Russia in the strategic culture of Iran

Moscow and Tehran seem to have forged a strong alliance that can possibly save the Assad regime from otherwise imminent downfall. Syrian conflict demonstrates that powers like Russia and Iran, despite all existing contradictions between them, are willing to tolerate each other. To understand the nature of their bilateral cooperation we should look at how Iran perceives Russia and what place Moscow takes in Tehran’s national security policy.

Any analysis of a security policy would require a sophisticate theoretical tool, in our case we will use a strategic culture approach to see what Iranian security policy looks like. According to its generally accepted definition, a strategic culture is an ideational framework, in which major decision makers outline national security policy. A strategic culture is regarded as a set of non-formal, highly abstract and symbolic ideas and notions, which nevertheless play a significant role in the decision making process.

Too big to ignore, too important to reject

Iranian regime after it was established during the so-called Islamic Revolution in 1979 found itself involved in a number of the regional conflicts, starting from the disastrous war with the Saddam Iraq in 1980-1988 to proxy wars with Israel. Often Iranian regime showed its preference to wage protracted conflicts of low intensity, where primary goal is to exhaust its enemy and defeat its will to fight further. Such conflicts of exhaustion require enormous diplomatic cover to shield Iran from outside pressure. Moscow’s vast diplomatic resources, especially its veto power in the UN Security Council, make Russia a valuable partner for Iran, who is struggling to expand and protect its positions in Syria and Yemen.

Moreover, as we know Iranian regime’s worldview is based on the staunch opposition to the Western domination in the region. Iranian involvement in major conflicts in the region sought to challenge Western allies militarily. This rendered necessity to use military technologies that would be on par with the western ones. Since the fall of the USSR, Russia has been one of the world leaders in the arms exports. Technological and military cooperation between Iran and Russia, therefore, also has to strengthen Tehran’s military capabilities and its positions in future confrontations.

Nevertheless, it would be prudent to claim that Iran is driving itself into full dependence on Russia. When dealing with Russian-Iranian relations one should consider that Tehran views its ties with Moscow just as a mere part of a broader set of relations with non-western powers, like Turkey, Pakistan or China. The latter is also, like Russia, a UN SC veto power with enormous military potential. In addition to that, Peking can offer Tehran things that Moscow doesn’t have – lucrative credits and incredible economic, trade and technological opportunities.

Enough reasons to dislike Moscow

Political elites in Iran, who are responsible for defining main precepts of the national security policy, have to build their decisions upon major principles of the Iranian Revolution and guiding doctrines developed by its leaders. Iranian regime tries to defend itself from inside and outside threats, meanwhile acting pro-actively in the region. Tehran’s revolutionary, anti-colonial, anti-western activism blended together with the Islamic zeal produced a unique foreign policy vision.

Iran sees the Middle East as a region that has long been suffering from outside interventions. According to this worldview, current problems of the region are brought and caused by the West. A viable solution to the most evils in the Middle East is to drive all outside powers from the region and give the local population the right to decide their own fate.

For Iran, Russia is one of those outside powers that attempt to settle down in the region and manipulate political processes in the Middle East. To make things worse, Russia, despite Tehran’s muted resentment, seeks to pursue its national interests by playing an active role in Syria – “a golden chain” of the Iranian sphere of influence.

But for Iran, Russia is not just an outside power. Moscow’s foreign policy embodies Western domination over the non-western world. With its exclusive positions within the international organizations and close diplomatic ties to other western countries Russia represents a part of the modern colonial system. Besides, Iranians still remember the dramatic history of relations with their northern neighbor, when Russian Empire and Soviet Union on multiple occasions invaded Iran to secure its political interests in this country.

Even more, current cooperation between Iran and Russia is complicated by their different religious affiliations. Russia is a predominantly Christian country with a strong religious identity that recently started to come to the forefront in the Russian foreign policy discourse. Moscow not only has troubles in accommodating Muslim population at home, it also signals internationally that it ready to coordinate its efforts in Syria with Israel, an archenemy of the Iranian regime.

So why Iran tolerates proactive Russia

The main reason behind Iran’s tolerant approach to the Russian active engagement in Syria lies in Tehran’s awareness of fundamental weaknesses in  Moscow’s positions in the Middle East.

First of them is the absence of broad military capacities or political will for a long-term presence in the region that eventually can threaten Iranian ambitions. Indeed, Russia demonstrated its ability to send and deploy troops, but one should really doubt Moscow’s ability to sustain its substantial presence over a longer period. Also, Russia can’t manage events on the ground single-handedly - its presence requires considerable assistance of Damascus and Tehran.
Another factor, which is generally overlooked by the experts, is that Russian has no established system of alliances in the region. The only regional players that are so far ready to cooperate with Moscow and tolerate its ambitions are Damascus and Tehran. Also, if we take into account Russia’s strained relations with Turkey and a lack of history of cooperation with Saudi-Arabia, we realize that Tehran is Moscow’s only available option to get into the Middle East and be anchored in this region.

Finally, Iran accepts Russian engagement in Syria and even its broader participation in the regional political processes also due to the fact that Russia doesn’t have enough humanitarian and economic resources to expand its positions so that to threaten Iranian interests in the Middle East. Besides its appeal to the local Orthodox Christians, Moscow has not yet presented any ideological models or set of ideas attractive to the local population. In short, Russia doesn’t have soft power necessary to act as a trend-setting actor in the Middle East.


When looking at the heart of Russian-Iranian cooperation we see that Tehran’s tolerance for the Russian proactive policy in Syria is based on the understanding that without Russian resources Iranian regime would not be able to pursue its foreign policy goals and uphold its national security. Acceptance is also rooted in the understanding of Moscow’s genuine motifs behind such activism in the region. Finally, Iran seems to accept an alliance with Russia mainly because it is aware of profound limitations of the Russian positions in the Middle East.

Timur Akhmetov

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