Russia’s Asia Pivot Meets With Iran’s Eurasian Tilt

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 31

(Source: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation)

Executive Summary

  • Iran’s supply of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles to Russia is unprecedented, further diminishing any room for rapprochement between the West and Tehran.
  • Tehran and Moscow’s military cooperation has been steadily growing and is nearing a formal alliance.
  • The new interstate treaty will shape bilateral ties in the coming years and will primarily be motivated by Iran and Russia’s shared opposition to the collective West.

On February 21, reports began to surface that Iran has supplied Russia with approximately 400 surface-to-surface ballistic missiles of the Fateh-110 family, which boasts a range of several hundred kilometers (Ukrainska Pravda, February 21). This will enable Russia to pursue its war effort against Ukraine with renewed vigor and effectively hit all parts of the invaded country, causing further destruction of critical infrastructure. 

Tehran’s actions mark an unparalleled level of cooperation between Russia and Iran. Since the end of the Cold War, the two nations have shared a close relationship, but their alignment has expanded following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The West shut out Russia, leaving it to seek allies elsewhere and increase ties with Iran. More immediately, the supply of ballistic missiles follows an announcement from Russian and Iranian officials in January about establishing a new type of bilateral military relationship (MEMRI, January 24). 

Earlier, Iran had been cautious about transferring ballistic missiles to Russia, fearing backlash from the United States and Europe. Tehran has traditionally navigated its differences with the European Union and the United States, which have stressed the snapback mechanism, which would re-impose UN sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Since the UN arms embargo on Iran expired in October 2023, Iran can now legally supply missiles to Russia. Consequently, any sanctions on Iran’s export of ballistic missiles or import of foreign technology to be potentially used by the country are now voluntary (Amwaj, October 23, 2023).

Another reason for the shift in Iran’s position may be its deteriorating relations with the United States on nuclear issues. The conflict in Gaza has altered the situation on the ground, with Washington supporting Israel and Iran increasingly criticizing US involvement in the Middle East.

Two primary considerations likely played a role in Iran deciding to send missile exports to Russia. First, Iran stands to receive significant profits from the transfer. For Iran, payment, possibly in US dollars, would help prop up the foundations of the domestic economy, which has suffered under Western sanctions. Second, Iran may not have perceived a sufficient benefit in supplying Russia with ballistic missiles because Moscow seemed unwilling to reciprocate with the high-tech supply. Iran now seems more confident that Moscow is in dire need of weapons and eager to provide the Islamic Republic with the weaponry it has long withheld.

Beyond missile transfers, Iran continues to provide Moscow with drones and has agreed to establish a factory in Russia for joint drone production (Ekonomichna pravda, August 2, 2023;, November 14, 2023). At the end of last year, Iranian media also reported the arrival and operational readiness of Yak-130 combat trainer aircraft (Al Mayadeen, November 28, 2023). In November 2023, Tehran announced its acquisition of Russian Su-35 fighter jets and Mi-28 attack helicopters, though Iranian officials denied the reports (Iran International, November 28, 2023; Tasnim News Agency, November 28, 2023). Russia almost certainly supplied these technologies in exchange for Iran’s consistent support of Moscow’s war effort.

The expanding military cooperation is part of a broader geopolitical alignment between Iran and Russia. In December 2023, Tehran finalized a long-anticipated free trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) (EAEU, December 25, 2023). This had been in the works for over a decade but had experienced numerous setbacks. Before 2022, Russia was skeptical of Iran’s military and economic potential. Before Moscow’s expanded invasion of Ukraine, the Islamic Republic dealt with heavier sanctions, which naturally limited Moscow’s willingness to invest in and trade with Tehran.

The Kremlin’s calculus shifted after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine when subsequent Western sanctions pushed Russia to reorient its trade and investment potential away from Europe and increasingly toward the Middle East and Asia. As a result, Russia’s trade with Iran has grown. Russian investments into the Islamic Republic have also increased, which gave Tehran fresh impetus to sign the free-trade agreement with the EAEU (Iran International, February 26). This agreement is likely linked to the expanding International North-South Transport Corridor, which runs from Russia’s ports to Iran’s major urban centers in the western part of the country and various ports in the Persian Gulf.

Earlier this year, the two countries announced a prospective interstate agreement that will likely come together as a 20-year deal to expand military, economic, and political ties (The Cradle, January 17). The Islamic Republic News Agency also announced that on February 28, at the 17th session of the Joint Intergovernmental Committee of Economic Cooperation,  Iran and Russia will sign six cooperation documents, including bilateral cooperation in transportation, housing, and free trade zones. Iran’s Minister of Petroleum, Javad Owji, stressed the importance of Iran and Russia’s cooperation in the oil and gas industry (Islamic Republic News Agency, February 28). While not forming an official alliance, this partnership offers both nations greater flexibility on the international stage. For instance, the Iran-Russia document might emphasize mutual respect for sovereignty and promote a multipolar world order.

Iran’s supply of ballistic missiles to Russia signifies Tehran’s dwindling willingness for reconciliation with the West. The room for rapprochement on the nuclear issue is minimal, as Iran’s strategic vision is entirely in line with its pivot to Asia implemented over the past several years. Russia’s unwillingness to invest in the Iranian economy and differing interests across the Middle East may hurt long-term prospects for more concerted bilateral cooperation. The two countries, nevertheless, are currently engaged in full-scale cooperation in the military, economic, infrastructure, and political spheres, effectively reflecting an informal alliance that may be formalized in the coming months.