Iran’s military assistance to Russia in its war with Ukraine represents strengthening relations between those countries. However, it is uncertain whether that relationship will significantly impact Israel’s security.
In recent decades, Russia and Iran have conducted joint operations in various fields and presented a united front on several international issues. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in February 2022 strengthened strategic relations between the two countries (although temporarily and minimal), with Iran providing Russia with military and diplomatic support.
Russia and Iran have shared interests in many areas in recent decades. First and foremost, both countries see the United States as a threat to their influence in the region and on the global stage, and both want to reduce US involvement in the Middle East and Europe.
Additionally, the two countries suffer from economic sanctions imposed on them by Western countries, a policy they describe as “Western imperialism” and “interference in the internal affairs” of both countries. Finally, Russia and Iran are interested in expanding their influence in the Middle East and Central Asia and limiting Western powers’ influence in these regions. Therefore it is not surprising that Russia and Iran have increased their cooperation in recent years and deepened their alliance in the face of shared challenges.
However, it is worth noting that the relationship between Moscow and Tehran is not based on shared values or a common ideology but is driven primarily by pragmatic considerations. As such, the relationship between the two countries is unlikely to impact Israel’s security significantly.
Rapprochement with Russia is significant from Iran’s perspective in the face of the alliance between the United States, Israel, and the Gulf countries, which has solidified in recent years under the framework of the Abraham Accords. The cooperation between Russia and Iran aims to change the balance of power in the Middle East.
Russia and Iran also have shared interests in Syria. Both countries have been fighting in the last decade to prop up the Assad regime and to fight against the Islamic State terrorist organization and some of the other jihadist groups in Syria.
Over the last decade, Russia and Iran signed energy agreements, research and development agreements, and trade investments. There are also regular bilateral visits by delegations and leaders of the countries.
Russia is also Iran’s largest arms supplier, selling weapons to Tehran from 2010-2021 worth $511 million (along with arms imports from China worth around $170 million). Russia also sells Iran the S-300 air defense system.
However, Russia and Iran do have areas of conflicting interests, especially in Syria and around the Caspian Sea. For example, both countries want to maintain the Assad regime as a buffer in Syria and to reduce the extent of American and Turkish activity there. However, Russia is interested in maintaining exclusive areas of influence in the region of Latakia and Tartus near the Syrian coast, especially its naval bases. At the same time, Iran is interested in expanding its influence in Syria and maintaining its land route from Iraq to Lebanon through Syria. It thus supports various factions in the country toward that goal. Iran and Russia also hold different approaches to the Kurds in Syria – while Russia is willing to cooperate with the Kurds and recognize their autonomy, Iran is opposed to any Kurdish independence in the region.
Russia does not look favorably upon Iran’s military presence in the country, which continuously triggers Israeli military responses, and fears the Assad regime’s excessive dependence on Iran. It is also crucial for Russia to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, especially in coordinating oil production and pricing in the market.
Last but not least, it should be noted that there is a long history of animosity between Iran and Russia due to the Russo-Persian War of the 19th century and the Soviet Union’s control of northern Iran in the early and mid-20th century.
The relations between Russia and Iran in the context of the war in Ukraine
Relations between Moscow and Tehran improved after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Official Iranian responses to the war were in “soft” support of Russia and blaming NATO for the outbreak of war. Iran also claimed that a ceasefire and a solution should be pursued through diplomacy.
The war in Ukraine not only strengthened relations between the two countries but also changed the dynamic of their relationship (though not necessarily in a dramatic and long-term way). Now, it is Iran that is providing Russia with military and diplomatic support.
In 2022, Iran provided Russia with hundreds of “loitering munition” (i.e., suicide drones) of the Shahed 136 and Shahed 129 (less advanced model) types, which Russia used in the war against civilian and military targets in Ukraine. In addition, Iran stationed IRGC commandos in the Crimea peninsula to guide Russia in using the drones it provided.
It was reported in November that intelligence assessments by the United States and other Western countries indicate that Iran intends to build a factory to produce explosive drones on Russian soil. Western officials claimed that Iran had agreed to transfer ground-to-ground missiles to Russia. Moscow is interested in saving on its precision missiles, including expensive cruise missiles, and using cheaper Iranian missiles instead.
Recent reports say the Iranians have asked Russia for help in the nuclear field, but Moscow will not likely help Tehran with issues that have implications for its nuclear program. Russia has previously been careful not to get involved in Iran’s military nuclear program (investment in the civilian nuclear sector, such as building the Bushehr reactor, is another matter). While Russia uses the nuclear deal with Iran as a bargaining chip against Europe and the United States, it does not want to see a nuclear-armed state sitting next door that could disrupt the strategic balance in Central Asia.
Meanings and implications for Israel
At this stage, cooperation between Iran and Russia does not pose a significant security threat to Jerusalem. Israel needs to closely monitor the continuation of Iran’s military supply to Russia, as Ukraine is an important testing ground for Iran’s weapons industry. Iran is testing the Russians’ use of its drones and maybe its missiles in the future. In this way, Tehran is gaining operational experience that could be used against Israel in a possible conflict. There is a risk that the widespread publicity of using Iranian drones in Ukraine (along with successes in various drones and missile attacks in the Persian Gulf and against Kurds in northern Iraq) could give Iran a false sense of self-confidence. That could lead to increased aggression against Israel. However, Iran has demonstrated in recent decades that it knows how to act cautiously, strategically, and responsibly.
Iran also understands that Israel’s military level is higher than Ukraine’s. Moreover, using suicide drones during warfare is not new and cannot surprise Israel. Already during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, suicide drones were part of the combat, and even of more advanced types than those possessed by Iran.
Israel must maintain good relations with Russia due to its continuing involvement in Syria, with minimal disruptions or restrictions as possible. The need to maintain a neutral policy toward Russia may create tensions with the US and European countries, so it would be best for Israel to continue its humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Prudent diplomacy, alongside attaining intelligence, will serve Israel’s security interests well. According to a high-ranking Israeli source, Israel is already providing Ukraine with intelligence information on Russia’s use of Iranian chemical weapons in the war. At the same time, Israel should gather information on Russia’s use of Iranian military hardware to monitor their development and use. In addition, Israel should clandestinely cooperate with Ukraine to incorporate defense measures against the use of chemical weapons. Such cooperation will allow Israel to understand better how to confront a similar threat on Israeli soil.
Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire