Romance in the Caspian: Khamenei and Putin

  • Khamenei holds a strategic location in the regional trade routes.
  • After the 2014 sanctions, Vladimir Putin got closer to Khamenei.
  • Khamenei considers  Russia as a relevant actor to minimize Iran’s isolation. 

Why is there camaraderie between Khamenei and Vladimir Putin?

Answer: 2014 sanctions and Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018.

Putin and Khamenei have had many ups and downs in their bilateral ties. However, the turning point was Crimea.

After the 2014 events in Crimea, Washington, Brussels imposed sanctions against Russia. Thus, Putin searched for new markets and allies; meanwhile, Khamenei has been under strict US sanctions, which were damaging Iran’s economy. Consequently, he and Putin developed new ties, leveraging Moscow’s influence in world affairs. For instance, Putin transferred  Khamenei’s enriched uranium outside of Iran, paving the way for reaching 2015’s JCPOA.

Nonetheless, the 2015 Nuclear Deal cooled down Putin and Khamenei’s relations. For instance, Khamenei approved a multibillion-dollar deal to expand Iran’s South Pars gas field in 2016 for France’s biggest oil gas company, Total. Despite this cooldown, Khamenei and Putin managed to converge and cooperate on key aspects. Putin has been coordinating its operations with both Al-Assad and Khamenei in the Syrian civil war. In 2016, Moscow finally delivered to Iran the S-300 air defense system. 

This cooperation has extended in the energy field, e.g., in 2016, Gazprom submitted a formal request to partner with National Iranian Oil Company (N.I.O.C.)  in the construction of the country’s first natural gas liquefaction plant. Russia and Iran signed a new five-year strategic energy plan in July 2016.

In August 2016, at the Baku Summit, Iran renewed its commitment with Putin and Aliyev to build the remaining rail lines to complete the North-South Transport Corridor, circumventing the current transportation routes.

Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA, created a dispute between Trump and European leaders. Nevertheless, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that Iran was “subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime”. Putin made efforts to save the JCPOA and condemned Trump’s policy

Putin strongly supported Khamenei during his showdown with the Trump administration, e.g., he moved in favour of Khamenei over the expiration of the UN arms embargo against Tehran.  Since 2021, Putin is trying to positively influence Vienna talks, as he does not want to have a nuclear Iran that could further destabilize the Middle East and thus, challenge Russia’s hegemony in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. 

In April 2021, top Iranian nuclear negotiator, Seyed Abbas Araghchi held a trilateral meeting with the Russian and Chinese envoys. This meeting was held before another one of the JCPOA Joint Commission, indicating the importance Khamenei attaches to consultations with Putin and Xi Jinping. Putin recently hosted his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow and they agreed to deepen their bilateral ties on energy, trade and military.

What does Vladimir Putin want?

Answer: a key ally in the Middle East that undermines US presence.

Russia and Iran have had no major disputes since 1989. Nevertheless, Putin and Khamenei deepened their ties from 2014. Putin developed economic and military ties with 3rd parties to counter Western sanctions, in which Iran played a key role. In order to avoid that Western adversaries make inroads into the Iranian market, and focus on: energy, military where Russia is competitive.

Putin has been keen on 2015’s Nuclear Deal, because, on the one hand, Iran’s opening into the oil sector would reduce crude prices. Nevertheless, Putin already has contingency plans in place to survive an oil price of $40 a barrel. Debt-laden U.S. shale producers would suffer more from a further price dip. For Putin, a shale crisis in the U.S. could further leverage his energy role. 

One of Putin’s red lines is a radical Islamist regime in possession of a nuclear weapon of mass destruction (WMD). A nuclear Iran could be less cooperative in Central Asia and the Caspian basin and further destabilize the status quo in the Middle East.

In 2018, Trump withdrew the USA from the JCPOA was a great opportunity for Putin. For Putin, the Trump administration’s criticism of the Iran deal is incomprehensible and pure folly. Putin aligned with China and the European Union in opposing U.S. moves against the JCPOA.. This has helped to reach Putin’s main goal to weaken the US and divide its allies, especially the European Union and close them into Moscow’s sphere of influence. 

In October 2019, Iran joined a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Putin is the leader. This deal provides Khamenei three years to become a permanent member and trading partner. At the same time, Russia and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding on military matters. Putin obtained a deal to avoid any disagreement that could destabilize Syria and thus, harm Putin’s interests.

In 2020, Tehran and Moscow agreed to look for new methods of countering US sanctions on their bilateral economic relations, not discarding employing their national currencies on their trade. A year later, in 2021, Russia and China favoured Iran’s permanent membership at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; this is thanks to Khamenei’s active role in the Russian led North-South corridor. 

Putin is taking a key role in the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna, as this could bolster Russia’s geostrategic role in world affairs and hurt Biden, even more after his handling of the Afghanistan crisis. Additionally, Putin believes even if Biden’s administration brings the US back to the JCPOA, a Republican win in the 2024 election could bring back the same policies that Trump enacted back in 2018. Thus, this could close Iran towards Putin and Xi hands and divide the European Union and Washington even more.

Iran is counting on Putin and Xi to achieve a new Nuclear Deal, elevating Iranian-Russian relations to new heights on security-related issues. A renewed nuclear deal would limit Iran’s nuclear programme and thus, avoid a strong competitor that could harm Putin’s interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia. 

What does Khamenei want?

Answer: a key strategic ally that balances and challenges US leadership.

Khamenei knows that the Iranian public is not quite ready to embrace Russia as the national saviour. Nevertheless, Khamenei’s powerful Revolutionary Guard and key Iranian elites see Russia as a reliable partner to downgrade the US leadership in the world.

Khamenei learnt the lessons from Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, which showed the relevance of keeping a strong and updated army to keep Tehran’s geopolitical relevance and to avoid being the “weak” part on the negotiation table. 

Khamenei has been marked by four rounds of UN Security Council sanctions in addition to unilateral U.S. sanctions. These sanctions greatly damaged Iran’s economy and cut its ties with Japan, India and the EU, except with Russia and China. 

For Khamenei, Russia and China have been key players to bring back Iran to the negotiation table. In 2015, Khamenei succeeded that the great powers legitimizing his nuclear program and highlighted that his rights and independence have been respected and opened Iran into the global market and was seen by the EU as not a threat.

Putin played an important role in upgrading Iran’s military-industrial sector and assisted Iran’s nuclear programme. In 2015 Moscow and Tehran signed a Military Cooperation Agreement and coordinated Khamenei’s moves with Putin in Syria. Damascus is key for Khamenei to build up a Shii’te corridor towards the Mediterranean. These moves are key to bringing back Iran into consideration in Middle East affairs.

In 2018, former US president, Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA. This withdrawal was an opportunity for Khamenei. Former Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, delivered on his promise to end Iran’s long-running nuclear standoff with global powers and faced the economic consequences of Donald Trump’s economic offensive. 

This move leveraged Khamenei’s power, as conservative factions loyal to Khamenei gained power, e.g., in 2021, Ebrahim Raisi became the new Iranian President, sharing the hardline approach and anti-US approach, as Khamenei.

In 2019, Iran communicated that they will breach the JCPOA uranium limits and restarted their uranium enrichment and Khamenei considered it important to deepen its ties with China and Russia. For instance, in 2021, Tehran became a full member of the SCO, marking Iran’s first major regional bloc since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This last move gives leverage to keep its anti-Western rhetoric with Russia and China.

Khamenei is wary that the signature of another Nuclear Deal and a potential US withdrawal would undermine Iran’s economy even more and spark internal protests. Putin’s role within the Vienna talks is key for Khamenei to add pressure to the US and European leaders.

Khamenei is keen for a renewed nuclear deal as current Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi shares the same views as Khamenei. A better deal than the 2015 version would reap all the political and economic benefits for the Raisi government and thus, reinforce Khamenei’s ideas. 

Khamenei is not rushing over the negotiations and shares the same view and goal as Russia and China on the ongoing nuclear talks. While US President, Joe Biden and European leaders are anxiously looking at the clock ticking. Meanwhile, Putin and Khamenei have entrenched their cooperation to level up West pressure and reach the best nuclear agreement and also, Khamenei has secured two key partners for maintaining his regime.

What is Khamenei doing?

Answer: upgrading Iran’s military capabilities and maintaining ties with a strategic ally

Khamenei keeps a strategic ambiguity doctrine, regarding Iran’s nuclear weapon. In 2019, a year after Trump’s withdrawal from JCPOA, he confirmed that uranium enrichment limits were breached, right now, in 2022, they are close to 90%.

This rapprochement with Putin confronts and increases pressure on European and US leaders to consider Iran in their strategic goals and thus, a rapprochement towards Khamenei. For instance, in 2022, Khamenei, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin realized a naval drill in the Gulf of Oman, thus pressuring the US and its allies during the ongoing Vienna Negotiations. Additionally, this division could affect US strategic allies in the Middle East, especially, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: no one…

Moscow’s ambassador to Tehran says the value of trade between Iran and Russia reached $3.6 billion in 2021, up by 87% percent compared to 2020. Nevertheless, this rapprochement was balanced by Putin to keep his ties with Israel and the Gulf states.

What about us? People will win from new alliances and the entrance of a new actor in the Middle East dynamics. Russian and Iranian citizens will likely benefit from Moscow’s new energy, infrastructure and military deals. This will lead to a new policy and approach regarding Iran. Consequently, Biden and European leaders focus on warming up their ties with Khamenei, which could be beneficial ties for US, EU and Iranian citizens.