What Is Russia’s Game in U.S.-Iran Standoff?

Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani

by Shireen T. Hunter     

During his visit to Japan last month, President Donald Trump suggested some softening of American position regarding Iran and indicated that the United States welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s mediation between Tehran and Washington. Soon after, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Rybakov paid a visit to Tehran on May 29. He told Sputnik News that the purpose of his visit was to discuss matters related to the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA).

The timing of the softening of American tone towards Iran and the Rybakov visit might have been mere coincidence. And Rybakov might simply have gone to Tehran to talk about the JCPOA. Moscow, like other European capitals, is not happy about the potential risks to the nuclear deal. It is concerned that Tehran might finally lose patience and, faced with the unpalatable choice of either abject capitulation or going nuclear, choose the latter option. Russia would find this prospect highly worrying. Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier had stated that he told the Iranians to stay in the JCPOA even if sanctions continue or Europe fails to ease Iran’s economic and financial problems.

However, Moscow has long been concerned about a real reconciliation between Tehran and Washington, and Russia has derived strategic benefits from Iran’s post-revolutionary isolation. As such, Rybakov’s visit might have had other more sinister purposes, like urging Iran to stand firm vis a vis America and refuse any compromise.

Moscow the Winner in Iran’s Islamic Revolution

The 1979 revolution in Iran was a significant strategic gain for Moscow and a clear strategic loss for the United States. Although outwardly the new regime claimed to follow a policy independent of both superpowers, its hostility toward America was much stronger and deeper than any misgivings about the USSR and later Russia. For example, former prime minister (and now reformist) Mir Hussein Moussavi, in an interview during the early years of the new regime, said that in the previous 50 years Iran had not suffered as much from the USSR as it had suffered from America. He clearly  ignored Russian efforts to dismember Iran by setting up puppet republics in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in 1940s. Most notably, Ayatollah Khomeini had a visceral hatred of America because of what it represented—all that was wrong with modernity. Thus, his dislike went beyond mere policy differences. Furthermore, all leftists , including the so-called Islamic Marxists, were sympathetic to Moscow and also had connections with Soviet security and other organizations. Moscow had sympathizers within the clerical establishment as well, because the KGB had infiltrated the religious schools as part of Moscow’s dual strategy toward the monarchical regime: official cordiality and hidden sabotage.

During the hostage crisis of 1979-1981, pro-Moscow elements contributed to the prolongation of the crisis. For example, Noureddin Kianouri, the leader of Iran’s Stalinist Communist party, the Tudeh, rightly opined that as long as the hostage crisis continued there would be no improvement in U.S.-Iran relations. During Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, the left sabotaged his efforts at reach out to Washington. When Muhammad Khatami became president, Moscow’s anxieties about a reconciliation between Washington and Tehran intensified. During a trip to Moscow in 1999, I heard a Russian expert at a panel discussion at France 24 openly say that Russia did not favor U.S.-Iran reconciliation.

Russia’s Iran Card

From a geopolitical perspective, Russia’s position makes perfect sense. Iran’s isolation because of its strained relations with America has essentially eliminated it as a competitor to Moscow in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, despite Iran’s deep historical and civilizational roots in both regions. Iran’s isolation has also eliminated it as competitor in the energy field. Were Iran reintegrated into the international economy, Russia’s ability to use its energy supply to blackmail Europe or increase its influence in Turkey would be considerably undermined.

Throughout the 1990s and in the following decades, Russia has used Iran as a bargaining chip in its relations with the West and has abandoned Iran at every juncture whenever its interests have required it. Today, the Kremlin is pursuing the same practice in Syria, regarding Israel, and even in dealings with the Persian Gulf Arab states. It is using Iran to appear as the peacemaker and the great conciliator while also peddling its military wares to the Gulf Arabs and whoever else is willing to buy them. But Russia has  not helped Iran in this regard. Most recently, Putin refused to sell Iran S400 air defense system. All Iran has gotten from Russia have been empty and/or broken promises.

Despite the benefits of manipulating Iran, Russian leaders, notably Vladimir Putin, do not trust the Islamists and dislike their ideology. Iran’s cautious approach toward Russian Muslims has somewhat eased Moscow’s concerns. But the basic mistrust remains. Iran potentially could be a competitor to Russia in a region stretching from the Caucasus to Syria, especially if it resolves its problems with America.

What Explains Iran’s Deference toward Russia?

While Iran’s top leadership fears Western culture, it does not consider Russia a cultural threat. Russia also has a support base within the Iranian system, including the Revolutionary Guard and possibly even the army, while American policy toward Iran has consistently weakened elements in Iran that want reconciliation with the West. Finally, this excessively hostile American policy has left Iran with few options for partners. Russia is one of the few states that at least is not openly hostile to Iran.

Even today, and despite the oil wealth of the Gulf Arabs, Iran is the strategic prize in southwest Asia. When America in the late 1970s treated Iranian events with complacency, it suffered a major strategic loss after the 1979 revolution. Hostile relations between Iran and America ever since have limited Washington’s strategic options in a region from Afghanistan to Yemen. In fact, it has made Washington a prisoner of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s paranoiac view of Iran and allowed Pakistan to undermine Washington’s efforts in Afghanistan.

America will not be able to recover completely from the loss of Iran. But a more nuanced and long-term policy toward Tehran that looks beyond the current configuration of the country’s political forces would go a long way in checking Russian ambitions and increasing America’s strategic options in the region. Most important, American pressure should not reach a level that antagonizes those Iranians otherwise positively disposed toward the United States.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, 9/11, Iran’s help with the NATO invasion of Afghanistan, the Russian Georgian war, the emergence of ISIS, Russian annexation of Crimea, Iran’s signing of JCPOA; this is a pretty long list! If the Americans so wanted, they could have used any one of these events to pursue an opening to Iran. At what point will Dr. Hunter and her ilk admit that the US is not interested in some rapprochement?

    Short of invention of a time machine and undoing the overthrow of the Shah, there is no amount of concessions Iran can make that will placate the US. Americans still haven’t reconciled with Cuba! It is understandable that one wouldn’t want such a powerful enemy for oneself. But the West (led by the US) is implacably hostile and is out for blood. Iranians should accept this harsh reality and adjust accordingly. This inevitably means cultivating ties with countries opposed to or at least not directly aligned with the US; like Russia. If ever pro Western Iranians like Dr. Hunter try to sabotage these efforts and advocate for more concessions to the West, just point to the JCPOA!

  2. NASSER:

    I agree.

    The West has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity with Iran.

    It is not just an opportunity cost for the Westerners but also a demonstrates to the rest of the world that life can be lived – however hard – free from Western Diktats.

    And as Americans say: “Freedom is not free!”

    As is, we need to wait for a man at the caliber of a Nixon to become the President of the United States before even the possibility of Strategic Dialogue with Iran is contemplated.

    Even such a happenstance may not be sufficient by and in itself to move the proverbial needle, since the the motivations of the United States for destroying the Islamic Republic are quite clearly inspired by the religious sentiments of the fundies in the United States.

    You ought too look at the bright side of this – this powerful enemy is teaching Iranians how to fight; beating that chaotic and individualistic people who helped destroy Mossadeq’s nationalist government into disciplined fighters.

    That which does not kill one only makes one stronger.

  3. The alliance of Red and Black. How astute was the Shahanshah? Very.

    But the Russians will pull out of their agreements eventually, as they will be swayed by other more pressing matters.

    It is China we need to worry about. They are the real winners.

  4. Looks like Ali Joon is getting rusty, no longer he can manage to get the first spot in comments,even in Shireen joon’ usual commissioned anti Iran BS write ups, maybe he got a pay cut or got “tariffed”.

  5. The good thing about Shireen Join’ Newer commissioned write ups is that like US’ policy toward Iran under Bolton she now has been released for need to attempt and show any unbiased impartiality toward Iran and her sovereignty and her standing against western imperialism. Ever since Russian revolution iran’ government was not subject to USSR and Russian dictate Iran was a western protected state like KSA.Shireen joon iranian revolution was mainly agonist western imperialism and her Iranian subjects like Ardeshir Jay or yourself, there was no Russian or soviet imperialism controlling or decorating to Iranian state and her leaders. Is shameful to see a supposedly scholar of Iranian studies openly ignore what was the purpose of 1979 uprising. USSR was threaten by 1979 Islamic revolution as was US especially since they thought that may effect their soft under belly Muslim republics, as US did since the idea may spread to US Arab client states. Shame on you.

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