by Arman Mahmoudian
Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, both Iran and Russia have had renewed interest in influencing politics in Iraq. Moscow is in favour of a secular and stable Iraq amenable to a Russian presence, whereas revolutionary Iran hopes for a Shi’a Iraq that favours neither East nor West. However, and despite these incompatible strategies, Iran and Russia have been cooperating in Iraq over the past few years. This cooperation was not a result of mutual interest, but rather of unexpected political events such as the US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent emergence of ISIS. Under these circumstances, Russia and Iran’s relations in Iraq have gone through different stages outlined below – from initially struggling over conflicts of interest to now cooperating when addressing their common threats.
1- The Rise of the Islamic Republic and the Beginning of the Russo-Iranian Conflict of Interest in Iraq (1979–1991)
Since the eighteenth century, access to the Persian Gulf has been a strategic objective for Russia. In his political will, Peter the Great encouraged his successors to ‘push on to the Persian Gulf’. Saddam Hussein’s regime rendered Iraq of strategic value to Moscow, due to its position at the time as the only pro-Soviet state across the Persian Gulf. Also, the Iraqi Ba’ath was considered an ideologically-aligned, socialist friend of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Ba’athists there were key allies because they turned Iraq from a hostile state to a partner of Moscow.
However, this had not always been the case. Between 1955–59, Iraq played an essential role in the Baghdad Pact, a US-backed treaty and military alliance between Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom -aimed at preventing Soviet intrusion in the Middle East. In July 1958, the pro-Western Hashemite monarchy in Iraq was overthrown by the Nationalist Free Officers’ coup. In March 1959, the new Republic of Iraq, under the leadership of General Abd Al-Karim Qasim, withdrew from the Baghdad Pact and established friendly relations with the Soviet Union. Since then, Iraq has witnessed three military coup d’états, and the Soviet Union managed to maintain a close relationship with most of the subsequent regimes established. Saddam Hussein’s was not an exception. Though he had a dispute with the USSR over the execution of 21 Iraqi communists, his anti-imperialist views helped maintain close relations between Baghdad and Moscow.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was indeed a threat to Saddam’s regime, and encouraged Iraqi Shi’ites to revolt against him. A month later, in March 1979, a Shi’a revolt began under the leadership of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr. While Saddam suppressed the protests, it was not the end of the Shi’a threat for him. On 22 September 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini called on the Iraqi army to overthrow Saddam and replace the Ba’ath regime with an Islamic government.
Indeed, the relationship between Iran’s revolutionary regime and the Soviet Union in Iraq was already off to a bad start and began with a conflict of interest. While Moscow’s interest laid in Iraq’s political stability, and the buttressing of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime, Tehran’s was to expand the reach of its Shi’a revolution to Iraq and hence change the political status quo there.
The Iran-Iraq war in 1980 further accentuated Tehran and Moscow’s conflict of interests in Iraq. During the war, the Soviet Union was the top arm-seller to Iraq. In February 1986, when Iran conducted Operation Dawn 8 and captured the strategic town of Al-Faw, Soviet support for Saddam became more active -marking the beginning of a new phase. Between 1986–88, the USSR delivered various types of arms, including 800 T-72s tanks, 300 air fighters, and hundreds of Scud B missiles. Iran and Russia’s conflict of interest in Iraq continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union, setting the stage for the second phase of Russo-Iranian relations in Iraq.
2- The Fall of the Soviet Union and the Emergence of Iran and Russia’s Common Threat in Iraq (1991–2011)
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 fundamentally changed Moscow’s priorities. In the aftermath of political chaos in Russia, the Kremlin lost interest in the Middle East and focused on domestic issues. In the absence of Russia, Saddam found himself alone and surrounded by rivals such as Syria, Kuwait, Turkey, and Iran. He felt more threatened when the second popular uprising began in the country in March 1991. This time around however, Iran’s support for Shi’a protestors was not incompatible with Russia’s interests in Iraq. Moscow was too distracted with domestic challenges and was neither interested nor capable of taking any sides.
As noted, between 1991 and 2003, Iraq did not represent a ‘conflict of interest’ between Tehran and Moscow. It was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that changed this. Indeed, both Iran and Russia had already been alert to US military presence in Afghanistan, which shares a 268-mile border with Iran, also located in the southern part of Central Asia (Russia’s traditional backyard). Therefore, in Tehran and Moscow’s views, the US invasion indicated an American attempt to establish a new regional order in the Middle East. Consequently, the ‘common concern’ between Iran and Russia in Iraq was their perception of US presence as a threat.
3- Arab Spring: From Common Threat Back to Conflict of Interest (2011–2021)
Iraq was significantly affected by the Arab Spring in 2011 and the political turmoil that ensued. In June 2014, Mosul, one of the country’s major cities, fell into the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) -a radical jihadi group that constituted a threat to both Iran and Russia.
In response to this threat, Iran and Russia decided to apply their methods of cooperation in Syria to Iraq. In 2015, they formed the Russia-Syria-Iran-Iraq security coalition (RSII), and its members established two operation headquarters in Damascus and Baghdad. The Iranian-Russian cooperation in Iraq immediately went beyond intelligence sharing, when Russian air forces and Iran-backed Shi’a militias started to confront ISIS across the Iraqi-Syrian border. This was a strategic move that severely undermined ISIS’ logistic capacity to transfer its fighters from Syria to Iraq, and vice-versa.
By December 2017, Iraq successfully liberated all its major cities from ISIS. In the absence of a common threat, the Iranian-Russian partnership in the country slowly fell apart. This was most crucially reflected in April 2020, when Russia suggested selling its S-400 defence missile system to Iraq. The timing of Moscow’s offer was significant, as three months prior to it (on 7 January), and in retaliation to Washington’s decision to kill the chief of Iran Quds Forces at the time, Qasem Soleimani, Iran had launched multiple ballistic missiles at the US Ayn al-Assad airbase in Al-Anbar, western Iraq. If Iraq acquires the S-400 missile system, there would be severe consequences on Iran’s deterrence strategy. It would weaken the latter’s ability to target US bases in Iraq, in the event of a potential crisis.
Additionally, Russian-Iranian relations suffer from old wounds, which have the potential to re-surface. One of the long-standing issues that sours Tehran’s relations with Moscow pertains to both countries’ relations with Iraq’s energy sector -namely tensions that can be traced to over a decade ago. In 2009, despite long negotiations and Iran’s pressure to convince Russia’s Gazprom to develop the South Azadegan oil field in Iran (near the Iraqi border), the Russians changed their mind at the last minute, and instead, opted to develop the Iraqi Badra oil field, a rival to Iran’s Azadegan project. Following this change of heart, many Iranian political outlets and some officials accused Russia of espionage and argued that Gazprom probably had handed over sensitive information about the Azadegan field to Iraq.
Now that Iraq is slowly recovering from the ISIS invasion and as a result, on the path towards stabilisation, Russians are eager to expand their presence in the country’s lucrative energy market. In this vein, in November 2020, following discussions in Moscow between Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia is interested in deepening its energy ties with Iraq. Though when it comes to the energy market, Iraq is Iran’s traditional rival, and as such, Russia’s investment in Iraqi oil, and in the jointly shared Iranian-Iraqi oilfields, will probably cause a new conflict of interest between Iran and Russia.
History suggests that Iraq is a natural conflict zone between Iran and Russia. The emergence of common threats such as the US or ISIS have been the primary incentive for the two nations to instead cooperate in Iraq. As such, once the common threat has been neutralised, Iran and Russia’s Iraqi partnership will gradually fall apart. Overall, we can conclude that Iran and Russia’s collaboration in Iraq is a marriage of convenience –a result of common enemies rather than common interests.
This is part of a series on the challenges and opportunities facing the Russian-Iranian partnership in the Middle East, based on contributions from participants in a closed LSE workshop in April 2021. Read the introduction here, and see the other pieces below.
In this series: