Iran and Russia have long been wary of one another’s geo-political ambitions. Numerous wars in the 19th century over domination in the South Caucasus, and Russian influence in northern Iran in the 20th century, made deep cooperation between the two powers almost unthinkable. But developments in Syria since 2011 and US pressure on Moscow and Tehran have made such a partnership possible.
In Syria, both Russia and Iran are interested in stopping Western (primarily American) influence from gaining much of a foothold. But while this arena of cooperation has become a symbol of the alignment of Moscow-Tehran geo-politics, it overshadows other trends in Iranian-Russian relations — namely, a strong partnership in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea.
The focal point of cooperation is the nascent north-south transit corridor between Iran and Russia, which passes through Azerbaijan. The three countries are already somewhat connected via rail links, and there is a notion that Russia’s Baltic ports and the Persian Gulf could one day enjoy efficient connections. Tehran and Moscow see Azerbaijan as a vital component in advancing north-south trade and energy corridors in the South Caucasus, and they work together to block Western-led infrastructure projects there. Prospective north-south corridors rival the east-west ones promoted by Western countries, and perhaps also the east-west Belt and Road Initiative promoted by China. Another common interest is to avoid any foreign military presence in the region, particularly in Georgia.