Iran and Russia, two isolated fossil fuel giants suffering under U.S. sanctions, are rapidly trying to develop new areas of bilateral cooperation in order to make up for their pariah statuses. But rather than being spurred by shared values or a history of warm ties, the Tehran-Moscow bond is incentivized by their shared enmities as well as short-term calculations about their present standing in the world. The 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which fast-tracked Moscow’s progressive estrangement from the West, drove Russia and the Islamic Republic to solidify their connections in the face of the United States’ apparent determination to cement their isolation.
From reports that Iran may deliver “several hundred” drones to Russia for its war against Ukraine to Iranian state media’s celebration of a tentative $40 billion energy deal between Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum and Russia’s Gazprom, signs increasingly point to the maturation of an alliance of convenience and the consummation of a nascent anti-U.S. bulwark in Eurasia.
This affinity has been advancing so expeditiously that the leaders of the Islamic Republic, in stark departure from their longstanding position on foreign intervention and “imperial” wars, have explicitly come out in support of Russia’s aggression and rationalized it as an intrinsic “response” to NATO’s provocations — an interpretation that even regime loyalists take with a grain of salt.
For Tehran, this foreign policy shift toward closer synchronization with Moscow is seen as necessary for bolstering Iranian resilience to external pressure. But however unapologetically Iran may be promoting its tightening relations with Russia, the Iranian public is obviously not convinced that this will serve their national interest, is productive, or is even consistent with their ideologies.
The Copenhagen-based Alliance of Democracies Foundation’s 2022 Democracy Perception Index (DPI) notably determined that 50% of Iranian people hold a negative perception of Russia, while only 15% expressed very or somewhat positive views of that country. Attitudes toward Russia are more negative among the citizens of Iran than among Egyptians or Saudi Arabians — both close regional U.S. partners — or even the populations of the U.S.’s NATO allies Greece, Hungary, and Turkey.
Iranians’ negative perceptions of Russia extend back to well before the eruption of full-scale war in Ukraine. A decade earlier, in 2011, Gallup found that only 13% of Iranians approved of Russia’s role in the world, outweighed by 52% who viewed it negatively.
The limited presence of international organizations in Iran and the state’s deliberate insularity have meant that the Iranian perspective is rarely reflected in global opinion surveys. This makes it particularly difficult to identify or discern a diversity of thought in the population, often leading to erroneous characterizations of Iranians as a conservative and isolationist monolith.
By the same token, polls carried out by Iranian organizations tend to be skewed and hardly trustworthy given the inextricable conflicts of interest and the government’s outsized clout in influencing domestic polling entities. Even so, it is fair to assume that despite the above-mentioned hurdles, the occasional opinion surveys of Iranians completed by major Western institutions such as Gallup or the Alliance of Democracies Foundation — whose finding tend to be, on the whole, reliable and are taken for granted around the world — are authentic and illustrative of the realities of Iran.
The bitter history of the Russian Empire’s regional interventions and the territorial losses incurred by Iran as a result of the Russo-Persian Wars between 1651 and 1828 perpetuated Iranians’ views of Russia as a colonial interloper. This historiography may form the foundation that has galvanized such negative Iranian sentiments against their neighbor from across the Caspian Sea.
But antipathy toward Russia and its global footprint is reinforced by the Iranian public’s perception that, more recently, Moscow repeatedly failed to demonstrate its commitment to mutually beneficial relations, and there are paltry indications that it has ever been a reliable partner. Iranians hold Russia partially liable for their current economic agonies, believing that by voting in favor of six United Nations Security Council resolutions against Iran’s nuclear program, between 2006 and 2010, Moscow in effect rubber-stamped the West’s sanctions. Those punitive economic policies have resulted in a recession and widespread deprivation, with 36.1% of the population currently living below the poverty line. Many Iranians contend that had Russia simply leveraged its veto power at the Security Council in defense of its supposed ally, perhaps the nuclear saga could have followed an entirely different trajectory, and Iran would not have been squeezed by such punishing measures.
Many Iranians also refuse to be persuaded by a conformist reading of their country’s foreign policy, and so this group sees no reason to differentiate between the United States and Russia as great powers that are largely driven by their own interests rather than ethical standards, multilateralism, or responsibility to their allies and partners. They say that if the hegemonic U.S. is worthy of suspicion and mistrust because of how it conducts itself overseas, Russia should similarly not be spared critical scrutiny, considering that it routinely puts its agenda ahead of the rule of law and has no compunction about disrupting the global order or betraying its “allies.”
Russia’s work on the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, which was supposed to become operational in 2001 under an agreement between Iran and Russia’s Minatom, was originally valued at $800 million. But it eventually cost Tehran more than $11 billion and took nearly four decades to complete because of Moscow’s repeated postponements. Domestically, the nuclear plant has become a case in point on how relations with Russia have been dysfunctional, despite the Iranian government’s assertions to the contrary.
In the eyes of the more radical doomsayers and the opposition in exile, who view every action and gesture by the Iranian government in a cynical light, Russia’s trifling political, economic, and military support for the Islamic Republic and Iran’s reciprocal concessions are evocative of a colonial relationship. To these critics, the leaders of Iran have sold off the country and its vast resources to the Russians and gotten almost nothing in return.
For instance, after the convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea was agreed to in 2018 and signed by the five littoral states, there was a huge outcry by Iranian nationalists that the government had surrendered Iran’s 20% share of the Caspian Sea waters and settled for a 13% portion so as to ingratiate itself with Russia — a charge that was, indeed, somewhat true. Some even rehashed the myth that Iran controlled 50% of the Caspian Sea waters but had forsworn its entitlement so as to win Russia’s support. These detractors of the Islamic Republic, whose view is echoed by many ordinary Iranians and domestic critics as well, insist that by putting all its eggs in the Russia basket, Iran has unbalanced its foreign policy and entirely decoupled itself from the West, which will eventually harm the nation and its long-term interests.
The Iranian government, meanwhile, has invested heavily in trying to sway public attitudes toward Russia, placate the resentments that have piled up against Vladimir Putin’s idiosyncratic statecraft, as well as paper over the centuries-long historical grudges Iranians hold against Russian imperial policies toward their country.
In a 2007 meeting with Putin in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “The image of the nation of Russia in our minds is a bright and positive one.” His statement raised eyebrows and brought to mind several examples of how the Russian Empire had subdued and beguiled Persian royal dynasties over time, especially the Qajar kings, and annexed vast swaths of Iran’s territory from what was once one of the largest countries in the world.
The Islamic Republic’s propaganda arm has long sought to market Russia as a benign companion and trusted ally that will ring-fence the isolated country from the economic pressure of U.S. sanctions. Increasingly, the official media pushes narratives about how much Russian people love Iranians and that Russian travel influencers are flocking to Iran to explore its natural and architectural wonders.
But it seems the government will have a hard time winning over a doubting public that does not understand Russia through the prism of state propaganda. Instead, a plurality of Iranians would like to see balanced ties with all nations and for Tehran to pursue a mature, pragmatic overseas agenda in place of the current sensationalist modus operandi grounded in anti-Western revolutionary zeal.
Based on the Islamic Republic’s current path, it is unlikely that popular opposition to the fulsome relationship with Russia will make any difference to the government’s policies. Like in many social, cultural, and economic spheres, the hard core of the leadership does not worry about whether its decisions appeal to the people, particularly the middle class, which it not only does not consider part of its popular base of support but in fact treats as an internal enemy. As long as relations with Moscow satisfy the government’s short-term entreaties for survival, Tehran will prosecute those ties, even to the chagrin of a dubious population.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning journalist from Iran, an Asia Times correspondent, and a former Chevening Scholarship recipient.
Photo credit DMITRY AZAROV/AFP via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.