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Russia and Iran Relations Since the Eighteenth Century Essay

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Updated: Sep 10th, 2021


This paper would discuss and evaluate the mutual relations between Iran and Russia since eighteenth century to date. It would cover all the aspects and perspectives of foreign, economic, cultural and political relations between the two countries.


Russia is the single greatest geopolitical fact of life for Iran. No other power in the region is capable of invading, defeating, occupying, and exercising hegemony over Iran except the Soviet Union. This is Iran’s central, immutable foreign policy reality. The threat to Iran from the north long predates the historical expansion of the Russian people southward. Indeed, the steppes of Central Asia visited upon Iran many of its greatest invasions — in the form of various Turkic-Mongol populations. The Mongols’ invasion and destruction of Iran was utterly devastating, and the various Turkic tribes conquered and controlled Iran for several hundred years, were peoples whose historic homeland was Central Asia. In the end, however, no other state has permanently seized from Iran as much Persian territory – lands that were under long-term historical Persian cultural domination – as has Russia.

The Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani states of the southern Caucasus have for long periods of time either been under Persian domination or at least nominally under Persian suzerainty. Much of Central Asia has been a pre-eminent centre of Persian culture and civilization for nearly three millennia, most of the time under some degree of Persian political control. Iran to this day has not forgotten its historical role and maintains special interest in developments in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Iran gained its first real whiff of Russian power as Peter the Great made plans for extending Russian authority down into the Black Sea and the Caucasus. The British were now well on their way to becoming Russia’s chief rival for expanding Asian empire. From this point on, the growth of Russian influence in Iran was to follow an ascending curve; by 1900 Russia was the dominant foreign power in Iran.

The True Restraints: Political/Military/Opportunity Costs

For the rulers of Iran, contiguous Russian land power was not going to go away – in sharp contrast to the expansion of European power periodically projected across the seas into Asia. The present borders between Iran and the USSR can therefore be best described as a historical accident – where the process of southern expansion happened to be stopped. Imperial Russia probably did intend to continue its physical acquisition of territory south when the circumstances were again pro piteous. But as global politics evolved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Russia found sufficient disincentive not to make further territorial acquisition at Persian expense, when gauged against its other interests.

Russia’s Economic and Trade Options with Iran

As the nineteenth century progressed, local opposition to the rapacious policies of foreign powers gained ground among the more knowledgeable elite within Iran. It was indeed an indicator of the power of Russian influence that it could help stir up opposition against British privilege, while largely stifling any such expression against Russia. Foreign trade with Russia was equally skewed in Russia’s favour and imposed upon Tehran. A commercial instrument stemming from 1828 afforded Russian extraterritorial privileges and capitulatory terms, already afforded to Britain. Because Russian goods were even then not competitive with European goods, Russia abolished the free trade route to Europe through the Caucasus, helping ensure a monopoly for itself in Iran. These concessions, strengthened by the conditions of Russia’s loans to Persia, conspired to tie Persian trade closely to Russia (Lenczowski, p. 6). Popular protest against these policies was ignored by the shah.

Russia Stifles Nascent Democracy in Iran

Russian control over so much of Iranian life was extended in an even more damaging direction as Iran moved toward its own constitutional and nationalist revolution from 1905 to 1913. Nationalist sentiment had been growing strongly during the late nineteenth century; it was powerfully fuelled by the deep resentment on the part of the Iranian elite and merchant class of the humiliating concessions and controls enjoyed by a multitude of European states in Iran. There was also anger at the fickle, arbitrary, and despotic character of the shah and at the lack of central government control over the country as it increasingly descended into the hands of local aristocracy, brigands, tribes, and foreign consuls.

As the Qajar dynasty lurched toward ever greater impotence, incompetence, and national disaster, forces grew for the creation of a constitutional government that would limit the powers and authority of the shahs. Genuine nationalist and reformist forces began to emerge, in part joined by more liberal clergy, artisans, merchants, and others. Resentment of foreign interference was its driving force. Russia naturally saw this constitutional movement as a direct threat to its own interests and ability to manipulate Iranian affairs. It therefore moved to ally itself directly with pro-Shah and anti-constitutionalist forces. But by 1907 international events were conspiring to seal Iran’s fate in the form of Anglo-Russian collusion. Both England and Russia had come to fear the rising force of Germany in Europe and Germany’s interest in spreading its influence to the East through Ottoman Turkey. Britain was also concerned with the possible penetration of Russian influence into the Persian Gulf where British interests were complex, widespread, and strategic.

Russia proceeded to combine threats of military intervention, actual military invention, financial pressures, arrests, bribery, and manipulation of the Russian-trained crack Persian “Russian Cossacks” on behalf of Mohammed ‘Ali Shah who had now become virtually a Russian instrument. (William, 452) Civil war ensued. By 1912 parliamentary forces were finally able to win the day for a two-year period with the grudging acquiescence of Britain and Russia. But Russia had virtually destroyed the reformist movement against the shah and the county was in chaos and anarchy. Russia occupied much of Iran during World War I along with Britain and Ottoman Turkey, despite Iranian declarations of neutrality. But the situation was to change radically with the advent of revolution in Russia in 1917.

The Pahlavi Dynasty Changes the Game

Iran — a supine and paralyzed state after World War I — was probably saved from falling under deep Soviet influence by the emergence of a skilled, energetic, practical, bold, single-minded, and harsh new leader, the likes of which Iran had rarely seen over the past century or more. Iran was unified, strengthened, and thrust into the modern world by the remarkable founder of the new Pahlavi Dynasty, Reza Shah. Reza Khan was born in humble circumstances, but worked his way up in the Iranian military, ultimately becoming commander of the Cossack Regiment. From there he was positioned to assume de facto power in the environment of turmoil and weakness of post-war Iran. He proceeded to make himself prime minister and then to name himself Reza Shah, founder of the new Pahlavi Dynasty.

Defensive Security Goals

With the rise of the Bolshevik state and subsequent civil war, the new Soviet state continued to be obsessed with its security from all peripheries. Denial of Iran to its adversaries, or potential adversaries, was the pre-eminent goal. The USSR, unlike the Tsarist Russia, was rapidly coming to appreciate the value of local nationalism as an instrument against its rivals. Reza Shah for nearly two decades fulfilled this requirement until, in the early 1940s; he committed the fatal mistake of moving too close to Nazi Germany. The main change in the security equation came not from Russia, but from Iran. The Soviets had not given up ambitions for a more dominant influence in Iran, but there were limits on what Reza Shah would permit; in Moscow’s calculations, greater Soviet influence could perhaps come in time. The immediate Soviet security needs were met.

Economic Dependency

Economic policies were still aimed at keeping Iran as tightly bound as possible to the USSR – as was the case under the tsars. Pre-eminent among the Soviet Union’s instrumentalities was its traditional monopoly over the northern Iranian economy-an advantage easily perpetuated for at least another decade. In economic terms it was only northern Iran that mattered anyway — with the important exception of oil in the south -because the north possessed the most fertile agricultural lands and the beginnings of industry. Russian transportation networks to the Iranian border were also well developed, whereas Iran had almost no other commercial and trade outlets from the country. There was no usable road or rail links to Turkey, India, or the Gulf (Fuller, p. 33)

Iran and the USSR after World War II

If Reza Shah established the foundations for Iranian national power, enabling him to begin a relationship of greater independence vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, his son, Mohammed Reza Shah, was able to carry this process significantly further under the circumstances of the extraordinary growth of Iran’s economic and military stature. But because of his early fears of Soviet power and intentions, and Moscow’s support for regional radicalism, Mohammed Reza Shah violated the basically non-aligned orientation of his father to move further toward alliance with the West. With Iran’s many new options, Moscow rapidly concluded that intimidation would be less effective than more positive instruments of influence. These new instruments worked to improve Iranian-Soviet relations considerably, particularly in the economic sphere, even while the shah worked to foil many of Moscow’s key strategic interests in the region. (Dannreuther, p. 108) Moscow’s goals appeared reduced to biding its time and seeking to limit the damage of Iran’s Western orientation.

The Lessons of Afghanistan

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan obviously had immense geopolitical implications for Iran. The Islamic Republic, far from cringing or seeking to reach quick accommodation with the Soviet military presence, quickly moved to denounce it and to provide overt assistance to the anti-Soviet mujahidin, without seeking any allies outside to protect them from possible Soviet threat. Khomeini’s reaction is interesting, because the reaction of the shah almost certainly would have been different: The shah would probably have moved immediately to strengthen his bilateral security ties with the United States in the face of the modern-day Soviet invasion next door – a move that strongly suggested Soviet expansionism was still alive and well in Moscow even in the early 1980s. The Islamic Republic was probably driven by two considerations: First, the zeal of the revolution lent Tehran a new confidence, a sense that they were ready to take on the world — a reaction perhaps less likely from a more mature regime. Secondly, the Islamic Republic had likely considered that U.S. warnings to Moscow to keep hands off Iran would probably serve to deter further Soviet adventurism without any request for such help from Tehran.

Mutual Relations after the Soviet Union Fall

The fall of the Soviet Union transformed relations between Moscow and Iran to something neither country had ever known in their more than four centuries of imperial interaction. Coming with breathtaking suddenness, the Soviet demise was an unprecedented historical event: no other empire in history had collapsed and disappeared so quickly, without as much as a nudge from a foreign war or a civil war. The Soviet Union was not weakened by starvation; its population was not polarized, rebellious, or particularly alienated; on the contrary, during the final years of the Soviet Union, most of the population was enjoying a standard of living higher than any in their living memory. The ultimate irony was destruction by a leadership committed to extensive reform.

For the first time in several centuries, Russia and Iran are separated by a geographically significant ethno-linguistic strategic buffer zone, in which the nascent nationalism of long-subjugated peoples is destined to affect the aims and policies of these two historic empires and imperial adversaries. Both Russia and Iran must come to terms with new regional actors and socio-political and religious forces over which they have limited influence. (Maleki, 626) Their capacity to shape events has been weakened by economic and socio-political strains: in Russia’s case, by the flawed consequences of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost and by Yeltsin’s pallid reforms; in Iran’s case, by the costly aftermath of eight years of war with Iraq. Neither has found a formula for sustained growth or societal cohesion. Thus, their prospects in the Caucasus and Central Asia are still changing, and as heavily dependent on what they accomplish at home as on the effectiveness with which they succeed in making the most of opportunities in the region.

The Gorbachev Interregnum

During Mikhail Gorbachev’s period in power, relations between Moscow and Tehran moved from bad to good. The hostility and tension that existed in 1985 were reminiscent of the latter years of the Stalin period. However, by the time of Gorbachev’s downfall (and that of the Soviet Union), the two countries were resuming the extensive and mutually advantageous relationship that they had enjoyed during most of the Brezhnev era.

The overthrow of the shah in January 1979 and the establishment the following month of an Islamic republic took Moscow by surprise; still the Brezhnev leadership saw no reason that the previous mutually advantageous relationship should not continue. But the Soviet government’s failure to denounce Iraq’s attack on Iran in September 1980; its own invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979; and its insistence on reaffirming, despite Tehran’s repeated repudiations, the validity of Articles 5 and 6 of the 1921 Soviet-Iranian treaty, which gave Soviet forces the right to intervene in Iranian affairs if a third party threatened to attack the USSR from Iranian territory or if Moscow considered its border threatened, quickly soured relations between Moscow and Tehran. When Moscow tilted openly toward Iraq in 1982, after Iran had succeeded in driving Iraqi forces from most Iranian territory, Tehran’s hostility led to a crackdown on the Iranian Communist (Tudeh) Party. In 1985, Gorbachev embarked Moscow on a more active policy in the Persian Gulf; this included the introduction of a Soviet naval presence in October 1986 and the protection of some Kuwaiti tankers–interpreted by Tehran as further evidence of Moscow’s pro-Baghdad policy.

Economic Determinants in Mutual Relations

During the Soviet period, economic considerations accounted for little of what generated Moscow’s policy toward the Middle East. Trade was desired–and relations with Iran in the late 1960s and 1970s were particularly fruitful in this regard–but primarily to promote diplomatic objectives. Nonetheless, Moscow drove a hard bargain when it clearly had the upper hand; in the 1970s, Iran and Afghanistan sold their natural gas to the USSR at prices well below the going international rate because their alternative would have been no buyer at all. Still, it was strategic considerations, not economics, shaping Moscow’s approach. The post-Soviet Russian leadership has made the development of profitable economic relationships a top priority. It needs markets and reliable sources of hard-currency earnings.

International Constraints

Russia’s leaders have yet to grasp fully the implications of the changes in the geopolitical structure of the Caucasus and Central Asia wrought by the break-up of the Soviet empire. Most of the new republics’ trade is still with the Russian Federation, and military ties remain close, in large measure because republic leaderships want a Russian military connection as protection against internal challenges to their rule; but there is little to substantiate the thesis, increasingly heard in Western commentaries, that the empire is striking back, at least insofar as Central Asia is concerned. Interestingly, in promulgating Russian aims in the Middle East, the MFA concept document has paragraphs on the importance of the Arab world, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Turkey, but virtually nothing of a direct nature on Iran. This notwithstanding, however, the reality of Russian-Iranian relations in the post-Soviet period is a full agenda that encompasses unrest in the Caucasus and Tajikistan, the civil war in Afghanistan, Gulf security, arms, and trade (Ramazani, p. 403) Indeed, Russia’s interaction with Iran is every bit as complex and intense as with the United States and the European powers.

The Quest for Mutual Economic Benefit

To Iran, Russia’s key commodity is arms. The only great power that is able and willing to provide Iran with the wherewithal it seeks to overcome its military weakness highlighted during the war with Iraq, Russia has entered agreements for arms sales that go beyond those concluded in 1988 under Gorbachev. For the most part, Russian commentators defend the sales, arguing that they will not destabilize the Gulf, and that U.S. criticisms reflect more an interest in edging a competitor out of the lucrative Gulf arms bazaar than in deterring the development of Iran’s military potential. (Finnegan, p.1) Russia is selling a wide range of weapons. According to one think-tank, it is providing multi-role combat aircraft, with the MiG-29 and 31 and Su-24 fighter-bombers, which are designed to make the Iranian Air Force “one of the strongest in the Gulf theatre” by the late 1990s; air defence missile batteries and advanced radars; large quantities of T-72 main battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers; surface-to-surface missiles; and three Kilo-class diesel submarines, the most advanced non-nuclear submarine available. (Mesbahi, p. 269) Moreover, all acquisition programs are planned with the embargo on arms sales to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in mind to ensure “an unequivocal requirement that every transaction involve the transfer of self-production capabilities to Iran.” (Eisenstadt, pp. 99-117).

Interest in Stability

Moscow and Tehran recognize that for trade to flourish there must be stability in the region between them. Whatever their differences, which do exist (see below), they are for the time being secondary to the task of pushing economic relations. Thus, for example, during Rafsanjani’s tour of Central Asia in October 1993, Radio Moscow opined that Iran had apparently given up on exporting Islamic fundamentalism, and was instead seeking mutually beneficial commercial ties with all the countries in the region. (Volsky, 57-65) Russia has maintained close military relations with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan, in large measure because of requests from the pro-Moscow leaders of these republics, who desire a residual Russian military presence as defence more against domestic challenges than external threats; none of them fears a return of Russia’s rule. All the treaties that Russia has signed with the four Muslim Central Asian republics reaffirm the inviolability of existing borders, which is somewhat reassuring to Iran: for Moscow to contravene them would be to incur strong international reactions. Still, the presence of Russian troops in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan along their borders with Iran cannot help but keep Tehran wary.


Economic possibilities have whetted Russia’s strategic interest. To help open broader channels for its commerce, Moscow is receptive to defence cooperation agreements with GCC countries nervous over Iran’s growing regional assertiveness and eager for protective great powers. In the Gorbachev era, the Soviets have assumed a correct posture. For now and the foreseeable future, a Soviet threat in the Persian Gulf is nonexistent, especially when you take into consideration the friendly and constructive relations between the Islamic Republic and the Soviet Union. We believe that we have insured the security of this region from the northern flank and we will continue to coexist in peace and tranquillity. There is no reason for their presence in the south. It serves no purpose for them to remain. The only reason is to provoke us so we will fight one another. Hence, if there are any points of contention among us, we should resolve them ourselves. Although we are the largest country in the region, although we have the longest coastline, and although we are one of the oldest nations in the region, we are willing to cooperate with the smaller nations in the region–even if others are reluctant to do so.

In its approach to regional politics in the past, Moscow reacted to, rather than initiated, events; it proved adept at exploiting opportunities provided by developments over which it had little control. Relations with Iran serve as a case in point. During the Soviet period, overtures from the shah ushered in a period of Soviet-Iranian accommodation. Relations deteriorated during the Iran-Iraq War, but afterward, with Khomeini’s encouragement, they again improved. In the post-Soviet era, Rafsanjani’s conciliatory and pragmatic course has suited Moscow’s needs and outlook. But Moscow could compromise its own purposes if it once again tries, as it did in the Soviet period, to establish equally close and beneficial relations with all parties in the Gulf region. This could lead to its being manipulated by one side or the other in a regional dispute–Iran or Iraq, Iran or Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Kuwait–with the result that it must alienate Iran or a key Arab state; or if it equivocates, it could end up with attenuated ties to all parties. Either way, the net effect would be to heighten the importance of a U.S. connection for one or more parties in the region.

For the moment, political and economic expediency prevail. Strategic myopia keeps each political actor riveted to a narrow national agenda in which domestic considerations are increasingly controlling. Looking ahead, the guesstimate here is that as long as Iran does not challenge Russia’s position in the Near Abroad areas of Central Asia and Transcaucasia, Moscow and Tehran are embarked on a long-term cooperation that will be limited primarily by what Russia can deliver and by the degree of stability in the new republics–the land bridges between them.

Works Cited

  1. Aryeh Y. Yodfat, The Soviet Union and Revolutionary Iran (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), pp. 2-8
  2. Dannreuther, Roland “Russia, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf”, Survival, vol. 35, no. 4 (1993), p. 108.
  3. David B. Nissman, The Soviet Union and Iranian Azerbaijan ( Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1987), pp. 19-20.
  4. Eisenstadt, Michael “An Assessment of Iran’s Military Build-up” in Iran’s Strategic Intentions and Capabilities, ed. Patrick Clawson (Washington, DC: National Defence University, 1994). (pp. 99-117)
  5. Finnegan, Philip “Iran Navy Build-up Stirs U.S.-Arab Response”, Defence News, 1993, p. 1.
  6. Fuller, Elizabeth “Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the Karabakh Mediation Process”, RFE/RL Research Report, vol. 3, no. 8 (1994), p. 33.
  7. Lenczowski, George Russia and the West in Iran, 1918-1948 ( Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1949), p. 6.
  8. Maleki, Abbas “Iran’s North Eastern Border: From Sarakhs to Khazar (The Caspian)”, The Iranian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 4, nos. 3-4 (1992), p. 626.
  9. Mesbahi, Mohiaddin “Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’ and Islamic Iran: From Containment to Reconciliation”, in Reconstruction and Regional Diplomacy in the Persian Gulf, ed. A. H. Entessar ( New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 269.
  10. Ramazani, R. K. “Iran’s Foreign Policy: Both North and South”, Middle East Journal, vol. 46, no. 3 (1992), p. 403.
  11. Rouhollah K. Ramazani, The Foreign Policy of Iran, 1500-1941 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1986), p. 68.
  12. Volsky, Dmitry “Iran–Central Asia: Export of Commodities, and Not of Ideological Merchandise”, New Times International (1993), pp. 57-65.
  13. William C. Fuller Jr., Strategy and Power in Russia 1600-1914 ( New York: The Free Press, 1992), p. 452.
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