Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 28 in Moscow, the Iranian and Russian media confirmed today. A Kremlin statement said the two leaders will “examine the full spectrum of bilateral cooperation, with particular focus on expanding trade, economic and investment ties, including in the context of carrying out big joint energy and transport infrastructure projects.” It added that they will also sign a number of bilateral documents and exchange views on regional and international developments. According to Iran’s Mashregh News, Rouhani will lead a high-ranking delegation, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Information and Communications Technology Minister Mahmoud Vaezi. But while the state-run Iranian media portrays Rouhani’s visit as all about trade deals, the Syrian conflict will perhaps top the agenda. It may also not be a coincidence that the Iranian president is visiting Moscow at a time when there is growing worry inside Tehran that Russia might sacrifice Tehran as part of a grand bargain with Washington. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the Trump administration “is exploring ways to break Russia’s military and diplomatic alliance with Iran in a bid to both end the Syrian conflict and bolster the fight against Islamic State.”

Growing Relations

Rouhani’s trip to Moscow next week – the latest in a series of high-profile meetings between Iranian and Russian government officials in recent months – signifies improving relations between the two countries. Earlier this month, Vaezi, who also heads Iran-Russia’s Joint Commission for Cooperation, traveled to Moscow and held talks with Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak, who is the chairman of the same commission on the Russian side. At the end of their meeting, they announced that the two sides discussed more than 10 contracts which would be prepared for signing during Rouhani’s Moscow visit later this month. Novak added that Moscow and Tehran were considering the implementation of joint projects in the industry sector for a total of $10 billion. Another memorandum of understanding on a free trade zone between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is also expected be signed during the visit. Russia and Iran have also been negotiating an energy deal under which Iran would export 100,000 barrels of oil per day to Russia. The Iranian media says a visa waiver agreement for tour groups traveling between the two countries will also be finalized.

The Iranian president’s trip also comes at a time when Moscow and Tehran have recently been negotiating the supply of around $10 billion worth of arms and military hardware to Iran. The deal reportedly includes T-90 tanks, artillery, planes and helicopters. “These negotiations are being carried out, the road has been paved. The order book, discussed today, reflects the needs of Tehran and amounts to some $10 billion,” the head of the defense and security committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, Viktor Ozerov, told reporters during a parliamentary visit to Tehran in November. Some Iranian lawmakers, however, suggested that the arms deal was only at a “preliminary stage” and cast doubt on its complete implementation.

Potential Obstacles

Since the lifting of nuclear-related international sanctions on Iran in January 2016, the volume of trade between Russia and Iran, according to statistics provided by officials of the two countries, has increased by about 80 percent. But the aggregate trade turnover was still a meagre $2 billion in 2016, and Iran does not rank in Russia’s top 15 trading partners. While both Moscow and Tehran have pledged to boost bilateral trade to $10 billion in the next two or three years, the realization of it depends on several factors – particularly the two countries’ relations with the new U.S. administration. If the Trump administration, for example, decides to put additional sanctions on Iran or even implement the existing unilateral American sanctions on the country more vigorously, many Russian energy giants and arms manufactures will be reluctant to invest in and do business with Iran. A potential U.S. designation of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” will also complicate Iran-Russia trade ambitions. This is because the I.R.G.C. and its front companies dominate the Iranian economy and industrial sector, and it is almost impossible to do business with Iran without the I.R.G.C.’s involvement in some capacity.

Syria Conundrum

While Russia and Iran have been cooperating closely in the Syrian conflict, their vital interests and endgame strategy in Syria are different. The Russian military intervention was instrumental in helping the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the Iran-backed militia groups to prevent the fall of Damascus. But now that the Assad regime, particularly after the fall of Aleppo, is in control of key population centers, Russia is apparently seeking to reduce its military role and find a political solution to end the conflict in Syria. Iran, however, still favors a military victory and seeks to consolidate the presence of its proxies there for its broader regional agenda – mainly against Israel. Early this year, when Russia was working with Turkey to secure a ceasefire deal with the Syrian opposition, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani told visiting Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis in Tehran: “Syria’s enemies must not be allowed to tactically exploit the opportunity of ceasefire and political talks to reinforce, rearm and fund terrorist groups and rebuild their operational capabilities.” Moreover, Iran sees Assad’s hold on power as a red line, whereas Russia understands that a political solution without Assad might be an option to solve the Syrian war in the long term. Iran controls most of the powerful militia groups fighting in Syria and can undermine any Russia-led or U.N.-sponsored peace efforts.

History of Mistrust

Despite cooperation in Syria and a boost in trade relations, the relationship between Russia and Iran remains more a marriage of convenience than a strategic alliance. A history of distrust and divergence of interests continue to hinder the two countries’ tactical cooperation from translating into a strategic relationship. Iranian media often questions Moscow’s sincerity. When officials of the two countries announced the start of their negotiation over the arms deal, a number of Iranian parliamentarians, analysts and media outlets expressed doubt – citing that Moscow delayed the delivery of S-300 missiles for many years and sided with world powers to sanction Iran. Many in Iran are also concerned that Russia might strike a deal with the Trump administration and betray Iran in Syria and elsewhere.