Many foreign-policy analysts consider Russo-Iranian cooperation to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad an anomaly, a temporary and tactical alliance of convenience between two historic rivals. Not so, argues Oved Lobel, citing decades of coordination between Tehran and Moscow, and a shared overarching interest in opposing America across the globe.
[T]he Islamist regime has maintained a deep warmth for Russia, especially after 1988. Mikhail Gorbachev was the only foreign leader ever to receive a personal letter from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (in 1989) urging him to consider Islam an alternative given the imminent collapse of Communism. This bond has extended to the relationship between Khomeini’s successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Following the sudden rise of the Taliban, Russia and Iran allied against it and backed the Northern Alliance under Ahmad Shah Massoud. But, following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the two countries collaborated on supporting the Taliban, whose then-emir was killed leaving Iran in 2016 after a meeting with Russian leaders.
The clearest demonstration of the Russo-Iranian alliance was their joint intervention in Syria to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but their anti-U.S. alliance spans the globe. For instance, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) sought Iranian support during the “al-Aqsa Intifada,” it went to Moscow to connect with the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), resulting in the 2002 Karine A affair during which the Palestinian Authority tried to smuggle 50 tons of Iranian-supplied weapons into Gaza in flagrant violation of the Oslo Accords.
Russia continues to provide the diplomatic and often military heft and cover to the export of the Islamic Revolution, from Yemen to Syria to Lebanon to the Palestinian-controlled territories. In the 2000s, it helped supply and upgrade Hizballah’s arsenal via Syria, a relationship that has only grown militarily and politically. Russia has also upgraded its relationship with the Islamic Revolution’s proxy in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.