was below $5 billion, much less than its $15-billion trade with China for non-oil products. Iran’s main product sold to China is oil.
From the mid-1990s to 2023, Russia consistently had a trade advantage over Iran. Starting in 2000, Iran mostly purchased raw materials, such as iron and steel, along with such farm products as wheat, from Russia. In exchange, Russia mainly bought fruits and nuts from Iran. Both countries were leading oil and natural gas suppliers in the world and competed with each other in global markets. The biggest part of their export income came from selling oil and gas.
Before the revolution, Tehran-Moscow ties were not strong because Iran was close to the US. But, after the revolution, Iran’s relationship with Moscow improved significantly. This shift occurred because the new government in Iran viewed the US as a significant enemy and sought new allies, including Moscow, to counter US influence and support its own initiatives.
On February 11, 1979, after over a year of widespread protests and unrest against the Shah, Iran’s military leaders decided not to take sides, removing a major source of support for the government and ensuring the success of the Islamic Revolution. This revolution brought together Iran’s influential Shia religious leaders, Left-wing activists, liberals and regular people who were against corruption, the Shah’s strict control, the push towards Western ways and Iran’s role as a follower of the US. They all wanted a change that would bring social fairness, freedom and the ability for Iran to stand on its own, away from the big global conflicts between powerful countries.
The revolution was driven by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a front-ranking Shia religious leader who had been exiled from Iran by the government that the US supported. Khomeini came back to Iran on February 1, 1979, and eventually took charge as the top leader of the new government, which changed Iran from being a country ruled by a king to an Islamic Republic. This new type of government has a system where members of Parliament and the president are chosen by the people, but there is also a Supreme Leader with a lot of power. This Supreme Leader is watched over by a group of elected Islamic scholars, called the Assembly of Experts.
After the revolution in February 1979, Moscow and Tehran needed some time to adjust their relationship. The leader of the Soviet Union at the time, Leonid Brezhnev, celebrated the revolution as a big win for the people of Iran. The Soviet Union was the first country to officially recognize Iran’s new government. Moscow was definitely happy to see a government that had been controlled by the US removed from such an important country located close to its borders.
They were also pleased when Tehran decided to stop its relationship with Washington and join the Non-Aligned Movement, which was a group of countries that did not side with either the US or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Relations between Iran and Moscow gradually got worse in the early 1980s. Iran cancelled parts of an old treaty from 1921 with the Soviet Union that promised that they would not allow military forces that could threaten each other on their lands.
Afghanistan a Thorn in the Flesh: Also, the Soviet Union’s military action in Afghanistan to support a communist government fighting against rebels supported by the CIA and Moscow’s unsuccessful efforts to make Iran and Iraq get along during the harsh Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 hurt their relationship.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s comments that Islam did not mix well with communist beliefs made the relationship between Iran and the Soviet Union even more tense. He called the USSR the “Lesser Satan” compared to the “Great Satan”, his term for America, during the Cold War, showing Iran was not going to pick a side to support in this global struggle.
Khomeini-Gorbachev Missives: In January 1989, just five months before he passed away, Ayatollah Khomeini sent his first and only letter to a leader from another country. This letter was to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the leader of the Soviet Union at that time.
In his letter, Khomeini urged the Soviet Union to give up its communist beliefs, especially its focus on material things and its opposition to religion. He also warned against going back to capitalism. Khomeini offered Iran’s Islamic system as a different way of thinking and governing.
Khomeini wrote that the main problem was not really belief in God, which caused—and would cause—the West to get stuck in a mess of bad behaviour and a dead end. He said the biggest issue was the useless, long fight against God, who was the main creator of life and everything that existed.
A few days after Khomeini’s letter, Gorbachev replied with a letter of his own. He talked about working together more, asked what was happening in the Middle East and about his ideas on ‘New Thinking’. These ideas were about the big countries working together to solve worldwide issues.
Khomeini replied, feeling let down, in a message to Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the only high-ranking foreign official he ever met as Supreme Leader. “I’m disappointed,” he said. “I thought Gorbachev was a thoughtful person. My letter to him wasn’t sent without a reason. It was about the role of humans in this world and the next…Regarding making our relationship normal, I’m all for it.”
In the late-1980s, the relationship between Iran and the Soviet Union started to improve, with their economic connections staying strong and cultural exchanges continuing. In 1985, Iranian airlines were allowed to fly through Soviet airspace. By 1987, Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, began flying to cities in Iran again. In 1990, Iran started sending natural gas to the Soviet Union once more and they paid for it by trading goods and services, including Soviet engineers’ help in big Iranian infrastructure projects. By 1990, trade between the Soviet Union and Iran had grown to be worth around US $1.3 billion.
After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, even though the government under Boris Yeltsin tried to get closer to Western countries, the relationship with Tehran also improved quickly. Both countries were having economic problems and saw that they could help each other out. Russia decided to support Iran with its nuclear programme, which they said was for peaceful purposes, and also agreed to help Iran update its military, including the Army, Navy and Air Force, with modern Soviet weapons at that time.
In Moscow, some people who make foreign policy started to come up with ideas to create a strong partnership with Iran and other growing powers. They thought this could help balance out the strong influence of the US and NATO. This plan started to happen in the 2000s.
Trade between the two countries was not strong in the 1990s because neither country had enough money. However, starting in 2003, trade got better and even exceeded the levels it had been at during the time of the Soviet Union.
After the conflict started in Syria in 2011, Russia and Iran worked together to help Syria fight against what they called “terrorism”. In 2015, Russia sent a small number of planes and ships to carry out strikes together with Syria against these targets. This move was reportedly encouraged by Late Qasem Soleimani, a high-ranking military officer from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force.
In 2019, for the first time, warships from Russia, Iran and China did joint exercises in the Gulf of Oman, showing that their strategic relationship was getting stronger. During this time, their economic partnership also grew, with trade reaching $4.9 billion in 2022. It is expected to increase even more after they finish large projects, such as the North-South Transport Corridor initiative, which aims at improving the way goods are moved between these countries.
In 2023, efforts to build a group focused on economy and security that includes Russia and Iran really picked up speed when Tehran joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS. At the same time, the relationship between the two countries kept improving. In December 2023, Moscow said it was going to work faster to finish a “big new agreement between countries”. Many people think this agreement will be about working together in such areas as the economy, security, culture, technology, science and more.
The relationship between Russia and Iran has a long history, with over 500 years of diplomatic interactions and more than a thousand years of history, starting with trade between the Persian Empire and Russian people in the 8th Century. This long history includes times of good friendship and working together, as well as times of trouble and fighting. However, as Mehdi Sanaei, a former Iranian Ambassador to Russia, mentioned in 2018, “Talks between Iran and Russia have never been as good in the past 500 years as they are now.” (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)