How Russia Will Repay Iran for Its Loyalty

January 13, 2023 | Nadav Pollak
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Despite historical rivalries and competition for oil markets, cooperation between the Kremlin and the Islamic Republic of Iran stretches back many years, and intensified when the two began fighting together to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Since the resumption of the war in Ukraine last year, Tehran has provided Moscow with deadly drones, and may be sending ballistic missiles and other arms as well. This development brings the two countries even closer together, writes Nadav Pollak, and makes it likely that Russia will seek ways to repay its Middle Eastern ally:

Russia can improve Iranian military hardware capabilities significantly, mainly through the provision of air-defense systems, which would honor a longtime Iranian request. . . . Should Iran obtain advanced air-defense systems from Russia, the Tehran regime will be better equipped to thwart any future possible attack on its nuclear infrastructure or other strategic facilities. Add the possibility of acquiring advanced aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-35, and the challenge of executing an aerial attack against Iran while minimizing losses becomes yet a bigger headache for military planners.

Yet a focus on military hardware can obscure other threats to the balance of power between Israel and Iran, first among them intelligence. Here, Russia enjoys advanced capabilities in both imagery and signals intelligence and could furnish such capabilities to Iran, or share sensitive intelligence that could help Iran better defend itself. Imagine here a scenario in which Russia obtains intelligence on Israel’s future war plans, or on covert Israeli operations in the Middle East. Whereas Russia might previously have hesitated to share such information, it may now be more forthcoming, considering the risks to its own people Iran has assumed by arming Russia.

Some Israeli analysts have argued that Iran’s working relationship with Russia, and specifically incoming prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s connection with Vladimir Putin, can alleviate these concerns. This argument holds that Russia will not take any dramatic steps to alter the Israel-Iran balance of power, for fear that this would harm Russia’s relationship with Israel or push Israel to provide Ukraine with air-defense systems. But this argument fails to understand the fundamental change in Russia-Iran relations—namely, Tehran’s rising status in Moscow—a change that will hold if the Ukraine war drags on and Russia needs more Iranian drones and ballistic missiles.

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