28.12.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Russia and Iran are comparing their approaches to regional security in Middle East and South Caucasus

A meeting of the leaders of Russia and Iran took place in Moscow on December 7, 2023. Vladimir Putin and Ebrahim Raisi

Following the one-day visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, a meeting of the leaders of Russia and Iran took place in Moscow on December 7, 2023. The talks between Vladimir Putin and Ebrahim Raisi lasted about 5 hours (including both in an expanded format and in private). The dynamics of regional events in the Middle East and South Caucasus require closer attention and active diplomacy from both the world’s leading players and key regional countries.

Russia and Iran have accumulated considerable experience in joint partnership within the framework of: the Syrian dossier and the Astana negotiating platform; cooperation between the Caspian states around the development of the Caspian energy basin; major logistics projects (in particular, the North–South International Transport Corridor (ITC)); settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict; expansion of the free trade zone with the EAEU.

Russia is connected with Iran not only through a great historical tradition of both contradictions (including conflicts) and partnership, but also by common economic and political interests at the present stage. Despite the economic sanctions against Iran (including on its nuclear program), Russia has become Iran’s main energy partner in the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. After the anti-Russian sanctions from the Collective West due to the Ukrainian crisis, in fact, Russia and Iran found themselves in similar conditions.

Over the past year, the trade turnover between the two countries has increased by 20% and amounted to about $5 billion. Of course, it is not yet comparable with the scale of Russian-Turkish trade and economic relations. However, the potential for the development of economic ties between Iran and Russia is quite high and includes various projects (especially energy and transport and logistics).

The aggravation of contradictions in relations between Russia and Western countries after the start of the SMO objectively contributed to the growth of Moscow’s economic, political and military contacts with Asian partners (including Iran). With regard to regional security and the Syrian conflict, it must be recognized that Russian-Iranian cooperation took place long before the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. Russia welcomed the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the development of the Iran-China and Iran-India strategic partnership is generally in line with the interests of Russia, which is a partner of Beijing and New Delhi.

Traditionally, Russia and Iran pay special attention to the South Caucasus. Before the collapse of the USSR, Transcaucasia (now the South Caucasus) was part of Moscow’s domestic policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Transcaucasian republics changed the situation in this region, making it an object of geopolitical and geo-economic aspirations of various centers. Russia and Iran advocate strengthening political stability and regional security in the South Caucasus while preserving their interests and excluding interference from non-regional forces.

Thus, Russia and Iran do not support Georgia’s pro-Western course and official Tbilisi’s focus on European integration and joining NATO. For the same reasons, Moscow and Tehran are afraid of the current Armenian government’s fascination with pro-Western diplomacy, although before the second Karabakh war, Yerevan’s policy was largely in line with the regional interests of both Russia and Iran. With regard to Azerbaijan, the history of its relations with Russia and Iran has been different, including times of tension, stability and partnership.

Returning to the talks between the Presidents of Russia and Iran in Moscow, it should be noted that the parties discussed a wide range of bilateral relations and regional security issues in the Middle East and South Caucasus. It is no coincidence that Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin took part in these negotiations on the Russian side.

Among the important topics of economic partnership, the substantive issues of the implementation of the North–South ITC strategic project through the territory of Azerbaijan were obviously discussed. For example, the completion of the protracted construction of the Astara–Rasht bridge across the border river Aras. The importance of this section is due to the fact that it is part of the ITC system and is designed to connect the existing railways of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran.

The Astara–Rasht–Qazvin railway is designed to ensure the integration of transport and information highways of Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and India. In 2019, the Astra (Azerbaijan)–Astara (Iran) and Rasht–Qazvin sections were already commissioned. For the complete commissioning of the railway line, the construction of the Astara–Rasht section remains. At the same time, Baku has provided Tehran with a soft loan of $500 million, and Russia plans to allocate $1.5 billion by 2030.

The delay in the construction of the Astara–Rasht bridge on the Iranian side is probably related not so much to finances as to other issues (in particular, the stabilization of the Armenian-Azerbaijani relations). Iran is not interested in strengthening the Turkish vector of influence in the South Caucasus.

Russia and Iran also discussed the development of a free trade zone between Iran and the EAEU (including the legal consolidation of this project through the signing of an agreement). The de-conservation of transport communications between Azerbaijan and Armenia will have a positive impact on this project.

The next topic of the Transcaucasian case of Russian-Iranian negotiations was obviously the Zangezur corridor. However, there is still no substantive clarity regarding the routes and the countries crossed, because Iran had previously been categorically opposed to the opening of this transport corridor through the southern part of Armenia (the Meghri border region) for fear of damaging the sovereignty of the Republic of Armenia and strengthening the Turanian vector of Turkey’s connection with the rest of the Turkic world.

Instead of the Armenian segment of the Zangezur corridor, Iran offered Azerbaijan a road through its territory along the border river Aras. The parties have already begun construction of a road bridge (220 m long, 25 m wide) across the Aras River on the border of the two countries in the Ağbənd area. The implementation of this project by the end of 2024 will open the Azerbaijan–Iran–Nakhichevan corridor and expand Iranian-Azerbaijani trade relations. Indirectly, this section of the road may also enter the North–South ITC and allow Russia to have additional access to Iran through Azerbaijan, and from Nakhichevan to Turkey.

The Armenian transport project “Peaceful Crossroads” through the Zangezur corridor, presented by Yerevan in Europe, also remains in focus of Russia and Iran. However, Moscow and Tehran oppose Yerevan’s excessive enthusiasm for European promises.

Russia and Iran are participants in the new 3+3 regional platform (Russia, Turkey, Iran + Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia), which is already demonstrating diplomatic activity. It is known that Turkey initiated this platform. Tehran is trying to figure out the concept of this regional institution, where Georgia refuses to participate, and Armenia is forced to attend due to its sharp weakness in front of the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem.

A new area of regional partnership with the participation of the Russian Federation and Iran may be the idea of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to create a Caspian platform for cooperation between the five Caspian littoral states, which found support from his Iranian counterpart Amir Abdollahiyan.

Of course, the Middle East crisis became the central topic of the talks between Raisi and Putin in Moscow. Iran is one of the main pro-Palestinian forces and takes a more radical stance against Israel. Russia supports the condemnation of terrorism in the region and the earlier cessation of hostilities between Israel and HAMAS in the Gaza Strip, but cannot deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Meanwhile, Moscow and Tehran equally reject the policy of the United States and other Western countries aimed at exclusively supporting Israel in this conflict. Russia, within the framework of the United Nations and permanent membership in the Security Council, demonstrates a clear peaceful and stabilizing policy in the Middle East, supports well-founded draft UN resolutions on the situation in the Gaza Strip, initiated by members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the League of Arab States.

It is obvious that Russia and Iran at the Moscow talks confirmed plans for the development of military-technical cooperation between the two countries. It can be about mutual arms supplies (for example, the Iranian side demonstrates interest in acquiring Russian 4th++ generation Su-35 fighter jets) and the exchange of high technologies (including the production of drones, rocket science, air and missile defense).

As you can see, Russia’s role in regional and global affairs is not only preserved, but also strengthened. It is no coincidence that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi postponed his visit to Turkey, announced in early November to meet with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and instead headed to Moscow for talks with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.


Aleksandr SVARANTS, Doctor in Political Science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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