Irina Tsukerman, a lawyer and analyst focusing on information warfare in the Middle East and Russia, spoke to a September 2nd Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about a "shift in the power dynamics" between Iran and Russia and their growing cooperation in advancing their regional interests while weakening the West.
Tsukerman said that Iran's and Russia's have a "historical issue of competition, of geopolitical tensions and misunderstandings." The relationship changed, however, with the rise of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Tsukerman contended that "the Soviet Union, despite Khomeini's historic statements about Iran looking neither to the west nor to east, in fact laid the foundation of much of the Iran methodology, terrorism, intelligence gathering capabilities, and even methods of interrogation that we know about today." After the fall of the Soviet Union, some geopolitical tensions continued between the two powers, but Tsukerman said cooperation between the two has grown following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Prior to the Ukraine war, Iran and Russia cooperated in Syria by supporting the Assad regime there and coordinating efforts to oust the U.S. from the region. Tsukerman said the impression that Russia "had some power over Iran in Syria" in preventing the mullahs from taking aggressive actions against Israel following Israel's targeting of "Iranian infrastructure" in Syria, was "more complicated" than it appeared. Russia views Israel as a "potential proxy in the region," given the latter's large Russian emigre population and Moscow's business dealings with Jewish "oligarchs," and it does not want to create an antagonistic relationship with the Jewish state. Although Tsukerman said Russia did not have the power to stop Iran, it did coordinate with the regime beforehand so that Israel's damage to Iranian forces was minimized. She suggested that the episode may have amounted to a "sham to create security theater visibility that worked for all involved."
Russia has moved away from its role as a "neutral and self-serving power broker" in the Middle East and has drawn closer to Iran politically. Iran's increased support for Russia's military forays and the former's recent sales of drones to Moscow are also part of a strategy to gain Russia's vote in the UN, thereby conferring "legitimacy" on the Islamic regime. Although Russia previously claimed to be "neutral" regarding the Houthis in Yemen, an Iranian proxy, Moscow has become more "open" in its support of the Houthis. Tsukerman noted that "Another area of cooperation, and actually the most clear sign, is the statement by the new commander of the IRGC, Salami, who stated that Iran is selling those drones to various countries. That Iran is training the militaries in the use of those drones and that they're being used in the field. We have heard reported from the US intelligence as well that Russia is using already those Iranian drones, at least the ones that are functional, in Ukraine."
Another example of cooperation between Iran and Russia is their joint support of the Taliban against the U.S. in Afghanistan. Some of Russia's foreign interventions, however, have had their share of setbacks. Tsukerman notes Moscow's military losses in Ukraine. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have seen more success recruiting foreign mercenaries from Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight in Syria.
As Russia and Iran have increased economic ties, both have become "more anti-Western and more politically isolated." To rival Western economic blocs, China and Russia formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which Iran recently joined. Tsukerman said this is "an important strategic development" and evidence of a closer Tehran-Moscow relationship.
China, Russia, and Iran conduct joint military exercises, signaling "bigger defensive operations in terms of maritime security cooperation as well as general anti-Western proximity," Tsukerman said. There is also cooperation between Russia and Iran in the area of cybersecurity. Known for its sophisticated espionage, Russia trains Iranian hackers to "[perform] pro-state operations beneficial to the foreign policies of their respective regimes."
The current level of cooperation between Russia and Iran includes Iranian "drones and military equipment" sales to Moscow. In an attempt to mislead the West and Ukraine about these sales, Iran dismissed the reported sales as a rumor during a Tehran Summit attended by Putin, Khameini and Turkey's President Erdoğan.
More evidence of Russia's increasing cooperation with Iran can be seen in connection with the issue of "food security." The Ukraine war disrupted the agricultural supply to "many developing countries in the world," including Iran. Iran sought assistance from Russia, which smuggled stolen grain out of Ukraine, using Turkey to broker a deal to supply it to Iran. Russia also looks to Iranian pipelines to "circumvent oil sanctions" and is engaging in gas projects with Iran. Tsukerman said Russia's planned pipeline with Iran is considered by Moscow to be "a game changer economically."
Tsukerman said that even though Moscow and Tehran have significant "cultural" and "geopolitical" differences, "and certainly tensions over ultimate dominance in the region," the alliance is one of "necessity." Iran's "radical ideology" is not considered a threat to Russia because Moscow "is adept at using extremism to [further] its own ends." She believes there is an "understanding" between the two countries to put aside "each other's state ideologies and dogma" as they cooperate against the West. Tsukerman said Russia does not "pretend to be the great stabilizer in the Middle East" because it "just wants what it wants and where it wants it." Iran's import of "propaganda and ideology" to the West also serves Russian interests. Moscow does not care that "Iran is exporting extremism abroad," because it suits Moscow's needs "and probably supports all these active measures and operations, both tactically and morally."
"So rumors that Russia and Iran could be easily split due to the long-term geopolitical differences have been greatly exaggerated. If anything, in the two countries are only going to become closer together," Tsukerman said.
Tsukerman continued that Tehran's dissembling about its drone sales to Russia should be seen in the "context" of Iran's ongoing negotiations with the U.S. over the nuclear deal.
In its role as broker between Tehran and Washington, Russia "has actually been the greatest beneficiary" of the arrangement, demanding that the U.S. lift sanctions against it in exchange for brokering an agreement. Iran, wanting to avoid "scrutiny" while the nuclear talks continue, is vested in its deception of Ukraine over the regime's weapons sales to Russia and their continued use.
NATO's trepidation over directly intervening in Russia's war with Ukraine is due to fears that such an intervention would make it more likely that Moscow would use tactical nuclear weapons. Tsukerman said the same potential exists with Iran, "if there's concern about the use of nuclear weapons," and she anticipates that the mullahs in Tehran would behave aggressively.
As Tehran and Moscow strengthen their alliance and increase their cooperation, Tsukerman critiqued the West's approach to this growing threat. The West "make[s] a major strategic mistake on trying to deal with all those countries separately and independently." U.S. intelligence services focus on the threat from China, but she said that Beijing should not be seen "alone," given its alliance with Russia and Iran in a single bloc. "Today China is ... calling the shots, tomorrow Iran and Russia may ... start being more aggressive ... depending on the individual interests or circumstances."
She said the West needs to "become much more fluid" in evaluating the "evolving nature of these alliances" and "shift" to a more "holistic" response. Tsukerman faulted the West and its "Cold War mentality of viewing each state as an independent actor responsive only to Western agendas rather than its own internal needs and interactions." She said the idea that a wedge could be driven between Russia and Iran due to its geopolitical differences "[has] been greatly exaggerated." To be more responsive to "the mentality of its adversaries," the West should not mirror image and "judge everyone by its own cultural and historical and political standards."
Cautioning that Russia and Iran will become even more closely aligned, Tsukerman said U.S. sanctions alone will not be enough. Advocating for the use of "covert measures [and] ideological warfare," in lieu of believing in the "mythical reformists in Iran," she said that the U.S. needs to "play internal factions against one another." Tsukerman estimates that the "intelligence operations ... active measures ... aggression and political manipulation" by the West's adversaries is a greater threat than military activity from those countries.
As non-democratic countries, Russia and Iran are "poorly responsive to major shifts" when Western countries overcome their own "internal political issues" that would otherwise "become an obstacle for successful Western cooperation." She said that since "authoritarian regimes are highly bureaucratic," and not particularly "innovative," the West should be "strategic" by using these blind spots to its advantage. Tsukerman maintains that the West needs to understand its objective, "if you want to exercise ... greater control ... be more in charge of the process ... and what you want out of it."
In assessing that Russia, China, and Iran are plagued with problems from the separate identities of their "diverse populations," Tsukerman said that these minority populations have endured historic and cultural oppression and want autonomy. This unrest offers opportunities for the West to employ "psychological warfare" as a "political strategy." Recalling that "containment did not work particularly well with the Soviet Union," Tsukerman said that a similar approach to Russia, China, and Iran is also ineffective. She said, "We have to see how much disruption we can afford [with] all of those three states without going all the way to ... regime change."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.