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. Putin’s Russia believes in a multipolar world, so, does Iranians, because the era unilateralism is over.

    Today, the geopolitics in the Persian Gulf look a lot like the early 1900, where British ( today Americans ) and Tzar Russians ( today Russians ) were competing for influence – plotting destruction of Ottomans empire while ignoring everybody else, specially, the people of the middle east.

    But unlike the early 1900 where British had real strategies for the post Ottoman era, today, America has no real strategy for the post Islamic Republic, the US has no viable strategy for the near east other than pleasing it’s Zionist lobbyists in Washington whom are agents of Israel, hence, negating the JCPOA with nothing to replace it was a tax on credibility of the US as the grantor of the international order, and a slap in the face of five signatories of the UN multilateral treaty.

    Notwithstanding, the rise of China and India and the rest of the world, America’s quest in the middle east is already doomed; Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Pakistan are just a few former American allies – casualties of the Zionist tribal vision for the middle east which dictates the US foreign policy in the Persian Gulf.

    Because the real divide is not along religious line, as some wannabe Zionist expert in Washington want us to believe ( i.e. Sunni versus Shiia, Jews versus Muslim, etc. ) the real divide is civilizational which bring Iranians much closer to their roots, which is not Islam but Persian civilization, the “Greater Iranic Culture”, that brings Iranians closer to Indian subcontinent and Central Asia, the Caucasus region, and off course Central Russia – and despite these countries’ official position, their nations are natural allies of Persians; starting with Afghanistan and Pakistan which is a nuclear armed state with 210 million population with whom Persians have very deep cultural ties.

    The US needs to change its strategy toward Iran or risk losings what she inherited from British to Russian and Chinese, notwithstanding Iranians themselves whom could form their own independent block, the so called “Shiia Crescent” with some loose alliance with Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, and China.

    Putin’s Russia believes in a multipolar world, so, does Iran – Putin aims to empower BIRCS Trading Block ( Brazil, India, Russia, China, South Africa); he is working with China against the US Dollar as the global exchange currency; such vision suit Iranian ideal of a multipolar world, because Iran believes the era of unilateralism is over; American “defeat” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is the evidences to that fact.

  2. FYI,

    Many thanks for your comments.

    I am glad that Iran has been left with no other option but to live life “however hard – free from Western Diktats.” All attempts at economic self sufficiency would be internally sabotaged otherwise.

    My hope is that Iranians don’t take Trump as an aberration and have realized by now that a deal with the West is just not in the cards. They would thus devote their energies to pursuing the right kind of vision instead:

    https: //www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/05/iran-khamenei-economic-doctrine-domestic-production-jcpoa.html

  3. Nasser

    I think that the business communities all over the world that could have otherwise been interested in investing in Iran, no longer are willing to take the opportunity lest US changes her mind again.

    In this manner, US has killed her leverage, regardless of what Iranian leaders believe about Trump’s promises. And she also killed the rentier economy of Iran.

    Iranians, in any case, have a bigger fish to fry; namely preparing for war with the United States.

  4. Another very thoughtfully written about Iran. Thank you.

  5. There are no permanent enemies just like there are no permanent friends. Russia is no better than the US and yet Iran seems to get along, so why is it so difficult to have a conversation with the US? Israel, Russia and the US are having a meeting in Israel this month on how to marginalize Iran from Syria. Why are the Russian SAMs not working in Syria when the Israelis are bombing?
    The next few weeks will be telling, either some sort of communication will be started or there will be another pretext for war as was the case a few weeks ago.
    Iran needs to articulate with one voice what exactly it will take to start discussions with the US. Khamenei seems to say never, Rouhani says if you come back to the JCPOA, Zarif says if all the sanctions are lifted. Khamenei’s position is a not tenable but he is a fence sitter. If things go well, he will claim credit otherwise everyone else is at fault except him.
    Rouhani needs to have one on one meeting with Trump. Show him the JCPOA and where is specifically prohibits Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, if that is what Trump claims he wants.

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