Iran’s president visited Russia this week on a visit Iranian officials called a “turning point” in their relations, as officials also announced a planned joint naval exercise that includes China for later this week.
The visit by President Ebrahim Raisi to Moscow comes amid rising tensions between Russia and Western countries over Moscow’s troop buildup on Ukraine’s border, broadly seen as preparation for a possible invasion. Russia claims it has no plans to invade.
In a speech Thursday before Russia’s parliament, the Duma, Raisi accused NATO of expanding into “various geographical areas with new coverings that threaten the common interests of independent states.”
Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the Kremlin on Wednesday, but despite the red-carpet welcome, there were no substantial country-to-country agreements announced.
“The significance of the trip at the moment is still mostly symbolic,” Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program, told VOA. “There's talk of closer military cooperation. There's talk of strategic cooperation in the energy sector. We've heard this before. Time will show if any tangible deals can be reached.”
In his only tweet about Raisi’s trip to Russia, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, was cryptic. “The presidents of the two countries agreed on a long-term roadmap,” he wrote, without clarifying what the map was about or whether an agreement was signed.
During Raisi’s travels, Iranian state-run media reported planned joint naval exercises among Iranian, Russian and Chinese forces in the north of the Indian Ocean on Friday. Iran's armed forces and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps will take part in the drills, an Iranian military official said.
Iran became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in September 2021, thanks to strong Russian support.
Uncertainty ahead of nuclear talks
The Iranian president also gave assurances in remarks before Russian officials that his country was not seeking nuclear arms. “We are not looking for a nuclear weapon, and such weapons have no place in our defense strategy,” Raisi told Russian lawmakers.
The United States and its allies accuse Iran of trying to make nuclear weapons and using terrorism to destabilize countries in the Middle East – charges Tehran rejects.
Iranian diplomats are in talks with U.S. and European counterparts to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump pulled out of, calling it “one-sided and unacceptable.”
The talks are at a “decisive moment,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday. The top U.S. diplomat warned that Washington and its allies might change tactics if a deal isn’t reached in the coming weeks.
Speaking in Vienna on Thursday alongside Blinken, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock indicated that European nations had sought to ensure China and Russia also maintained pressure on Iran.
In Moscow, the Iranian president said his country was “serious about reaching an agreement if the other parties are serious about lifting the sanctions effectively and operationally.”
Russia and Iran both have critical disagreements with the U.S. on issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear program and alleged backing of terrorist groups in the Middle East to Russia’s security and strategic threats to NATO. The two countries have also cooperated in some areas, such as countering U.S. interests in Syria and Afghanistan.
But on other topics, divides include Iran’s existential threats to Israel and Russia’s official objection to Iran’s proliferation of nuclear arms.
“This is not a matter of two nations which agree on politics or ideology to, somehow, form an alliance. It is basically an opportunistic alliance where both countries would really ignore their differences because of their hostility to the United States,” Anthony Cordesman, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA.
It’s unclear to what extent Putin will go with Iran and against the West, experts say.
With the U.S. departure from Afghanistan, which shares a long border with Iran and three Central Asian republics, analysts say Moscow and Tehran will find a common agenda in countering drugs, refugees and terrorist groups like the Islamic State’s Khorasan branch.
“Russia and Iran will probably blame everything that will go wrong in Afghanistan on the U.S. policies. But the reality is now Afghanistan is on its own, and neighboring states like Russia and Iran have every reason to shape the internal dynamics of Afghanistan in a way that their actual interests are not jeopardized,” said Vatanka of the Middle East Institute.
Before their seizure of power in Afghanistan, the Taliban signed an agreement with the U.S. that requires them to deny territory and support to any group that poses threats to the U.S. security and interests.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and RFE/RL.