Sanctioned States Unite: Iran And Russia Forge New Partnerships In Oil and Drones

With war in Ukraine grinding well past the four month mark, on July 19th, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a trip to Iran, where he received a hearty endorsement for his violent incursion into Eastern Europe. In Iran, Mr. Putin met with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei offered not just verbal support of the war, but also agreed to provide as many as 300 drones to Russia, according to U.S. intelligence. This partnership, which had existed in a more tentative form before the war, has quickly solidified, with Russia finding itself increasingly isolated from the global economy, as Iran has been for years. Iran offers Mr. Putin a chance to form an economic partnership and learn from a state that has experience functioning under severe sanctions.

Khamenei, taking a much more decisive stance than Russia’s fair-weather Chinese partners, told Mr. Putin that “War is a violent and difficult endeavor, and the Islamic Republic is not at all happy that people are caught up in war. But in the case of Ukraine, if you had not taken the helm, the other side would have done so and initiated a war.” Behind these sentiments is a strengthening bond between the two nations, commercially and diplomatically. Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran director, described the necessity both sides feel to pursue linkages, saying “Russia and Iran still don’t trust one another, but now they need each other more than ever. This is no longer a partnership of choice, but an alliance out of necessity.” Yuri Ushakov, the Russian foreign policy advisor, told reporters in Moscow that “the contact with Khamenei is very important. A trusting dialogue has developed between them on the most important issues on the bilateral and international agenda.” 

Oil remains an important part of the Russia-Iran relationship. The increase in oil prices due to the war in Ukraine could give Iran more leverage to push for concessions from Washington in negotiations regarding the renewal of a 2015 nuclear deal, where Iran agreed to slow nuclear development in return for eased sanctions. Russia’s massive energy corporation, Gazprom, looking to keep a foothold in the energy markets, has signed a nonbinding $40 billion agreement to help develop Iranian gas and oil fields. However, oil could become a source of contention, as Western sanctions have forced Russian producers to shift towards Eastern markets, who have traditionally bought from Iran. In particular, Russia’s highly discounted gas sales to Beijing have significantly reduced Iranian crude exports to China. This is a hard blow to the Iranians, leaving nearly 40 million barrels of their oil on tankers in Asiatic seas, looking for a buyer. This will be an important development to watch, because as Russia lowers prices and finds new customers in order to sell around sanctions, they are increasingly edging allies Iran and Venezuela out of the market. A Canada-based political analyst has pointed out that “Iran is at a major economic and political disadvantage in the post-Ukraine war environment.” 

The military relationship between the two countries seems to be going strong. A White House disclosure reported that during Putin’s visit to Iran, he implored Iran to help the Russians replenish their stocks of armed and unarmed surveillance drones. Top U.S. officials have said that Iran is willing to provide as many as 300 remotely piloted aircraft and will start training Russian troops on how to use them shortly. This collaboration has been in the making for months, with a Russian delegation visiting Iranian airfields twice in the early summer of 2022. According to U.S. satellite imagery, Russians reviewed Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones. Iran has extensive experience developing and flying drones. In the past, they’ve supplied drone technology to Houthi rebels in Yemen, Shiite militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

On the war front in Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas, drones are essential to success, as they have taken on a large role in modern warfare, in insurgency, counterterrorism, and even conventional-style operations. Samuel Bendett, a specialist on Russian drones, reports that “while the Russians still have drones, they don’t have all the types they need.” Throughout the fighting, Russia has gone through most of its precision-guided weapons and the drones it uses to help guide long-range artillery strike targets. It has also lost dozens of reconnaissance drones and has struggled to build large quantities of armed drones and remotely piloted aircraft that can fly for long periods of time. In what has become essentially an artillery war, small unmanned aircraft play a critical role in Russia’s ability to target Ukrainian forces and report coordinates to longer-range weapons. The drone sales have not yet been publicly confirmed, but will represent a major shift once they are completed, according to P.W. Singer, a New America strategist: “Russia is used to selling military gear to nations like Iran, not the other way around.” 

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, Russia’s relationship with Iran will most certainly continue evolving. Seeing as President Biden visited Israel and various Arab countries around the same time that Mr. Putin visited Tehran, it is clear that two opposing blocs have been forming in the Middle East. However, most see the Iran-Russia axis as a partnership formed out of necessity by two entities that are ultimately commercial competitors. Abdolrasool Divsallar, a visiting professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, told DW that “a major part of Iran’s motive to work with Russia is driven by its urgent economic needs and lack of alternatives. Iran cannot dismiss its relations with Eastern powers like Russia, as long as there are no options in the West.” Experts are divided over whether opening up Western markets to Iran will weaken its devotion to Russia, perhaps depriving Mr. Putin’s regime of a supporter in their crusade to burn Ukrainian democracy to the ground. It will be up to the U.S. and NATO allies to decide based upon their read of Iran’s broader intentions: will they concede on nuclear restrictions and human rights demands and allow Iran into Western oil markets desperate for relief from sky-high prices, or will they adhere to a policy of isolation? 


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