Russia vows to trade arms with Iran -- but at what cost?

By Behrouz Laregani

Russia said in September it will develop military co-operation with Tehran after a UN arms embargo on Iran expires this month. [Photo via ILNA]

Russia said in September it will develop military co-operation with Tehran after a UN arms embargo on Iran expires this month. [Photo via ILNA]

Throwing its political weight behind the Iranian regime in the showdown over the UN arms embargo that expires this month, the Kremlin has dismissed the threat of US sanctions and attempts to isolate Iran, saying it is ready to trade with Tehran.

"New opportunities will emerge in our co-operation with Iran after the special regime imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 expires on October 18th," Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency on September 22nd.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Ivanovich Borisov in late August said Iran is interested in purchasing military equipment from Russia once the arms embargo is lifted.

Washington has said it will seek to prevent Iran from purchasing Chinese tanks and Russian air defence systems, and is "snapping back" virtually all UN sanctions on Iran lifted under a 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran.

Speaking alongside visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on September 24th, Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov dismissed those threats, and expressed hope that other countries co-operating with Iran would follow suit.

Fickle allies

But the Kremlin's decision to side with Tehran on this issue opens the door for potentially irreparable damages to Russian interests in the Middle East and will have a devastating impact on Russia's domestic economy, observers say.

The question is, to what extent can Russia continue to support Iran and bear the brunt of such support on its own economy?

Russia's support for Iran "is temporary and subjective", said Iran-based economist Ahmad Tavakolabadi.

Moscow does not oppose other sanctions on Iran, he said. The sole exception was the arms embargo.

Russia opposed the extension of the UN arms embargo on Iran because it does not want to lose a significant buyer of its old weapons, he told Al-Mashareq.

Russia has always vowed to sell advanced weapons to Iran and has charged the regime for advanced arms, Tavakolabadi said. In reality, Moscow has sold Tehran its outdated weapons and delayed the transfer of advanced technology to Iran.

The Kremlin's influence in Iran extends beyond military support and has increasingly extended into the political realm, he said.

For example, in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran allowed Russia to launch missiles targeting Syria from the Caspian Sea. However, when Russian leaders anticipate how Moscow's ties with Tehran may damage US-Russia relations, they do not hesitate in choosing the US over Iran, Tavakolabadi said.

"The Russians' role in completing the Bushehr power plant is an example of how Russia interacts with Iran," he said.

The Kremlin only considers its immediate financial interests, he said. That is why Russia put a halt to the construction of the nuclear power plant in Iran whenever they encountered aspects of the plan to which the US government was opposed.

Therefore, the completion of the project's first phase took nearly 28 years, he said.

Sanctions pressuring the economy

Tehran has increasingly relied on Russian support in recent years, as US sanctions have continued to put pressure on the tailspinning Iranian economy.

But with Russia's economy also suffering, it is unclear how much longer the Kremlin will be willing to risk its shaky foothold in the Middle East and financial woes at home for the sake of Iran.

After tanking in 2015 and 2016, Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) has been growing slowly, reaching $1.64 trillion in 2019, according to the World Bank.

Iran's GDP was worth just $445 billion in 2017, representing 0.37% of the world economy.

In contrast, the US economy's GDP was worth $21.44 trillion in 2019 -- almost 13 times the size of Russia's economy and representing 17.65% of the world economy.

By taking Tehran's side in the showdown over the UN arms embargo, Russia is setting up its private citizens and companies for US sanctions and will have very little economic power to protect Iran, analysts say.

With little benefit to supporting Tehran, other than political grandstanding on the global stage, the Kremlin is not likely to continue to maintain close ties with Iran in the long term.

Russia-Arab relations influencing Moscow-Tehran ties

Russia's military support for Iran is also rooted in another fact: Arab countries are moving away from Russia and closer to the US.

Faced with continuing threats from the Iranian regime in recent years, Gulf countries have started fortifying their militaries with US military assistance.

"Iran's relations with Russia and Arabs countries' relations with Russia have historically been at odds," said Iran-Arab relations expert Abdollah Kaboli.

"Whenever Arab countries approached Russia, Iran distanced itself from Russia, and whenever Iran approached Russia, Arab countries distanced themselves from it," he told Al-Mashareq.

Gulf countries' foreign policy preferences and their inclination towards broadening relations with the US modify regional politics as a whole, Kaboli said.

This trend will lead to Iran's further isolation in the region, he said.

Russian companies and citizens that violate the sanctions against Iran will be immediately targeted with sanctions by the US government, he said.

Moreover, the sanctions have a domino effect, which means other companies and countries would in turn be barred from doing business with Russian companies.

It is clear, Kaboli said, that even if it wishes to support Iran amid US sanctions, Russia has little power to confront the US.

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