In late July, Russia and Iran quietly held their first ever joint naval exercise. Its Caspian Sea location made it less visible to the Western media—but no less significant as a regional signal. The exercise involved about 30 small ships (neither navy has anything larger than a small corvette in the Caspian Sea) and focused on responding to an environmental disaster, a common and apolitical theme in multinational exercises.
The strengthening of a Russia-Iran axis has obvious implications for the commercial independence of Caspian Sea natural gas. A naval understanding between Russia and Iran might also, of course, portend a regular role for the Russian navy in the Persian Gulf. With Russia’s navy already operating off Somalia and planning to resume using its Cold War–era ports in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden, resurrecting its former Soviet profile in the Persian Gulf is the last step in re-establishing a presence in the Middle East.
These perspectives are valid, but they tend to ignore the broader objectives held by both Russia and Iran. Russia puts as much emphasis on consolidating hegemonic control of Central Asia and the Caucasus as it does on getting its navy around that region and establishing patrol stations on the other side. Intimidating Ukraine, partitioning Georgia, extorting policy conformity from the Central Asian “Stans,” participating politically in the multinational effort in Afghanistan—all these measures have the same importance to Russia as naval-power projection and basing privileges in the Persian Gulf.
Iran, meanwhile, has its own ideas on expanding regional power and no interest in functioning as Moscow’s doorstep to the Middle East. Iran’s concept of itself as an independent actor—benefiting from but not beholden to Russia—is evident in the vigor of Tehran’s autonomous initiatives, from Lebanon and the Red Sea to Latin America. The stop-and-start history of progress with Russia on the sale of the S-300 air-defense system and bringing the Bushehr nuclear reactor online (a project Russia signed on for in 1995) is emblematic of the prickly relations between the two countries. We can expect Iran to exact a very high price from Moscow for any basing concession on the Persian Gulf.
What the July naval exercise indicates is that existing ties are being carefully cultivated on both sides, even though game-changing decisions such as Russia’s actually shipping the S-300 to Iran, or Iran hosting Russian ships in the Persian Gulf, remain bargaining chips. The unprecedented exercise, with its implication of analogous possibilities off Iran’s southern coast, may also have functioned as a test of U.S. reaction. Our feedback to this and other regional developments will be a major factor in Moscow’s decisions in the coming months, such as the impending one to take the Bushehr reactor critical. Russia will consider everything we do—from outlining a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan to responding to aggression against Georgia—as information about how we will respond to the activation of the reactor.