Why You Can’t Be an Iran Hawk and a Russia Dove

A Russian victory is an Iranian victory. Moscow and Tehran have formed a military bloc with the aim of defeating the United States and its allies in the Middle East, Europe, and around the world. Russian and Iranian military forces have been fighting alongside one another in Syria for nearly a decade. The Russians have given Iran advanced air defenses and access to other military technologies and techniques, in addition to a front-row seat observing their efforts to defeat American and NATO missile defenses in Ukraine.[1] The Iranians in turn have given the Russians drones and access to drone technologies, including assisting with the construction of a massive factory to turn out thousands of Iranian drones in Russia.[2] Furthermore, Russian support to Iran has been limited in part because of the setbacks Russia has suffered in Ukraine. A victorious Russia will be free to give Iran the advanced aircraft and missile technologies Tehran has long sought.[3] If Russia gains control of Ukraine’s resources, as it seeks to do, it will be able to rebuild its own military and help Iran at the same time. Those concerned with the growth of Iran’s military power, ambitions, and aggression in the Middle East must recognize the degree to which Iran’s fortunes rise and fall with Russia’s.

The Russo-Iranian military coalition was formed in 2015 when Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani went to Moscow to seek help in keeping Bashar al Assad in power in Syria.[4] The Russians sent their own combat aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare assets, and SPETSNAZ (special forces), along with a limited contingent of ground forces to help Soleimani.[5] Russian forces provided air support to Iranian troops and proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian-controlled Iraqi militias, fighting against the anti-Assad opposition—especially the part of that opposition that the United States supported.[6] Russian forces remain in Syria to this day, operating in support of the expanding Iranian presence there.[7]

The Iranians learned a great deal from the combined military operations they conducted with the Russians in Syria, including how to plan and conduct complex ground campaigns and how to incorporate fixed-wing air support with ground troops.[8] The Russians benefited in turn by establishing a major airbase near Latakia and a naval base at Tartus, both effectively defended by the ground forces of Assad, Iran, and Iranian proxies.[9] Russian air and naval forces remain in both locations.”

Russo-Iranian military cooperation has expanded dramatically since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Iranians began sending hundreds of reconnaissance and long-range attack drones to Russia in August 2022 as the Russians exhausted their supply of missiles.[14] Those drones let Russia maintain and increase its pressure on Ukrainian air defenses even as it worked to expand production and modification of its own missile systems. The Iranians even helped Russia build a massive factory in the Republic of Tatarstan able to produce thousands of such drones.[15] Iran will use that system to defend against any US or Israeli operation should conflict escalate in the Middle East. The Russians have given Syria short-range air defense systems such as the Pantsir, which Syrian forces reportedly used in vain attempts to shoot down Israeli aircraft.[16]

“Constraints on Russia’s ability to supply Iran with advanced weaponry will also begin lifting if Russia defeats Ukraine.”

“The primary constraint on Russian support to Iran, therefore, is Russia’s weakness. A Russia battered by failure in Ukraine, licking its wounds, and facing a strong and independent Ukrainian state will have limited resources and energy to devote to helping Iran. A Russia triumphant over the United States and NATO in Ukraine and with the resources of Ukraine at its disposal, on the other hand, will have ample capacity to repay its friends and support them in their efforts to achieve an aim Russia shares — defeating the United States and expelling it from the Middle East.

The notion that the United States should allow Russia to win in Ukraine in order to resist Iran in the Middle East is thus indefensible. Americans must internalize the unpleasant reality that the Russo-Iranian military bloc is a real and vibrant thing, that Moscow will support Tehran against us and our allies as best it can, and that Russia’s victory is Iran’s victory. Russia’s loss, contrariwise, is Iran’s loss. Those wishing to contain Iran therefore must also support helping Ukraine against Russia.”

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