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Photo description: Meeting with President of Iran Hassan Rouhani.
By Parsa Albeheshti
In last week’s visit of Iranian Navy Commander Hussein Khanzadi to St. Petersburg, the Russian Defense Ministry and the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces signed a memorandum of understanding that seeks to deepen military cooperation between the two countries. According to Khanzadi, a joint Russian-Iranian exercise is expected to be held shortly in the Indian Ocean and possibly in the Persian Gulf.
While the memorandum does not bind the two countries to any specific military commitments (as in an alliance) and serves more as a political gesture, it is a significant turning point in military cooperation between Russia and Iran, given the current state of affairs in the Middle East. With the United States seeking to form a coalition to secure navigation in the Persian Gulf, the Iranians may rely on collaboration with Russia to counter the weight of US and its allies. This could be the first step on the path to form a bilateral military alliance in order to deter possible American aggression against Iran.
Russia is also determined to increase its diplomatic involvement in the region. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently presented Russia’s Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region to the United Nations. The concept is meant to serve as a sort of diplomatic anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) move, which seeks to counter what Moscow perceives as the “destructive policies of the external powers” in the region.
Evidently, Russia is taking advantage of the rising tensions between Iran and the United States following President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal to reshape the Persian Gulf’s security architecture, and entrench its influence in the region. The Trump administration’s hawkish policies towards Iran have positioned Moscow as an appealing player to rely on for security matters in the region.
Russia seems to be following several goals simultaneously. Firstly, it seeks to take advantage of the rising tensions caused by the Trump administration’s policies against Iran to challenge the U.S.’ interests in the region through strengthening military cooperation with Iran. Secondly, it is trying to build its image as a peace broker in the region; An image that Russia has tried to present in the case of the Syrian civil war as well, mediating among several stakeholders including Israel, Iran, the US, Turkey and the Syrian government itself.
With this proposal, Moscow is offering a security framework that is far different from that of the U.S. – which focuses mainly on the alliance of Arab countries (GCC states) against Iran. Through this proposal, Russia is attempting to appeal to the states that have a shared interest in the security of the Persian Gulf. Ultimately, Russia aspires to challenge and perhaps take the U.S. position as the go-to player on regional security matters, both militarily and diplomatically.
The Trump administration’s Middle East policy has created a climate, which makes the region prone to a dangerous military confrontation. As many states in the region are concerned with preventing this possibility, they may find Russia as a more reliable partner for security cooperation.
The Persian Gulf security concept introduced by the Russian Foreign Ministry, the memorandum of understanding signed between Iran and Russia, and even President Putin’s scheduled visit to Saudi Arabia in October can be seen as parts of a larger plan by Moscow to advance these goals and deepen its influence in the Middle East.