Iran, Russia boost ‘defense diplomacy’ to counter threats
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu last week made an official visit to Iran. The two countries are looking to further develop their military and defense cooperation. The official Iranian news agency IRNA stated that Shoigu’s visit related to the “development of defense diplomacy” toward the “management of common threats.” So, what were the key topics discussed during his visit? What does “defense diplomacy” mean in the current geopolitical context? And what did the timing of the visit reveal about current Iran-Russia relations?
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, during his meeting with Chief of General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Mohammed Bagheri, Shoigu stressed that “Iran is Russia’s strategic partner in the Middle East.” Bilateral cooperation includes military areas. The ministry added: “Recently, the intensity has increased significantly, both at the highest level and at the level of leadership of military departments.” This suggests that geopolitical pressures and incentives are promoting greater bilateral defense collaborations and partnerships.
The visit fitted Russia’s broader approach to defense diplomacy, especially in being East-facing. It followed on from a four-day visit to Moscow by China’s foreign minister and, most prominently, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s official six-day visit to Russia. Kim’s summit with Vladimir Putin addressed the possible alignment of the two countries’ interests to confront the West. Shoigu was again instrumental in conducting this defense diplomacy, as he and other military officials accompanied Kim as he was shown Russia’s strategic bombers and other warplanes.
As well as some well-choreographed headlines for international consumption, such visits demonstrate the depth of relations and the necessity the countries place on building trust and collaborations. Shoigu’s Iran visit came after the US had pushed Tehran to stop selling armed drones to Russia, following on from indirect talks aimed at de-escalating the nuclear crisis in August. The Biden administration raised this matter during indirect talks in Qatar and Oman.
These discussions also included the finalization of a prisoner exchange deal that has now been completed. Iran and the US agreed to free five people each under deals that also involved the transfer of $6 billion in unfrozen Iranian assets. However, the swap has done little to resolve wider tensions as, in a joint statement issued last week, the E3 (Germany, France and the UK) and the US stated: “Iran continues to expand its nuclear activities. It is now also deliberately hampering the normal planning and conduct of (International Atomic Energy Agency) verification and monitoring activities in Iran required under Iran’s Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement.”
Alongside the ongoing matter of the US asking Iran to stop supplying drones to Russia, it has softened its language on the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, the official position of Tehran is a flat denial that such drones are being used in Ukraine. During President Ebrahim Raisi’s speech at the UN General Assembly last week, he stated that the project to “Americanize” the world had failed. He also stressed that any Iranian-made drones hitting Ukrainian cities had been sold before the war started; Iran, he said, was in favor of peace in Ukraine. The fact that the remarks were made on the same day as Shoigu was having meetings in Tehran stresses that the relationship between the two countries is a dynamic work in progress, if on a generally positive trajectory.
Geopolitical pressures and incentives are promoting greater bilateral defense collaborations and partnerships.
Dr. Diana Galeeva
Meanwhile, there is a common view from both sides about the US and the West in general. Connected to this, the Gulf Cooperation Council factor deserves special attention in Russia-Iran relations.
In July, after Moscow backed the UAE over Iran in their Gulf islands dispute, Tehran summoned Russia’s ambassador in protest. The three islands — Greater Tunb, Abu Musa and Lesser Tunb — are claimed by the UAE but have been held by Iran since 1971. Following a ministerial meeting between Russia and the GCC, a joint statement was released that urged a diplomatic solution. According to IRNA, Iranian officials called on Russia to correct its position.
However, for Russia, the GCC and the UAE in particular are strategic economic partners, trade partners and key players in OPEC+ deals. Accordingly, Moscow continues to carefully calibrate a balance of policies between the GCC states and Iran. Prior to the Ukraine war, Russia’s policies were known as “balancing adversaries.” However, due to the Ukraine crisis, there is a geopolitical necessity for Moscow to maintain good relations with Iran in the defense field, while also valuing the GCC states as key economic partners. Similarly, the GCC countries also carefully balance their relations, maintaining dialogue with both the West and Russia. For example, the UAE has canceled the license for Russia’s sanctioned MTS Bank branch, which was placed under British and US sanctions in February.
Finally, Shoigu’s Iran meeting took place while news broke of newly deteriorating relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Armenia had last month presented a letter to the UN Security Council stating that Azerbaijan had been blocking the Lachin Corridor. Then, last week, Azerbaijan launched an anti-terror operation in response to a series of attacks on civilian and police vehicles. Nonetheless, a ceasefire agreement was reached the day after this operation, potentially saving the region from another war. Prior to the deal, according to i24 News, the recent escalation played into the hands of two key actors in the region — Iran and Russia.
In its official position, the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed “deep concern” and called on both sides to stop fighting. Moscow played a crucial role in the 2020 ceasefire agreement, but since Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan publicly questioned Moscow’s lack of attention to the South Caucasus region and Yerevan hosted a joint military drill with the US this month, the situation appears murky.
As Joseph Epstein, an expert on Iran and the former Soviet Union, put it: “In Armenia, they do indeed believe that Russia has abandoned them, but at the same time, somewhat oddly, they claim that the West won’t help them.”
As for Iran, as soon as official Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sources reported that explosions in the Hojavend district had killed six Azerbaijanis, the Iranian forces stationed in East Azerbaijan province were prompted to be on high alert.
However, uncertainty surrounding the deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia, given the recent wars over Nagorno-Karabakh, means that Russia and Iran’s defense diplomacy will need to pay special attention to this region, as both countries aim to maintain their considerable influence in the South Caucasus. This would fit into their broader defense diplomacy logic, which both countries are developing further in other regions.
• Dr. Diana Galeeva is an academic visitor to Oxford University.