Behind Putin and Khamenei’s courtship

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rarely meets with world leaders, but this week he hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who made his first visit to Iran since 2007. Putin held talks with Khamenei and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.

Moscow and Tehran are attempting to build a closer relationship. As part of the charm offensive, Moscow lifted the ban on tech imports to Iran on the same day Putin arrived in there, with a copy of an old handwritten Quran as a gift for Khamenei. Iran’s hardline media outlets, including Keyhan, raved about the successful meeting.

Although some policy analysts and scholars say Moscow and Tehran are allying to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, the cooperation is nuanced and multifaceted. The question of how long this intensified bilateral relationship will last should be asked.

Shared interests

The timing of Putin’s visit is crucial. Both countries share a common interest in counterbalancing and scuttling U.S. foreign policy in the region. Putin and Iran’s hardliners need each other more than ever before.

He also wants to reassert his global leadership after tensions between the West and Russia raised and economic sanctions were imposed on Moscow, primarily due to its annexation of Crimea. Moscow’s closer ties with Tehran extend its regional influence, and give it leverage that can be used to push the West to lift sanctions.

Putin and Iran’s hardliners need each other more than ever before... Improving ties with Tehran has been a major pillar of Putin’s foreign policy.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Russia and Iran are attempting to intensify their military cooperation in Syria, as their interests are being threatened by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other powerful Syrian rebel groups.

While Russia relies on airstrikes, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxies, such as Hezbollah, can provide the required boots on the ground to make territorial advancements.

Russia favors Iran’s hardliners over its reformists. Hardliners, including Khamenei and IRGC officials, are less likely to undermine Moscow’s global influence by having rapprochement with the United States.

Improving ties with Tehran has been a major pillar of Putin’s foreign policy. It was under his leadership that Mohammad Khatami became the first Iranian president to visit Russia since the 1979 Iranian revolution.


After the nuclear deal between six world powers and Tehran, the latter’s improved ties with European countries and its rapprochement with the United States raised Russian fears that Tehran was leaning toward the West.

Moscow is attempting to cajole Tehran by offering several irresistible deals. Putin announced that Russia was ready to provide a $5 billion state loan to Tehran, and increase trade in several fields, including energy and railway electrification. He also said his country would resume exporting nuclear technology to Iran, modernizing the heavy water reactor in Arak, and support Tehran in exporting additional and highly enriched uranium.

One of Russia’s main concerns is that the West might decrease its energy dependence by tapping into Iran’s oil and gas sectors. Iran seeks a larger role in the gas market, and is welcoming Western partnership. Moscow and Tehran have the first- and second-largest gas reserves in the world.

Improved ties between Tehran and the West could endanger Russian exports to Iran (mainly petroleum), as former Soviet states could become better alternatives for Tehran to purchase petroleum. Iran is playing its cards wisely. By playing the West and Russia against each other, Tehran is advancing its regional hegemony.

Although Russia and Iran are expected to become closer, there are still limitations. Moscow does not want to damage its ties with other regional powers and Iran’s rivals, including Israel and Turkey. Protecting these relationships would create obstacles between Moscow and Tehran.

However, since the geopolitical and ideological gaps between the United States and Iran are too deep to bridge, Moscow and Tehran will continue to seize the opportunity by relying on each other due to their convergence of interests in the region and their shared antipathy toward Washington.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: Dr.Rafizadeh@post.harvard.edu, or on Twitter: @MajidRafizadeh

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