Iran’s election may change the direction of its relations with Russia

Candidates to be Iran’s next president are quick to play down the special friendship that was sought by president Raisi.

Expert comment Published 28 June 2024 3 minute READ

Nikolay Kozhanov

Research Associate Professor, Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University; Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Iran’s presidential election on 28 June has underlined the uncertainty surrounding the future shape of relations between Tehran and Moscow. The two main supporters of rapprochement with Russia were the president Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who were both killed in a helicopter crash in May.

Their deaths came before the two countries had managed to institutionalize relations in the form of a new long-term partnership agreement. Whether the next president will be equally interested in developing Iran’s relationship with Russia is a key question.

For now, the current vector of Iranian–Russian relations appears unchanged. Both the acting president Mohammad Mokhber and acting foreign minister Ali Bagheri talk about the long-term and strategic nature of relations between the two countries. 

However, the main candidates in the presidential race are all signalling that their priorities are relieving sanctions and improving the economy – not a special relationship with Moscow.

The state of Russia–Iran relations

 The 2021–22 decision on a new round of rapprochement with Russia was taken at the level of the Supreme Leader. Yet, even this endorsement is not enough to guarantee that relations with Russia continue on the course Raisi had planned.

Iran has not only taught Russia how to circumvent sanctions but also served as a means of doing so. 

 It would not take a major revision to weaken bilateral contacts: it would be enough for Tehran simply to slow down the pace of cooperation in some areas (such as arms supplies or development of the North-South corridor) to make Russian interests feel less comfortable in Iran. 

As of now, the Russian–Iranian agenda is quite wide. Both countries are coordinating positions and exchange information on a number of international issues, including Iran’s nuclear programme, war in Syria, the situation in the Caspian sea region, Afghanistan’s political and security processes, Persian Gulf security and more. 

Traditionally, Iran was of interest to Russia as an important player in oil and gas markets and a country where Russia was building its first nuclear power plant in the Middle East. In matters of military-technical cooperation, Iran acquired the important role of arms supplier to Russia after the failure of Putin’s blitzkrieg in Ukraine. 

Post-2022 Iran became an important player in plans for a transport corridor to circumvent sanctions – another aspect of the revitalization of Russian-Iranian economic relations. 

Even the Supreme Leader may change course on Russia if the interests of the regime require it.

Iran has not only taught Russia how to circumvent sanctions but also served as a means of doing so. On one hand, it offers an alternative route to the Indian Ocean and Asia, to which Moscow is reorienting. On the other hand, a process of obvious and hidden ‘parallel imports’ has been launched through Iran.

Yet, even the Supreme Leader may change course on Russia if the interests of the regime require it. And there are, at least, two factors that can motivate him to make corrections in relations with Russia: sanctions and the country’s deteriorating economy.

Iran’s economic crisis

Two problems face whoever wins Iran’s presidential race: to bring the economy out of crisis and to reduce the external pressure exerted on the country through sanctions. Irrespective of their political views, all the presidential candidates promise both to the Iranian people. The difference between them lies in the details.

The most radical candidate Said Jalili says that it is necessary not only to lift the sanctions on Iran but to force the countries that imposed them to repent. The more cautious Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf points out the need to deal with the country’s issues steadily and carefully. Meanwhile, the moderate Masud Pezeshkiyan has openly criticized Iran’s ‘turn to the East’ strategy and insists on opening the country to the West, as well as reducing tensions with the US. 

Two problems face whoever wins Iran’s presidential race: to bring the economy out of crisis and to reduce the external pressure exerted on the country through sanctions.

As Hamid-Reza Azizi has pointed out, Tehran’s ‘turn to the East’ policy has provided only limited economic opportunities that are not enough to offset the negative impact of sanctions. Several years after the policy was first implemented, this shortcoming has become obvious to many. 

Added to this, the threat of a large-scale war in the Middle East associated with the conflict in Gaza, and the application of even greater sanctions against Tehran are not in the interests of Iran’s elite. 

Many of them would prefer a state of neither peace nor war,  achieved through a certain level of detente with the West. The next decade might be the time that power in Iran transitions from the current Supreme Leader to his successor. And it would be important for the Iranian elite to ensure a more stable socio-economic environment inside the country to make the succession process as smooth as possible.

Candidates downplay ties to Russia

Any lifting of sanctions and restoration of ties with the West will require Tehran to revise its relations with Russia, although not necessarily immediately. Moscow is clearly aware of this. Immediately after Raisi’s death, the Kremlin tried to put the discussion of the bilateral long-term agreement on pause, willing to see the outcome of the presidential race in Iran.

The Kremlin’s caution is understandable. Firstly, not all candidates are interested in cooperation with Moscow. Pezeshkiyan, in the traditional vein of Iran’s moderates, opposes Tehran’s unilateral reliance on cooperation with Russia and China. He has slyly noted that the full potential of these ties would only be revealed after sanctions are lifted and a multi-vector policy established – which implies contacts with the West. 

Many supporters of the conservative camp may adhere to similar ideas. They would cite the fact that the ‘turn to the East’ did not produce any tangible results in terms of improving the economic situation in Iran. On the contrary, helping Moscow in its war in Ukraine has only increased the country’s sanctions burden.

The favourites in the presidential race, Ghalibaf and Jalili, give Russia little hope of sincere friendship. Their speeches avoid singling out Russia as a special vector in Iranian foreign relations, instead talking about Moscow only in the context of the ‘turn to the East’, discussed as part of a group including China and India. 

Recent statement by Jalili cont

Moreover, a recent statement by Jalili reminded supporters of a sincere Iranian-Russian friendship that such ties are built exclusively under the influence of external factors and out of necessity. 

Notwithstanding the candidates’ positions, any revision in Iranian–Russian relations is likely to occur slowly, taking into account the foreign policy environment, which is currently not conducive to Tehran’s rapprochement with its opponents. 

What is more, as previous experience shows, new governments in Tehran very quickly become disillusioned with the prospects for improved relations with the West and inevitably end up focusing on ties with Russia.

The bottom line is that while there is no chance for the immediate and deep revision of Russian–Iranian ties, the erosion of the current format is quite possible in the medium term, should the new president succeed in launching the sanctions-lifting process.