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Russia-Iran: A Strategic Alliance of Enemies


Information, Knowledge, Policy

The U.S. Constitution mandates that the government take actions to protect the citizens of the United States of America. One of these actions is the formulation of strategic policies for the strategic security of the nation. Strategic intelligence is the foundation for these policies; strategic intelligence is defined as the intelligence required for the formation of policy and military plans at national and international levels.1 Strategic intelligence and tactical intelligence differ primarily in level of application, but may also vary in terms of scope and detail.1 The intelligence process to support the national security policymakers is straightforward in concept but complicated in execution. The needed information is identified as ‘intelligence requirements.’ The Intelligence Community (IC) agencies are tasked to collect information relevant to the requirements. The collected data is raw information and invariably includes uncertainties, conflicting data, and is an incomplete set of information. Intelligence analysis techniques and methods are used to draw logical conclusions and produce knowledge from this raw data. This knowledge is communicated to the highest levels of government through the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), defined as a strategic estimate of the capabilities, vulnerabilities, and probable courses of action of foreign nations produced at the national level as a composite of the views of the IC.1 The policymakers use the NIE to formulate strategic policies. However, the incomplete nature of the information often results in the intelligence analysis producing a divergence in the conclusions reached by the IC members and other groups performing the analyses. Such is the case in evaluating the current relationship between Russia and Iran.

Historic Enemies Become Contemporary Friends?

Russia and Persia/Iran have a legacy of over 500 years of intrigue, warfare, and diverging national interests mixed with periods of distrustful economic and diplomatic relations.2 Historically, two components of Russian foreign policy have been warm water ports and extending Russian influence into South Asia and the Middle East. Persia/Iran was a potential gateway or barrier for Russian goals. Neither Russian goal has changed in the 21st century.

Ancient Persia built empires to dominate much of the Middle East; however Persian power would recede in relative terms to the present, where Iran is a disruptive regional threat that does not have the capability to subjugate the collective nations in the region. The Iranian Shia theocratic government has stated aspirations to extend Shia influence, and associated Iranian influence, through a ‘Shiite arc of influence’ from Iran across Iraq and the Levant. The Syrian civil war disrupted the Iranian plans and placed the theocracy’s strategic agenda in jeopardy as the risk of Syrian President Assad being toppled escalated. The Assad regime identifies as Alawite, an offshoot of Shia, making the Assad regime essential to build the ‘Shiite arc of influence’ in a Sunni-majority Syria. Thus, the Syrian Civil War became both a secular political fight and a sectarian Shia-Sunni battle. As the war turned increasingly against Assad, Iran intervened forcefully in 2013 by sending Hezbollah combat forces to turn the tide of battle. Iran continued to invest money and manpower in the form of Shia militias recruited and paid for by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG). However, while the Iranian money, weapons, and combat manpower saved Assad for the moment, the Iranian contributions were insufficient to bring a conclusion to the civil war or assure the survival of the Assad regime.

Even as Iran struggled to stave off a catastrophe for the Assad government, Russia saw an opportunity to boost Russian prestige and reassert Russian influence in the Middle East. Russia intervened in late 2015 with airpower, weapons support, money, and limited numbers of Special Forces on the ground. The Russian contribution was dramatic in creating a positive shift on the battlefield in favor of the Assad regime. In turn, the Russians gained international prestige and a new level of influence in the Middle East. Furthermore, Russia was given long term leases on naval and air bases in western Syria.

Thus, the poignant observation was made by AEI that some Iranians characterized the current Russia-Iran relationship as one based on a mutual antagonism toward both the United States and Sunni radicalism2; this observation needs a response in the form of an objective intelligence analysis.

Can the Russian-Iran Alliance Survive Certain Mutually Exclusive Interests?

There is no universal agreement in open sources about the nature of the current Iran-Russia alliance. Kozak argues that the mutual goals to reduce and even eliminate U.S. influence in the Middle East make for an enduring alliance between these historic enemies.3 The European Council on Foreign Relations reasons that the Russia-Iran relationship can continue for some time based on the mutual nature of certain goals for each nation.4  AEI argues that, while the current relationship has benefits for both sides, the history between the nations and the many conflicting national interests root the relationship in suspicion and distrust. The profound complexities of the Syrian conflict combined with the dramatic and rapid military and political evolutions provide an intelligence environment where biases can pervade the intelligence analysis process to support strategic security assessments. The eventual fate of the Russia-Iran alliance should be examined through the critical lenses of analytic methods such as analysis of competing hypotheses, Red Teams, outcome assessment, and timelines, to identify some of the analysis methods to bring clarity and objectivity to the conclusions. In this situation, the fundamental differences between Russian interests and goals and Iranian interest and goals suggest that the Russia-Iran alliance is fragile in the short term and will not survive in the long term if the radical theocracy continues to pursue religious and political hegemony in the region.

  • The Russian aspiration to be the dominant influence in the region is in absolute conflict with the Iranian aspiration to be the dominant influence in the region 5,6
  • Russia and Iran share the goal to eliminate the Sunni terror groups: ISIS and al Qaeda 3

Security and Intelligence Jobs in an Uncertain World

The U.S. Intelligence Community faces a series of challenges as the IC strives to support strategic security policymakers. There will be a continuing demand for qualified individuals to fill positions across the 17 organizations that compose the IC. Qualified individuals have made the effort to gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities to deal with current challenges. Online education is an excellent resource to obtain the qualifications necessary to successfully compete in the strategic security and intelligence profession job markets. The top online schools feature faculty with practical operational experience, academic credentials, and offer a curriculum that focuses on intelligence management, terrorism and counterterrorism, strategic security, and protection management.


  1. Joint Publication 1-02. (2014).Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated. Terms amended 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/dictionary.pdf
  2. Rubin, M. (2016). Iran-Russia Relations. American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved from: www.aei.org/publication/iran-russia-relations
  3. Kozak, C. (2017). The Strategic Convergence of Russia and Iran. Understanding War.Retrieved from: http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/strategic-convergence-russia-and-iran
  4. Geranmayeh, E. & Liik, K. (2016). The new power couple: Russia and Iran in the Middle East. European Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from: http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/iran_and_russia_middle_east_power_couple_7113
  5. Basiri, A. (2016). Iran’s military objectives in Syria and Russia’s contradictory positions. Open Democracy. Retrieved from: https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/amir-basiri/iran-s-military-objectives-in-syria-russia-s-contradictory-positions
  6. Saadi, S. (2016). Russia’s Long-Term Aims in Syria. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved from:http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/61521




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