The increasing cooperation and arms transfers from Tehran to Moscow do not show any sign of reversing their course. Both embattled and isolated states drew closer together, reversing established patterns of superpower relationships and cementing their anti-US axis as the core component of their mutual understanding. This shows that Tehran and Moscow are no longer separable in a way that might enhance the political survival of both.
Months after Iran started providing Russia with precision-guided munitions and drones for the war in Ukraine, the arms flow is starting to go in the other direction. Recently, the US government announced that Russia is now offering an advanced military assistance package to the Iranians, which includes air defense systems, advanced fighter jets, and helicopters. Earlier this month, John Kirby, White House National Security Council spokesman, revealed that Russia was offering Iran “an unprecedented level of military and technical support that is transforming their relationship into a full-fledged defense partnership.” This is a major step towards the deepening of the strategic relationship between the two countries. More details included an Iranian plan to set up a drone assembly line in Russia while the Russians train Iranian pilots to operate the Su-35 fighter jets. If Russia provides Iran with new fighter jets, it will drastically affect Iranian airpower compared to its Arab neighbors. Another worry is that Iran, already in possession of the S-300 missile defense system, will obtain the new S-400 system which will bolster Iranian defenses against Israeli or American air operations. On top, Israeli officials recently revealed that Iranian officials have traveled to Russia to discuss the potential for naval cooperation. They handed the Russians two requests, to buy Russian warships and to design more bespoke naval capabilities that fit with Iran’s operational requirements.
There is no doubt that these developments are also meant to send strong signals to the opponents of the Islamic Republic both in and outside of Iran. Despite its official denial of most of these arms transfers, social media accounts connected to the IRGC often confirm the news and proudly take credit for Russia’s drones targeting Ukrainian infrastructure. The deepened pact between Russia and Iran is used to bolster the regime’s power at home, showing that the Islamic Republic is simply too big to fail.
These recent disclosures also seem to target Arab countries which refused to take the side of the US against Russia. Moreover, the US accused Saudi Arabia of taking Russia’s side in managing OPEC’s prices in a way that undermines US efforts to isolate Moscow. It is doubtful that the US revelation of the extent of Russian Iranian cooperation will change the Saudi position in OPEC and may lead to the opposite results. Already uncertain about its relationship with this administration, Saudi Arabia might view this as an American attempt to use a growing Iranian threat as a way to scare the kingdom into compliance with Washington’s demands. It is unclear how the Saudis will plan to manage this complex situation. Still, reports about UAE’s plans to exit OPEC next year might indicate significant changes in the relationship between GCC countries and the US. The UAE is a country that puts a very significant premium on its image in its Western capitals, and an increasing Saudi instrumentalization of OPEC leadership for its foreign policy agenda threatens the Emiratis’ control over their own. Citing the desire to increase their production according to their economic plans and capacities, the UAE will free itself from OPEC constraints.
These dynamics between the US and its allies still in no way address the emerging threats of an Iranian-Russian defense pact. Moreover, the Arab states know Russia has visible limits on any defense cooperation with the Iranians. By the end of the day, Russia must maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt. If there was such a thing as a Saudi-Russian agreement over OPEC-set prices, this must be seen less as a Saudi will to side with an anti-Western bloc but the winning or Russian guarantees to put Iranian aggression in check. If anything, the constant Saudi signaling about the distrust in the US policy towards Iran seems to point in that direction. Suppose the Saudis seriously doubt the American ability to provide them with the security guarantees they need against Iran. In that case, it only makes sense to turn to increased cooperation with the Russians and the Chinese.
This also works in reverse for the Russians. Increased cooperation with the Iranians increases the strategic importance of relations with Russia for the Arab states. This ensures Russia’s ability to maneuver itself out of the complete isolation in which Washington is trying to force Putin. It’s hard to say who is the biggest winner of all such strategic maneuverings, but it should be plainly obvious it is not the US. We should probably expect more of this in our increasingly multi-polar world. This new reality leaves Israel in an unenviable position. Israel remains committed to its fundamental alliance with the US, but how Israel is going to manage an increasingly complex geopolitical reality emerging at the moment of its integration in the region remains to be seen.
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