In the Middle East, allies and adversaries can change back and forth.
This is true not only among the states in that area but also among the outside countries that vie against each other to either gain a foothold or secure access to resources and technology.
Russia is one example.
When it was the Soviet Union, it was one of the first countries to recognize the Islamic Republic of Iran. But it also was a major supplier of weapons to Iraq during that country’s war against Iran, while at the same time providing some weapons to Iran. After the war, the USSR agreed to help Iran complete its nuclear reactor in Bushehr.
Today, Russia is still in the middle of things. It has inserted itself into Syria, which helps Iran’s strategy of exploiting that country to supply Hezbollah while also establishing a base of operations against Israel. Yet at the same time, despite its advanced missile systems in place to defend Syria, Russia has an agreement with Israel allowing it to take action against Iranian positions in Syria.
Ksenia Svetlova, an Israeli politician and journalist, differentiates between Russia’s relationship with Iran and Israel:
The Iranians are not Russia’s friends, they’re partners.
We’re not partners (referring to Israel).
Left unsaid is just what Russia’s relationship with Israel actually is.
A 2005 Middle East Forum article on Putin’s Pro-Israel Policy, noted similar interests between Russia and Israel in the fight against the threat both countries faced against terrorism:
While the United States and other Western governments criticized Russian operations in Chechnya, the Israeli government did not. Rather, Sharansky offered strong support for Putin’s hard-line policy of not negotiating with terrorists but defeating them militarily instead. Parallels between Russia’s conflict with the Chechens and Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians have resonated strongly with the Putin administration.
…Like Palestinian terrorists, Chechen rebels have launched a number of attacks on civilian targets in Russia, including attacks on hospitals in southern Russia during the first Chechen war (1994-96), the seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002, and a series of attacks in the summer of 2004 that culminated in the death of hundreds of school children in Beslan. This similarity in predicament seems to have increased sympathy for Israel in Russia.
But beyond the common enemy of terrorists, there is another tie between Russia and Israel which exists even when the issue of Chechnya is not front page news. When Ariel Sharon visited Russia in 2001,
Putin referred to the fact that many Israelis originally came from Russia and other ex-Soviet republics, stating that he wanted them to “live in peace and security,” and denounced terrorism, even as he also referred to Russia’s “traditionally good” relations with the Arab world and the Palestinian Authority.
When Israel confined Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah, the terrorist leader turned to Putin to pressure Israel to back off. Instead, Putin was reported to have told him that “combating terrorism and extremism is the most urgent task facing the world community today.”
Another angle to keep in mind is that in 2005, Russian ties with Israel were worth in the neighborhood of $1 billion annually.
But on the other hand, Russia still has to deal with the millions of Muslims who live in Russia. That gives Russia a strong motivation to temper its ties with Israel.
But at the same time, that is a danger for Russia as well.
In 2011, Lt. Colonel James Zumwalt criticized Putin’s connection with Iran, noting at the time that based on the disparity between Russian and Muslim birthrates, by 2050 Muslims would outnumber native Russians.
More than that is the issue of Iran itself:
Putin naively believes in a non-existent Russian/Iranian bond that places Moscow outside Iran’s crosshairs. But Iran eventually has in mind for Russia the same fate it has for other non-Islamic states—a fate shared by the Caucasus Emirate: i.e., to make the country subservient to shariah law.
As the Soviet Union was falling apart, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote Gorbachev, offering Islamism as a way to “easily help fill up the ideological vacuum of your system.”
What about today?
Capt. (res.) Alexander Grinberg of the IDF Military Intelligence writes that there is no love for Russia among the Iranians themselves:
the vast majority of Iranians traditionally despise Russia and support Ukraine. Countless Iranian youth hate Russia because they see parallels between the Russian and Iranian regimes. Given this context, it is understandable that Iranian leaders dislike being portrayed as Russia supporters.
That is not to say that Iran has particularly friendly relations with Ukraine right now either. Back in 2020, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board.
Ukraine is an impediment to ties between Russia and Israel as well, as Israel has carefully supported Ukraine against the Russian invasion while being careful not to do anything that might threaten the freedom Russia has been granting it in its flights over Syria. Russia has even told Iran to move from its positions in Syria in order to avoid giving Israel targets that are close to Russian positions.
Meanwhile, from a business perspective, the governments of Russia and Iran are in competition with each other as they try to find markets for their oil at a time when Russia is being isolated because of its invasion of Ukraine while Iran is trying to find a way around sanctions.
Partnerships in politics do not necessarily extend to partnerships in business.
And yet it is undeniable that the isolation of Russia and Iran is drawing the 2 countries together:
In July, Iran became the world’s largest buyer of Russian wheat. This month, Russia launched an Iranian satellite into space in a rare success for Tehran’s space program. And last week, Iran’s military hosted joint drone exercises with Russian forces, as the U.S. warns Moscow is preparing to receive Iranian drones for use in the war in Ukraine.
Russians have been flocking to the Islamic Republic in recent months, often to discuss ways to circumvent sanctions, say Iranian businessmen. Russian is often heard in Tehran’s shops and hotels these days, as Iran remains open to Russian travelers who have been cut off from much of the West.
At the city’s grand bazaar, Hossein, a carpet seller, said the number of Russian customers has doubled since February and now make up half its customer base. In the lobby of a luxury hotel in Tehran, the only Europeans were Russians who brought their laptops for a business meeting with Iranians in black suits.
This almost sounds comparable to the descriptions of Israelis traveling to the UAE and investigating possible business ventures and opportunities for commerce.
But unlike the Arab-Israeli friendship that we read about, Russians visiting Iran are doing so out of desperation.
Svetlova’s description still rings true: “The Iranians are not Russia’s friends, they’re partners.”
Predictions over the years that Israel would face isolation and have no friends were wrong. The same cannot be said about Russia and Iran. And the fact that they find themselves in the same boat creates a partnership that will only go so far.