While Moscow and Tehran continue to publicly signal their growing convergence, there is more to the relationship than what meets the eye.
An Iran-Russia naval exercise — which Iran claims India has also joined — is underway in the northern Indian Ocean since February 16. According to a media report quoting the deputy commander of the Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani, “The exercise we are conducting with Russia is so flexible that not only one other country, but several others could join in later if they wish to do so.” The Al Jazeera report noted that the exercise will cover an area of 17,000 square kilometers and that it “will include shooting at sea and air targets and liberating hijacked ships, as well as search and rescue and anti-piracy operations.”
It also quoted another Iranian naval commander as saying that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will also join the exercise. If this is indeed the case (Indian defense journalist Manu Pubby, based on his sources, has claimed on Twitter that the Indian Navy is not participating in the exercise), it would be the first time since the Ladakh standoff started last May that Chinese and Indian militaries will be exercising together. China, Iran, and Russia had also exercised together at sea in 2019.
But irrespective of India’s participation in the exercise, it highlights the growing depth of Iran-Russia relations over the recent past, especially as Moscow sought to exploit the Trump administration’s needless belligerence toward the Islamic republic. Iran and Russia found a common cause in needling the United States in Syria, with the end effect that its efforts (together with U.S. policy prevarications) have ensured that the Moscow-backed Bashar al-Assad remains in place in Damascus. But as Brookings scholars Strobe Talbott and Maggie Tennis wrote last October, “Moscow’s expanding influence in Syria suggests that a conflict between the United States and Iran could advance Russia’s power and reputation in the region.” From Tehran’s viewpoint, playing the Russia (and China) cards are valuable means to bring the Biden administration back to the JCPOA fold on favorable terms.
Concretely, Iran-Russia cooperation now cuts across fields from defense to economics, shaped also by a common threat perception. A year ago, Iran’s Ambassador to Pakistan Seyyed Mohammad Ali Hosseini made waves in South Asia when he proposed an alliance of his country with Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, and China, along with establishing a rail link between the Iranian port of Chabahar (where India also maintains stakes, albeit dwindling) and Pakistan’s Gwadar.
But analysts have claimed that if the United States were to return to the table as a signatory to the JCPOA and lift sanctions on Tehran, the development could negatively affect Moscow’s arms exports to, and other commercial prospects in, Iran. Prominent Russian foreign policy analysts in the past have also noted that despite public bonhomie between Iran and Russia, relations between the two countries remain considerably complicated.
For now, it is clear that while the United States and allied powers will watch the trajectory of Iran-Russia relations with interest, it is unlikely that they’d lose sleep over it – or fret about military exercises between the two.