Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi are drawing closer together. Image: Twitter

When Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi recently posed for a photo-op with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, the top-level meeting in Moscow was trumpeted by state media as a bilateral “turning point,” “new chapter” and even “diplomatic triumph.”

But a closer examination of the optics suggests something unspoken is still diplomatically amiss. Critical observers of the January 19 meeting noted that Raisi’s arrival at the Kremlin was not received by a guard of honor befitting his status as a foreign leader.

In the meeting room, the two countries’ flags were not placed, which the same observers noted is a rarity for Putin’s meetings with heads of government and even a possible breach of diplomatic protocol. Nor was a joint press conference held after the meeting, which was held at a long table physically separating the leaders and lasted for only 15 minutes.

In their public meeting, Putin hailed Iran’s contributions to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) political, economic and security alliance as “an observer,” belying Iranian media and government-affiliated pundits who claim Iran was recently admitted to the China-led bloc as a permanent member.

The SCO, a key body in Russia and China’s drive to counter the US in the region, still refers to Iran as an “observer” member on its official website. Its secretariat in Beijing didn’t respond to a request by Asia Times for clarification on whether recent reports about the change of Iran’s status were accurate.

More significantly, Putin explicitly asked Raisi to share his views about the restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, which Russia favors. Raisi reportedly dodged the question, saying only that the Islamic Republic is trying to “neutralize” the effects of US sanctions. 

Raisi’s trip was initiated at Putin’s invitation. Iranian state media and Raisi’s publicity team had initially hyped it as an “official visit,” but when Russia’s preparations to welcome him were scaled back, they revised it to a “working visit.”

Putin and Raisi kept their distance at a January 19, 2022 meeting at the Kremlin. Photo: Handout

To be sure, Iran-Russia relations are substantive and long-standing.

Previous Iranian president Hassan Rouhani visited Russia four times during his 8-year tenure. His foreign minister Javad Zarif said in an interview that he visited Russia 33 times during his ministerial mandate, and is known to have cultivated close working relations with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

Raisi, whose anti-Western rhetoric and ultra-conservative ideology have put relations with Europe and the United States on a new edge, has made it clear that his foreign policy vision prioritizes ties with neighbors and scaling up partnerships with Russia and China.

Although Raisi’s administration is currently in negotiations to restore the JCPOA, a holdover of the Rouhani era, it doesn’t seem sanguine about its revival and restored relations with the West, which is why cozying up to Russia and China is on the top of his government’s agenda.

Relations with Russia date back to 1521 and over the centuries have been marked by drastic ups and downs. Some Iranians recall with bitterness how Russia campaigned for large swaths of Iran’s territory in the north to be split from the country between 1813 and 1828, when the Treaty of Gulistan and Treaty of Turkmenchay were signed.

That’s underscored certain nationalistic perceptions that Russia has historically treated Iran with contempt and as a colony. Nowadays, however, the Islamic Republic prefers to soft-pedal the nation’s unpleasant past with Russia, which it now relies on for its security and as an economic lifeline in times of crisis.

The Islamic Republic’s trade with Russia exceeded US$3.5 billion in 2021, though Iran is not on the list of Russia’s top 30 trading partners. Russia’s business with China, another strategic ally of Iran, hit a record high of $146.8 billion last year, and even with rival America bilateral trade amounted to $33.6 billion.

Iran thus has a long way to go to become a player in Russian markets, where its products remain largely unknown and where compliance with US sanctions has deterred most major banks from processing Iran-related transactions, even though both countries have been subject to coercive US and EU measures.

On defense ties, Russia supplied 96% of Iran’s arms imports between 2014-18, when most countries avoided selling it conventional weaponry. But Iran’s northern neighbor has not hinted yet that it is ready to sell its advanced S-400 air defense system, which has been sold to Belarus, China, India and Turkey, much to the chagrin of the US.

Soldiers of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards march during an annual military parade. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

The delivery of four S-300 missile defense systems in an $800 million deal between Tehran and Moscow was made in 2016 after a delay of nine years, which saw Iran file a $4 billion lawsuit against Russia’s defense export agency over its negation of the agreement.

Putin was reportedly reluctant to breach US sanctions when they were in place against Iran and only approved the deal when the JCPOA was sealed in July 2015. It later broke down in 2018.  

Iran and Russia are strategic partners but their ties can be best characterized as a “marriage of convenience” depending on the vicissitudes of their respective relations with the West and the role Russia plays in balancing Persian Gulf regional alliances, says Diana Galeeva, an academic visitor at St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.

“Russia in the Middle East follows the strategy of balancing relations with all sides, including between adversaries. In other words, it [has] built and will continue to have also mutually beneficial strategic ties with Iran’s counterparts, such as Israel and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states,” said Galeeva.

Other experts suggest that despite Russia’s willingness to expand ties with Iran, there is a ceiling to the scope of relations as long as Iran remains cleaved from the international financial and banking system, and bogged down in skirmishes with the US and its Arab neighbors.

“Russia is not likely to provide security guarantees to Iran. Moscow is simply not going to defend Iran against the US or any of its Middle Eastern neighbors, with which Moscow wishes to retain its good relations,” said Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

“Moscow probably would sell more weapons to Iran if Tehran could pay for them. But Iran’s ability to do so is limited due to sanctions. Also, Russia and Iran are both petroleum exporters, and hence competitors. China is a petroleum buyer, and hence a desirable economic partner for both,” the Russia expert said.

“Russia and Iran want to see Russian-Iranian trade increase, but there is simply a limit to the extent that they each are willing and able to buy from the other. And Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine clearly limits its willingness and ability to do much of anything for Iran,” he added.

That said, Katz believes Putin has an interest in the resurrection of the JCPOA: “Moscow would prefer to see the JCPOA come back into effect. But Moscow will not be too concerned if it doesn’t. Russia is far more worried about the possibility of improved Iranian-American relations than it is about the possibility of a nuclear Iran.”

Pro-Russia commentators who frequently appear on Iran’s state media and promote the benefits of maintaining ironclad relations with Moscow insinuate that Russia can be trusted as a comrade that will shield Iran in case of a military conflict involving Israel or possible US strikes against the country’s nuclear sites.

Atomic enrichment facilities at Iran’s Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometers south of capital Tehran, November 4, 2019. Photo: AFP / Atomic Energy Organization of Iran

But this is a scenario many observers say is unlikely given the balancing act Russia prefers to perform in the region. Moreover, its track record of engagement with Iran, which includes voting in favor of six UN Security Council resolutions against it between 2006 and 2010 that slapped harsh sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program.

“Should a war break out between Iran and Israel, I doubt that the Russians would be willing to defend Tehran,” said Alexey Muraviev, an associate professor of national security and strategic studies at Curtin University in Australia.

“It is possible that Russia may be inclined to intensify its security and defense cooperation with Iran, including possible transfers of some advanced conventional military technology,” he said.

“But that would be part of Russia’s military-technical response to the United States and NATO, rather than a choice of taking the Iranian side in its ongoing strategic balancing game with Israel and some Gulf monarchies.”

Follow Kourosh Ziabari on Twitter at @KZiabari