The Iran-Russia Friendship Won’t Wither Under Raisi’s Successor

The Iran-Russia Friendship Won’t Wither Under Raisi’s Successor

- in Media Center
40
Comments Off on The Iran-Russia Friendship Won’t Wither Under Raisi’s Successor

On Sunday at 10 p.m. in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin convened an emergency meeting with Iran’s envoy to Russia, Kazem Jalali. The other attendees included some of the most influential figures in Russia’s corridors of power: newly appointed Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov, Security Council Head Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The meeting’s nominal purpose was to offer Moscow’s unequivocal support for Iran’s ongoing efforts to locate the downed helicopter of President Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. The underlying message of the uncharacteristically high-level gathering was unequivocal: Russia’s commitment to Iran would not be tied to a single president.

Within hours of the meeting’s conclusion, two planes and about fifty special rescue forces were dispatched from Moscow to the Iranian city of Tabriz. Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations released multiple videos of the preparations. Although Iran had already officially announced the deaths of both Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian by the time the Russian planes landed, Tehran’s faith in its partnership with Russia must have been reinforced by this display of solidarity.

Russia’s outreach in the initial stages of the search and rescue operations reflected the importance Russia has placed on its ties to Iran since the onset of its 2022 war in Ukraine. Moscow has relied on Iranian drones and munitions to support its war machine. Facing Western sanctions, Russia has looked to Iran for tactics and access to black market networks to weather the economic storm. Aside from the immediate exigencies of the war in Ukraine, Russia and Iran have found common ground in their efforts to repress internal dissent—a hallmark of Raisi’s tenure as president. The sharing of best practices in this regard has further cemented the relationship between the two countries, as they both work to maintain their grip on power and quell domestic opposition.

The “Most Wonderful Person”
The improvement in Russia-Iran ties under Raisi’s tenure was memorialized in the letter Putin sent to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei after the crash. Putin described Raisi as “a true friend to Russia who made an invaluable personal contribution to the establishing of neighborly relations” alongside “great efforts to elevate them to the level of strategic partnership.” Putin concluded by declaring he “will forever remember [Raisi] as the most wonderful person.”

However, for many Iranians, Raisi was anything but. His reputation as a hardline conservative and his role in the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners, known as the “death commissions,” earned him the moniker “the butcher” among opposition groups and human rights activists. As president, Raisi oversaw a brutal crackdown on protests and dissent, most notably sparked by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.

The stark contrast between Putin’s glowing tribute and the perception of Raisi among many Iranians highlights the divergent priorities that underpin the Russia-Iran relationship. For Moscow, Raisi’s hardline stance and his willingness to deepen ties with Russia were assets. Collaboration with a like-minded authoritarian with a bent for confronting the West proved particularly valuable after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That said, Raisi was not unique in his views. He was a reflection of a system that afforded his rise to power. Throughout his career, Raisi enjoyed Khamenei’s tutelage, which enabled a swift rise through the ranks of Iran’s judiciary, where he gained a reputation for his loyalty to the Islamic Republic’s core principles. Raisi’s alignment with Khamenei’s vision was pivotal to his 2021 presidential election victory and positioned him as a key player in Iran’s conservative establishment and a potential future supreme leader.

His victory was symptomatic of a larger shift internally away from the previous administration’s failed outreach toward the international community through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which is now viewed as a failure by the supreme leader and his closest advisers. In particular, the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA under former president Donald Trump and the subsequent reimposition of sanctions dealt a severe blow to the reformist agenda. This turn of events led to the marginalization of reformist factions and created an opening for conservative voices to reassert their influence.

Russia-Iran Relations Under Raisi and Beyond
Raisi’s presidency marked a shift in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy. The latter included a greater emphasis on Iran’s ties to China, as well as to Russia—though this development is not solely a result of his leadership. In Iran’s political system, foreign policy is largely shaped by the supreme leader with input from a cadre of advisers, the members of the Supreme National Security Council, the General Staff, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. These entities wield significant influence over Iran’s international relations, often overshadowing the role of the president. In essence, Raisi served as a willing vestibule to implement the policy choices of an establishment that increasingly saw Russia as a favorable alternative to offset Western pressure.

The strengthening of Iran-Russia ties can be traced back to Russia’s 2015 intervention in the Syrian civil war, when the two governments found themselves aligned in their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Their shared campaign laid the groundwork for a broader expansion of military-to-military channels between Moscow and Tehran. These enhanced ties would prove crucial during Raisi’s tenure, as Iran emerged as a key supplier of military equipment to Russia for its war in Ukraine.

Russia also provided Raisi with several “wins” in his foreign policy by facilitating Iran’s membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and shielding it from scrutiny over its nuclear program. These successes helped to reinforce the narrative of Iran’s growing influence and resilience in the face of Western pressure.

The death of Raisi, a longtime proponent of Russia-Iran relations, comes amid recent changes in Russia, including the installation of a new defense minister. But Moscow’s swift and coordinated support seems to indicate its effort to show that Russia-Iran relations will not be impacted by internal changes in either country. Whoever Raisi’s successor may be, Russia will seek to occupy an important role in Iranian foreign policy as a partner to belie its sense of isolation and as a bulwark against Western pressure.