The White House on Wednesday warned that deepening ties between Russia and Iran are moving beyond arms sales towards collaboration on violently suppressing dissent, signaling that the US is watching the new phase of relations between Tehran and Moscow.
It’s also a show of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s potentially increasing reliance on Iran as he tries to hang on to whatever global support he’s able to garner.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration is “concerned that Moscow may be advising Tehran on best practices to manage protests,” referring to Iran’s deadly and violent crackdowns on women-led, anti-government demonstrations.
The US has also rejected denials by the Kremlin that Iran is supplying weaponized drones, and providing on-the-ground training to Russian forces, used in deadly attacks against Ukraine.
“The evidence that Iran is helping Russia wage its war against Ukraine is clear and it is public and Iran and Russia are growing closer the more isolated they become,” Jean-Pierre said.
“Our message to Iran is very, very clear, stop killing your people and stop selling weapons to Russia to kill Ukrainians.”
Here are five things to know about deepening ties between Moscow and Tehran.
Russia may be helping Iran’s protest crackdowns
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said Wednesday he could not provide more information on the sources of information that Moscow is weighing advising Tehran on its response to protests that have lasted more than a month — where the United Nations has said at least 23 children have have been killed and human rights groups have reported more than 220 civilian deaths.
The protesters are demonstrating public anger against the ruling clerical government, spurred by the death of a 22-year-old woman in the custody of the “morality police” for allegedly wearing her head scarf improperly, as required by the state.
“Karine wasn’t putting forth an allegation, she was putting forth a fact, that we know they [Russia] may be considering some sort of support to Iran’s ability to crack down on the protesters,” Kirby said, without providing proof of why the US believes so.
“We’ll watch where that goes, but it’s just another example of Russia and Iran now, to violate not only the human rights and civil rights of people in Iran, but put in further danger the lives of Ukrainians.”
Russia, Iran flying high with drone and missile collaboration
Russia’s use of Iranian drones in Ukraine — first documented earlier this month — is an example of “the greatest degree of military cooperation that the two countries have had,” said Becca Wasser, a senior fellow for the Defense Program with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
It appears to be an extension of the deeply transactional attitudes of the two countries, Wasser said.
Iran can showcase itself as a weapons supplier to potential buyers who aren’t purchasing weapons from the US, the West or even China — “if they’re able to get around sanctions” on Iran, Wasser added.
It also provides Iran an arena to strike back at the US and Western nations in opposition to sanctions imposed against the Islamic government for a host of abuses, including its crackdown on protesters, human rights abuses, threats against Israel and Gulf allies and its supplying of weapons to proxy regional forces.
For Russia, “Iran conveniently has provided a way” to allow it to strike Ukrainian infrastructure and civilian targets as its own advanced weapons stockpiles have been depleted, destroyed and squeezed by sanctions, Wasser said.
“Here we’re seeing that play out… this transactional relationship of cooperating when it works in their favor, but not necessarily deepening ties to an extreme extent,” she said.
Israel is watching, but not budging
Israel is keeping a close eye on Iran’s involvement in Russia’s war, but is still not budging on rejecting highly critical calls from Kyiv that Jerusalem should abandon its position of withholding military and air defense to the Ukrainians.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, speaking in Washington on Wednesday, said that there are “things we cannot supply due to national security interest.”
Still, Herzog is presenting Israeli evidence to President Biden that supports US claims that Russia is using Iranian weaponry to attack Ukraine and being trained by Iranian military personnel present in Russia and Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.
Herzog previewed those claims in a talk at the Atlantic Council on Wednesday, showing side-by-side comparisons of photos disseminated by Iranian media of their Shahed-136 drones, and photos showing what appeared to be the exact models found following destructive attacks in Ukraine .
“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” of intelligence information that Israel is presenting to the US, Herzog said, adding that the international community must “confront Iran and ask it simple questions.”
“Can the international community negotiate with Iran and accept its lies, and believe Iran when we know they are, both, rushing to a nuclear bomb, as well as doing all the other terrible things that they are doing?” he asked.
Nearly dead nuclear deal may have new life
While talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal have effectively ceased, the Biden administration is using a key mechanism of the agreement to bring more scrutiny on Iran’s weapons sales to Russia.
The US, United Kingdom, France and Ukraine have lodged a complaint with the United Nations Security Council that Iran’s sale of drones to Russia is a violation of Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal, imposed a weapons embargo on Iran and provided a mechanism for signatory countries to trigger scrutiny into any agreement violations.
“The transfer of these drones is absolutely a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231,” Kirby said from the podium. “We’re going to continue with allies and partners and with the UN to see if there are additional ways to hold them accountable.”
Violations of Resolution 2231 could, in effect, be used to snap back UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, but that is unlikely given Russia’s veto power on the council.
Jonathan Lord, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at CNAS, said that the action at the Security Council is likely more about “bringing public pressure and attribution to something that Iran is still denying that it’s doing, as implausible as that is.” .”
The US and the European Union have imposed their own sanctions related to Iran’s drone sales to Russia, and their positions at the UN could help pressure other countries to join in, he added.
Oil exports in possible jeopardy
Russia and Iran’s status as oil exporters and reliance on those revenues adds another layer of complexity to their relationship, but one that is not likely to be a significant factor in either pushing them together or tearing them apart, said Antoine Halff, adjunct senior research scholar. at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
While Russia remains one of the top three oil producers in the world, Halff said that Iran is a “second tier producer” and a “shadow” of its former self as an oil exporter, given intensive global sanctions on its market.
The US, Europe and other countries aligned with Kyiv have struggled to depress Russia’s oil sales enough to bankrupt its war in Ukraine. Schemes reportedly discussed to lift sanctions on Iranian and Venezuelan oil exports to counter Russia’s position on the market have failed to take shape.
Halff said that Russia and Iran’s own interests in oil have to be weighed against their shared interests, “in their opposition to the West, and to the US in particular.”
“So anything happening in oil has to be seen against the context of those other shared interests.”