Given the difficult, indeed parlous, relationship between many Western states and both Russia and Iran, any collaboration between Moscow and Tehran is an important factor for Western capitals to consider. While relations between the Iranian revolutionary regime and the Kremlin have often been poor, and sometimes actively hostile, there has been detectable warming in recent years as the Russians and Iranians find themselves on the same side in the bloody wars in Syria and Iraq.
An indication of how cozy things are getting between Moscow and Tehran came this week with a visit to Iran by Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s National Security Council, who met with Iranian counterparts to discuss mutual threats. As Patrushev explained, “Iran has been one of Russia’s key partners in the region and it will remain so in future … [we] have similar and close views on many key regional issues and we had a serious exchange of views on the situation in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”
But this was not just a diplomatic gab fest. In the first place, Patrushev is a career intelligence officer and one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants. A Brezhnev-era counterintelligence officer with the Leningrad KGB, just like Putin, Patrushev served as head of the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB) from 1999 to 2008, leaving that position to take over the National Security Council.
Patrushev has all the hardline anti-Western views one would expect from a devoted Chekist. In a recent interview, he explained that the West, and especially the United States, are behind a comprehensive plot to destroy Russia, using nefarious diplomatic and economic means. Patrushev, stating explicitly that Russia and America are again in a Cold War, blamed Washington, DC, for the wars in Chechnya and Ukraine, adding that, through international economic institutions, the Americans destroyed Yugoslavia and plan to do the same to Russia, citing alleged US/NATO plans for the “dismemberment of our country.”
I’m sure Patrushev and the Iranians therefore saw eye-to-eye on a great many things when they sat down to chat. Of greatest importance is the new intelligence cooperation agreement between Moscow and Tehran that Patrushev nailed down during his visit. The main agenda item is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the countries’ national security councils, which was signed this week. This is the vehicle for increased intelligence sharing between Russia and Iran and, while it will focus heavily on issues of mutual concern in the Middle East and Central Asia, Russian media reports make clear that this is the beginning of a strategic intelligence partnership.
Although Russian and Iranian intelligence, once bitter enemies, signed a limited MOU back in 2001 focusing on counterterrorism, that led to little actual cooperation. The wars in Syria and Iraq, however, have changed things. Last year, the two interior ministries agree to cooperate on police intelligence matters. Now, however, a full intelligence alliance has been agreed to. As a Russian report on Patrushev’s visit explained:
The events in Syria and Iraq, where contacts between the Russian and Iranian special services have not only been resumed but have also proven their mutually advantageous nature, particularly in assessing the threats and plans of local bandit formations, both “secular” and Islamist, with respect to Russian facilities in Tartus in Syria, have impelled Moscow and Tehran to the idea of the need to formalize these contacts in the shape of a permanently operating mechanism. Russian special services also valued the volume of information, voluntarily conveyed by Iran to our specialists, on the potential activity of the Israeli Air Force against the Russian humanitarian convoys to Syria in the period of the sharp aggravation of the situation in that country in the summer of last year.
Let there be no doubt that this new espionage alliance is aimed directly at the United States and Israel. As the report added, “the Iranians are prepared to provide Russia on a permanent basis with information on American military activity in the Persian Gulf obtained from their own technical intelligence facilities” — in other words, the Russians and Iranians will be sharing SIGINT, the most sensitive of all forms of intelligence gathering.
Relations between Putin’s Russia and revolutionary Iran have been warming up in recent years on all fronts — diplomatic, economic, and military — and now there’s an important intelligence dimension too. Given the power and long reach of the intelligence services of both Iran and Russia, this is a development that should cause serious concern in Western capitals as well as many in the Middle East.