Is Putin Really Gaining a Stranglehold over the Gulf?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

by Mark N. Katz

An article by Simon Watkins, entitled “Russia Gains Stranglehold Over Persian Gulf” and published by Oil on August 4, raises the concern that Russian-Iranian cooperation is turning into a genuine military alliance. In the article, Watkins reported that “senior sources close to the Iranian regime” told him about several ways in which Russian-Iranian military and economic cooperation are set to increase. These include plans for Russian use of two Iranian ports for its warships and nuclear subs, the deployment of hundreds of Russian military advisers to guard them, and Russian use of an Iranian airbase for its advanced Su-57 fighter aircraft—possibly for the next fifty years. In addition, these Iranian sources claim that Russia will sell S-400 air defense missile systems to Iran (the Russian sale of which to Turkey has served to further antagonize U.S.-Turkish relations). Further, Moscow will invest US$250 billion in the Iranian petroleum sector over a five year period, and in return Iran will give Russian firms preferential access to investment opportunities and other concessions (including purchasing Iranian oil at a deep discount from world market prices).

I have no doubt that Mr. Watkins is accurately reporting what these “senior sources close to the Iranian regime” told him. There is, though, reason to doubt that everything they told him is accurate or that Vladimir Putin is about to gain a stranglehold over the Gulf.

To begin with, it is highly doubtful that cash-strapped Russian firms would be able to invest US$250 billion in the Iranian petroleum sector, especially over the short period of five years. In addition to just not having this kind of money to invest, Russian petroleum firms are hardly likely to invest a lot of money just to increase the world’s supply of petroleum, which will only serve to enhance the downward pressure on oil prices that U.S. shale is already causing. If anything, Russian petroleum firms may be grateful that the Trump administration’s increased sanctions on Iran are serving to reduce Iran’s petroleum exports, and hence relieve the downward pressure on oil prices.

In addition, while the Trump administration’s economic sanctions on Iran serve to increase Iranian dependence on Russia, Tehran does not have to rely on Moscow alone. The European Union is taking some steps to continue trading with Iran despite U.S. sanctions, and China is highly likely to continue doing so as well.

Further, as Shireen Hunter recently pointed out in LobeLog, the Iranian constitution forbids granting base rights to foreign countries, and doing so would be highly unpopular with the Iranian public—as the August 2016 episode, in which the Russian defense minister announced that Russia was making use of an Iranian air base, showed. If the Russian Navy is going to make use of Iranian ports at all, Tehran will want to keep this as low-key as possible.

Why, then, would Iranian sources claim that Russian-Iranian military and economic cooperation is going to become more extensive than it is actually likely to be? An important part of the answer is undoubtedly that Tehran wants to warn U.S., European, and Arab Gulf officials that if the Trump administration continues to pressure Iran, Tehran can turn to Russia for support. But it is not at all clear that Russia would do any of the things that these Iranian sources claim it has agreed to do. Not only is Moscow unlikely to want to get involved in any conflict between the U.S. and its allies on the one hand and Iran on the other, but Putin may cynically see a benefit to such a conflict. A U.S. bogged down in an inconclusive conflict with Iran, after all, is going to be even less able than it is now to counter Russia.

Further, Moscow is undoubtedly aware that if Russia increases its military ties to Iran (as the “senior sources close to the Iranian regime” told, this will result in pushing all those who (rightly or wrongly) see Iran as their primary enemy closer to the U.S. And Putin is unlikely to want to do this. Except in Syria, he has displayed a preference for pursuing an “even-handed” policy between opposing sides in the Middle East’s many conflicts, and while he strongly supports the Assad regime over its opponents in Syria, he has taken a more even-handed approach to the Turkish-Kurdish and Israeli-Iranian conflicts taking place there. Putin may want to support Iran against the U.S. to some extent, but not so much that this results in interrupting Moscow’s growing ties to the Arab Gulf states in particular. In other words, even in the unlikely event that Russia acquires a “stranglehold” over Iran, this will not allow it to acquire similar influence over the Gulf as a whole.

This is not the first occasion in which Iranian sources privately told a Western journalist or scholar about how U.S. pressure on Iran is pushing Tehran closer to Moscow. Such statements, though, will only be credible if and when the highest level Russian and Iranian officials make them publicly.

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at



  1. For decades multiple American regimes promoted their image around the world by claiming a perceived moral high ground due to their Disingenuous promotion of human rights and democracy as US’ policy objective. During cold war, with the help of dominant western media it was not too difficult for the west to control the narrative and use a perceived good faith intention as a soft power tool among oppressed societies.

    During these decades various American and European NGO fronts were tasked to convince less informed and uneducated third world inhabitants that western style human right and democracy is a precursor to their national security, inspirations and integrity. This US western moral high ground lasted till its first crack was shown, caused by American violent actions post 911. American Illegal invasion and destroying of Iraq in 2003 in light of wider availability of access to alternative news reduced western / American ability to control the narrative. The years of renditions, Abu Gharib, waterboarding, Gitmo little by little convinced the word that America and in general western world has no desire for real human rights or democracy even in their own countries.

    Obama’s election, and immediately giving him a Noble peace prize without any valid worldly reason, was a failed last effort by American regime to recapture the moral high ground, which was destroyed due to earlier illegal inhuman actions in Iraq mentioned above. But IMO, the final nail to the western democracy and human rights coffin was destroying Libya by the western powers. From there on no one in the world believes or cares to listen to the western human right or promoting democracy lies, the west lost her soft power there. No longer Americans and their allies cared to hide creation and support of terrorist group like ISIS to protect their national interests. No longer need to promote Human right or democracy if the world already knows that you create ISIS to protect your national interests.

    The world saw, heard and deeply understood that the Americans nationalism, means American regime expects that the rest of the world HAS to accept US, as an exceptional nation, because America is indispensable. But realistically and contrary to American decades of investments on this soft power. The world finally came to understand unlike many the American nationalism is about race, expansion, superiority, of indispensable exceptional white people on a shining hill.

    Once the American regime understood that the high moral narrative is lost for good, she no longer felt the need or obliged to hide the perceived fake ill-intentioned democracy and human right narrative. That is the reason Trump was successful to be elected as the president of Redneckstan. He was elected knowing that he will break every international treaty, contracts etc. that Americans had been instrumental in creating including post WWII international law.

  2. Why does the world listen to these aliens in Iran. They are just taking advantage of the world media, saying all sort of rubbish. They are desperate and should not be taken seriously. Just ignore them.

  3. I would have been inclined to agree with Mark Katz that Russia is a short-term sighted businessman trying to appease and deal with all sides before its intervention in Syria. Now I think that it is capable of strategic thinking. A warm water port in Persian Gulf is one that tsars and Soviets wanted very much and could not realize. Now is the time to do it and Russians know that the opportunity won’t last forever. Combining its oil and gas with Iranian oil resources Russia will be the carbon superpower of the world.

  4. The easiest and most strategic way for Iran and Russia to become fossil fuel partners is to arrange a soap deal. Meaning Russia can deliver oil and gas in her European ports in exchange for Iran to soap and deliver oil and gas for Russia in Indian Ocean Baden ports. IMO that ultimately will take place if exchange rates can be worked out. Transit wise, Iran and Russia compliment each other Iran can accommodate Russia in Indian Ocean I exchange for Russia accommodating Iran in Northern Europe. All transactions done in local exchanges. That’s the ultimate value of the so called Mackinder’ heartland theory.

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