Putin and Khamenei: Besties in the Middle-East


Today’s Motherland Russia blog will focus on Khamenei-Putin relations. Khamenei is all over the news outlets after the escalation of Iran’s conflict with the US during the past weeks. We know for a fact who are the first states that Trump will rely on if an open war breaks up with Iran (NATO, of course, as he did in his last speech to the nation) but… who would Hosseini Khamenei call for support?

If you were thinking about Putin, congratulations. Indeed, although there have been periods in time where the relations between Iran and Russia were tense and competitive, nowadays they are strategic allies in two main fronts: their economic and military interests.

The economic front: supporting Putin’s kleptocratic regime and Khamenei’s damaged economy

As I have explained in a previous blog, Putin’s economic interests make him highly willing to spread Russian influence around the world. This is easier in places where Western influence is being disputed or neglected. It is common knowledge that the Middle East is one of the richest regions in terms of natural resources, with a third of the globe’s oil being produced by Middle Eastern states. Within these countries, the second biggest producer is Iran (4.7 million barrels per day). Khamenei is not really in good terms with the West right now. So, Putin could have it all.

Iran is one of the greatest economies in the region (with a GDP of 439.5 billion USD, Iran is within the 30 richest countries in the world). However, it faces enormous economic sanctions from the US and Europe (some of them mandated by the UNSC) due to several reasons (one of them its nuclear development program). Sanctions have led to a 40% decrease in Iran’s oil production, which has damaged severely Iran’s economy and has further destabilized the country. Khamenei definitely welcomes Putin’s “help”.

As a result, Khamenei and Putin (both leaders of countries targeted by Western sanctions) have found that economic cooperation among them could be a solution. As the years went by, what started as natural resources trade has led to a multidisciplinary trade, which includes weapons and telecommunications products.

The military front: the fight for the Middle East

Unsurprisingly, Putin and Khamenei realized they could be partners in much more than in economics. In their quest for limiting US influence in Central Asia, as well as gaining influence in the Middle East, they started to cooperate militarily. 

After the break of the USSR, the eternal ideological battles that were carried out as proxy wars abroad cooled out. Nevertheless, each system and its government are inclined to be friendly with those that are more like them; that is, with those that present the least threat to their interests.

Putin and Khamenei are not different. Let’s take the Syrian civil war as an example. Putin and Khamenei have been fierce supporters of Bashar al-Assad’s regime against US and allies (like Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival in the region). They have cooperated several times before, like in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

It is necessary to understand that each of them had their own reasons to do so. For Putin, if we analyze the Syrian case, the territory is an important strategic location because it has both economic and political ties to his regime (as explained in point 1 of this blog). For Khamenei, becoming the regional power to counteract Saudi Arabia’s influence is a main priority too.

What does Putin get from the turbulent times his ally, Iran, is going through at the moment? For as long as Russian interests in Iran do not suffer any damage, it looks like the escalation of the conflict can be truly beneficial to Putin. 

Trump, by acting without the consent of either the UN or its NATO allies and assassinating Solemeini, has hurt the American image abroad and loosened more ties with his European partners (who, day to day, work harder in bettering relations with Russia, one of the biggest trading partners of the EU). This is Putin’s perfect chance to take a diplomatic stand and play the role of mediator between the US and Iran, hence improving his reputation and establishing Russia as a major power in the region once more.