Last week, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan accused Russia of trying to buy hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Iran for its ongoing war in Ukraine.
The claim was plausible. Although the Russian army has its own domestically-produced drones, they are not as advanced as the Western hardware that has given Ukraine an advantage in the air. That Moscow would seek to purchase UAVs from abroad makes sense.
The only problem: Iran has little incentive to do Russia’s bidding.
Russia has long used its ties to Iran as a source of leverage with Western powers, especially the United States. The war in Ukraine has given Tehran an opportunity to turn the tables.
In response to Sullivan, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that while Iran has “various forms of cooperation with Russia, including in the sphere of defense …we are not helping either side involved in the Ukrainian conflict.” Iran is “trying to avoid any actions that may lead to an escalation,” he added.
While it was not a forceful denial, there are plenty of reasons why Iran would resist Russia’s drone request.
In 2019, when Iran wanted to purchase the S-400 missile system from Russia, the Kremlin used the same rhetoric that the Islamic Republic is using now. Moscow refused to sell the weapon to Tehran, concerned that the sale would “stoke more tension in the Middle East.” Today, Iran fears that military cooperation with Moscow in Ukraine would further sour its relations with the West, which is why it will unlikely engage in the drone business with a pariah state.
Some experts believe that Sullivan’s statement about a potential delivery of Iranian drones to Russia was a ploy by Washington to show Riyadh that the US is not ready to cooperate with Iran and ease sanctions. In exchange for this continued stance, the US wants Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies to increase oil production. Presumably, this was discussed during President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia.
Iran, for its part, could try to use Russia as a bargaining chip with the West, refusing Moscow’s military overtures in exchange for a loosening of sanctions. The upcoming summit between Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his Russian and Turkish counterparts could be the very opportunity for Tehran to make its position clear.
For instance, in May 2019, President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia “is not a fire brigade …and cannot rescue everything,” referring to why the Kremlin would not help salvage the Iran nuclear deal. Why, then, would Tehran act as a “fire brigade” for Moscow in Ukraine now?
Raisi could also remind Putin that Russia did not hesitate to vote in favor of all six resolutions passed by the UN Security Council against Iran from 2006 to 2010. And he could ask Putin why Russian troops in Syria have never protected Iranian forces there from Israeli strikes.
Finally, Raisi could stress that while the 2007 UN Security Council embargo on conventional arms shipments to Iran expired in October 2020, the Kremlin has still not sold Iran any Su-35 fighter jets, Yak-130 training jets, T-90 tanks, the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, or the K-300P Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system – despite Iran’s keen interest in all of them.
Days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Iran sought to sign a $10 billion security and defense cooperation agreement with Moscow. Tehran also wanted to join the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union and increase its political, economic, and military ties with the Kremlin.
Russia expressed no interest in any of it. So, now that Moscow’s position in the global arena has significantly deteriorated, Tehran is unlikely to rush to Russia’s aid.
That doesn’t mean the two nations won’t continue working on various matters. In May, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Novak visited Tehran, where he discussed connecting the two countries’ national payment systems to make banking easier. In early June, Putin and Raisi spoke by phone about the Iran nuclear deal, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the Iranian capital later in the month to discuss bilateral ties.
Russia and Iran will continue to develop their nominal partnership, although most likely not in the way that American officials have telegraphed.
Isolated and humiliated because of its disastrous war in Ukraine, Moscow is in desperate need of allies and seeks an infusion of new military hardware. But given the geopolitical climate, and the opportunity for Iran to take advantage of Russia’s predicament, don’t expect the assistance to come from the Islamic Republic, at least not anytime soon.
Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”