The late Iran president, Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash at the weekend, at a previous meeting in Russia with Vladimir Putin (Photo: Kremlin)


Why Iran’s abrupt transition matters to Russia

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The death of the president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, has sent shockwaves across the Middle East and the wider world. Russia, which has managed to strike a partnership with the Islamic Republic, will be looking on with interest to see where its powerful southern neighbour goes next. 

Vladimir Putin wasted no time to reiterate Russia’s strong ties with Iran almost as soon as the news of Raisi’s passing was confirmed. The Russian president described his Iranian counterpart as “a true friend of Russia”, who made “an invaluable personal contribution to the development of good-neighbourly relations between our countries.” 

It was essential for Russian interests that Putin did so.

Raisi made Iran a critical partner to Russia at a time when the Kremlin faces political isolation and pressure to sustain its attritional war in Ukraine. The Russian armed forces have become increasingly dependent on Iranian drones, artillery, and air-to-ground munitions. But perhaps more importantly, mutual suspicion and distrust has been the default guiding principle of the relationship between Tehran and Moscow. 

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia - whether in Tsarist or Soviet forms - controlled the South Caucasus, a region that had previously fallen under the rule of the Persian empire

Conversely, the Islamic fundamentalism of the 1979 revolution represented a direct challenge to what Russia considers to be an integral part of its sphere of influence. Azerbaijan enjoys deep ties with Iran as the former Soviet republic adheres to the Shiite branch of Islam.

It is only a reciprocal antagonism towards the US, combined with deep resentment at the loss of great power status, that has facilitated the current Russo-Iranian alignment.

Iran’s support for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine stems largely from finding commonality with Moscow on specific issues. For instance, Raisi called Nato’s enlargement a “serious threat” to regional stability shortly after Putin launched his so-called special military operation in February 2022.

But Iran’s backing of Russia has not been without its limits by any means. The Raisi presidency took care to pursue a foreign policy that did not tie Iran down to Russia’s war against Ukraine and cut its dialogue with the West off completely. At the height of Europe’s energy crisis in 2022, the Iranian oil ministry indicated a proposal to export gas to the European continent in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. 

Raisi was prepared to test the strength of Iran’s relationship with Russia in the South Caucasus too. Tehran has taken advantage of diminished Russian influence in the fiercely-contested region as a result of the war in Ukraine and Azerbaijan’s victory over Russia’s ally, Armenia, in Nagorno-Karabakh. Last October, construction began on a new transit corridor connecting Azerbaijan and its landlocked exclave, Nakhchivan, with Iranian support. 

Power vacuum

However, the power vacuum in Tehran left in the wake of Raisi’s sudden death means that Russia has the conditions to consolidate its relations with Iran as a strategic asset. It is likely that the balanced foreign policy considerations of the Raisi administration will give way to the hardliners who prioritise regime survival above all else. Change in leadership does not sit easily with Iran. Every president of the Islamic Republic since 1981 has served the maximum two terms in office.

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, has already emerged as a potential candidate to succeed Raisi. He belongs to a group within the Iranian political elite who advocate maintaining close ties with Russia and see Moscow as a necessary counterbalance to US military presence close to Iran’s borders. Ghalibaf shares Russian concerns over perceived Western threats, including sanctions and the issue of Nato enlargement.

Even aside from the issue of Raisi’s succession, Russia will welcome the marginalisation of moderates and reformists within the Islamic Republic’s government that the transition entails. The role of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in the affairs of the Iranian state expanded during the Raisi presidency, which enabled Moscow to receive crucial military support from Tehran. The IRGC’s privileged position in Iranian politics is set to continue as the Israel-Gaza war rages on and Iran grapples with acute socio-economic instability. 

Of course, no transition can reverse the distrust and suspicion that has shaped Russo-Iranian relations over the ages. It is not a surprise that two giant civilisations with contrasting identities and outlooks come frequently into conflict. 

But Iran’s next president may be better suited than Raisi to strengthen the Islamic Republic’s alignment with Russia. The Kremlin stands ready to capitalise as Putin marshals what is left of his soft power. 

The late Iran president, Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash at the weekend, at a previous meeting in Russia with Vladimir Putin (Photo: Kremlin)


Author Bio

Hugo Blewett-Mundy is a non-resident associate research fellow from the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.


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