The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Desperate for allies, Russia cultivates ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia

Russia is using Iranian-manufactured kamikaze drones to attack Ukraine, including in central Kyiv, where debris was left outside a damaged apartment building. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

RIGA, Latvia — A hot mic incident on pro-Kremlin television last week confirmed that the drones Moscow is using to kill Ukrainians and to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure are manufactured and supplied by Iran — exposing the repeated denials by Moscow and Tehran as false.

“We all know the drones are Iranian,” Ruslan Pukhov, a military expert close to the Russian Defense Ministry, told the anchors on RBC television, clearly unaware that they were live on air. “But the government has not admitted to it,” he muttered. He compared the situation to a body part that everyone knows they have but no one ever mentions in polite company.

The public denials by Russia and Iran, despite overwhelming evidence, highlight the expanding common ground between two nations bound closer than ever by their leaders’ anti-Western worldview and embrace of conspiracy theories, their willingness to use violence to achieve regional goals, their economic isolation under sanctions, brutal repression of their own citizens and their predilection for official lies.

The relationship of convenience has grown increasingly vital for Russia, which has suffered severe setbacks in its war in Ukraine and, humbling as it might be for an aspiring superpower, is turning to Iran for attack drones and missiles — potentially in violation of U.N. sanctions that Russia approved.

The closer ties could redraw regional alliances for decades to come, as the Kremlin balances tricky competing relationships — with Iran for weapons and support to sustain the war — and with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s bitter rival, to keep oil prices elevated and Russia’s war chest overflowing.

Iran’s arms sales to Russia mark a seismic shift — the Islamic republic’s first intervention in a European war, and a military role that poses uncertain risks for the United States, Israel, Turkey and others.

“This is an absolutely new chapter in Iran-Russia relations,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s quite a decisive move from the Iranians to so firmly inject themselves into a war on European soil.”

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“Hitching your wagon to a country like Russia, which, even under the best-case scenario for Russia in the context of this war, will leave Russia deeply weakened and damaged, is certainly a risky proposition,” Rome said.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has upended the geopolitical order in a manner not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. With persistent threats of a nuclear strike, mutual accusations of plans to use a “dirty bomb,” and growing evidence that Russia has committed war crimes, fears of a new world war have never been greater.

Russian President Vladimir Putin dreams of a multipolar world in which the decaying West is stripped of its influence and he and other dictators can redivide the globe into spheres of influence, reaping resources to enrich themselves and claiming empirical greatness while viciously quashing dissent.

“Both the Iranian regime and the Russian Federation have one thing in common,” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran and Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They both explain their strategic situations through the prism of conspiracy theories, so the level of engagement between the two states is likely to intensify as they both find themselves in a similar position, at odds with the international community and also with their own respective publics.”

As Iran decisively casts its lot with Russia and China, hopes have faded for the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, abandoned by U.S. President Donald Trump, that restricted Tehran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program in return for sanctions relief for Iran.

Recent political unrest in Iran only increases the likelihood that Iran will turn to Russia for support, with Moscow able to use its veto as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to block any action against Tehran.

Iran’s leaders probably also hope that by helping Russia’s fight in Ukraine, they can prove their country to be a serious military player globally and leverage arms sales for desperately needed revenue. They appear to believe they can weather the cost, as the United States and European Union level new sanctions in response.

“If you put yourself in the heads of some Iranian officials, I think there is a strategic logic to this approach,” Rome said. “I think the logic is likely that, ‘The nuclear talks are unproductive. We can’t trust the West. We’ve been making do on our own economically, and our future is Russia and China.”

He added: “There likely is a benefit to being the country that comes in behind Russia at its time of need.”

Putin demands that U.S. respect ‘multipolar’ world and tell Ukraine to seek peace

U.S. officials have reported that Iran plans to send more drones and also powerful ballistic missiles to Russia, which has depleted its own missile stocks.

The United States also has said that the Iranians are training Russian drone operators at a base in Russian-occupied Crimea. Ukraine’s National Resistance Center, part of the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces, reported this week that Iranian drone trainers were helping the Russians coordinate drone strikes in Mykulichi, near Gomel in southern Belarus.

Western nations are rushing to supply Ukraine with better air defenses, but missile deliveries from Iran could tilt the balance in combat, resulting in further destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure and a longer, bloodier war, as Putin bets that Western unity will eventually fracture and that support for Ukraine will tail off.

Moscow and Tehran fought on the same side in Syria, supporting its dictator, Bashar al-Assad, a mutual ally. But the relationship has grown far closer this year, cultivated in a flurry of meetings between Russian and Iranian officials. The most notable was Putin’s July meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who embraced the false narrative that Russia had no choice but to invade Ukraine to defend itself from a possible attack.

In a key meeting this month, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber and senior Iranian security officials visited Moscow, where, according to Reuters, they agreed on new weapons deliveries.

Blaming NATO for the killings of Ukrainians, Mokhber proposed a joint working group to undermine Western sanctions, saying Tehran had a lot to teach Moscow.

“We have been under these sanctions for 40 years and did not allow them to undermine the government of the country or to seriously affect us,” Mokhber said in Moscow, where he met Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

During the July talks, the Russian gas giant Gazprom signed a memorandum of understanding concerning a $40 billion deal with the National Iranian Oil Company. In September, Russia sent a delegation of 65 business leaders to Iran.

For all the rosy talk, however, the alliance poses risks, and there is lingering distrust between Russia and Iran. Russia previously voted in favor of U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, and Iranian leaders saw Moscow as unhelpful during the international talks that led to the 2015 nuclear deal, according to Takeyh.

Russia and Iran’s competition for oil and natural gas sales has sharpened recently, with Moscow pivoting to China as its main future market, undercutting the price of Iranian oil, even as Iran’s economy struggles with high unemployment, inflation and shortages.

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Putin prides himself as a player who does business with all sides in the Middle East. But his war in Ukraine has contributed to global economic turmoil, particularly in the energy sector, and is creating political headaches that will require Putin to maneuver carefully through delicate regional rivalries.

Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia have soured over its decision this month to cooperate with Russia to cut oil production and keep prices high, and Biden has warned of “some consequences for what they’ve done with Russia.”

Andrew S. Weiss and Jasmine Alexander-Greene, analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote recently that Putin could use Russia’s oil muscle, in tandem with Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, to hurt his Western adversaries.

Saudi Arabia and others see Washington losing interest in their region, making cooperation with Moscow potentially more fruitful for them. Putin said in a foreign policy speech Thursday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was merely pursuing his own national interests.

“I know the crown prince personally very well,” Putin said. “He wants to balance out the energy markets. ... For the international energy markets, the most important thing is predictability and stability. That’s what matters, and the crown prince strives for that.”

Israel also has come under increasing pressure to help Ukraine, as Putin’s war is increasingly seen as a testing ground for Iranian drones and weapons that could be turned against Israel, a state that Iran has repeatedly vowed to destroy.

Iran may be hoping to reverse Russia’s refusal in the past to provide it with S-400 air-defense systems and advanced fighter jets, moves that would alarm Saudi Arabia and potentially Turkey.

If Putin defeats and dismembers Ukraine, Iran, as an early and crucial ally, also may be expecting big energy investments and Moscow’s support in global institutions.

But if Russia, sanctioned and weakened, fails in Ukraine, Iran’s decision to shackle itself to Putin will further damage its own global economic and political prospects. “If Russia loses the war — whatever that means — and Vladimir Putin is still in power — then the Russian Federation is the Iraq of 1990s: an irredeemable international actor with a president who has committed war crimes,” Takeyh said.

Iran, however, probably still would pursue close ties with Moscow, he said, as a NATO-backed victory for Ukraine would only reinforce Iran and Russia’s anti-Western outlook.

“It matters to them for Russia to be a recalcitrant actor, isolated from the West and relying on revisionist states,” Takeyh added.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

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