In recent months, there has been increasing discussion about the growing relationship between Russia and Iran. Both countries have been at odds with the West in various ways, so, unsurprisingly, there is some concern about what a deeper military collaboration could mean for the region.

The Potential Risks of Russian-Iranian Military Cooperation Amid Sanctions

According to assessments by western officials, Russia has refrained from buying ballistic missiles from Iran out of fear that Ukraine’s allies would counter by supplying Kyiv with long-range rockets in response. This reluctance indicates the potential risks involved in such a move, considering the United States threat to provide Kyiv with the long-sought “Atacms” missile system, which has a 300km range and could reach deep into Russian territory.

The emergence of this risk is further exacerbated by Iran’s willingness to engage in military cooperation with Russia. In recent months, it has sent hundreds of armed drones to Russia, which have been used to attack Ukrainian critical infrastructure. Consequently, this development has raised concerns among western capitals, who believe that Tehran may be planning more military operations in collaboration with Moscow and could eventually result in an armed confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. 

Former CIA director and retired army general General David Petraeus warned that the US would obviously retaliate if these two nations continued to bond over their alliance against Ukraine and NATO.

“Just to give you a hypothetical, we would respond by leading a Nato – a collective – effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea,” he told ABC News.

Moreover, these concerns have been further reinforced by recent events – notably the US withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As a result, Iran is now under more significant economic pressure than ever before. This could push it to increase its reliance on Russia for support and resources, especially defense spending. Therefore if such an arrangement were established between them, then it is highly likely that Moscow would leverage its position in order to gain access to Iranian military technology, which would significantly increase its capacity to project power beyond its current borders or pose threats against other countries – particularly those located close by. 

“This is a situation that obviously troubles all of us a great deal,” says Julianne Smith, US ambassador to NATO. “It is a topic of conversation inside the alliance. And we will continue to send signals to Iran about the dangers of supporting Russia with material support in its attacks and war inside Ukraine.”

In light of these developments, western nations must remain vigilant in monitoring any potential collaborations between Iran and Russia as they represent substantial risks due to the combined strength of both militaries. Therefore, world leaders must take all necessary measures, such as imposing stringent sanctions or engaging in diplomatic talks with Tehran, to avoid any potential escalation between these two countries that may endanger global peace and security.

Iran’s drones and other weapons also threaten Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, which could lead to further conflict in this part of Europe.

“We have had defence cooperation with Russia in the past, and we continue that cooperation, but we have not provided Russia with any weapons to be used in the war in Ukraine,” Hossein Amirabdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, told CNN last week.

For example, Putin’s economic confidants recently visited Tehran to discuss additional areas of collaboration between both nations. Furthermore, Iran has denied selling weapons to Russia despite concerns from Washington that such sales would increase tensions in the region. These visits show that both Moscow and Tehran are confident in their partnership and are looking for ways to strengthen it even further.

“There have been discussions [on ballistic missiles], but so far they haven’t done it,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the Crisis Group think-tank. “The Europeans [told them] the consequences would be very grave. The US has also drawn a redline.”

Iranian Military Bolstered by Russian Money

As tensions between the United States and Iran continue to simmer, the potential for Russian-Iranian military cooperation has raised alarm bells in Washington. While there is no evidence that such cooperation is currently taking place, the possibility must be addressed, given the close relationship between Moscow and Tehran.

The most likely area of cooperation between Russia and Iran would be in the realm of air defense. Iran possesses several sophisticated Russian-made surface-to-air missile systems, including the S-300 and Buk M2. Russia also has extensive experience in anti-aircraft warfare, having significantly used surface-to-air missiles in conflicts such as the war in Syria.

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S-300P self-propelled surface-to-air missile system, rehearsal for the Independence Day military parade in Kyiv, 2018 (Source: VoidWanderer/Wikimedia Commons)

If Russia were to assist Iran in improving its air defense capabilities, it would greatly complicate any future military action against Iran by the United States or Israel. The S-300 system, in particular, is designed to defend against precision airstrikes, a vital component of both countries’ military strategies.

In addition to air defense, Russia and Iran could also cooperate in other areas, such as missile development and maritime security. Missiles are a crucial area of focus for both countries, and they have already cooperated in this area in the past. For example, in 2015, Russia delivered a shipment of S-300 missiles to Iran, despite strong objections from the United States.

Maritime security is another potential area of cooperation between Russia and Iran. Both countries have a strong interest in protecting their shipping lanes and have been working together on this issue for some time. In 2018, the two countries held joint naval exercises in the Persian Gulf for the first time.

The increasing closeness of the Russian-Iranian relationship is a cause for concern for the United States and its allies. If Russia were to provide military assistance to Iran, it would significantly increase Tehran’s ability to defend itself against outside aggression. This would make any future military action against Iran much more complicated and risky, potentially leading to a broader conflict in the region.