Are Russia and Iran cooking up a recipe for a ‘Red Armageddon’?

In 1521, the Grand Duchy of Muscovy and the Safavids established formal diplomatic relations after centuries of Medieval commercial trade between the two Central Asian regions. Five hundred and one years later, Moscow and Tehran once again are forging ahead with a deepening of military and economic ties — and into a strategic alliance that is morphing well beyond the mutually beneficial tactical “coordination” we’ve witnessed to date in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin, now effectively isolated from the West after launching his “special military operation” in Ukraine, is compelled to expand ties with existing allies — and Iran is now, out of exigency, a Kremlin priority.

History does not portend a good ending to this renewed effort — not for U.S. national security or for key U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Coinciding with Muscovy’s development of bilateral exchanges with Tehran spanning the 15th to 18th centuries was the rise of Twelver Shi’ism (also known as Ja’afari). Today, Twelver is the predominant branch of Shi’ism, the second largest sect of Islam that was heavily radicalized by the ayatollahs who were led by Ruhollah Khomeini after the Iranian Revolution

Once in power in Tehran after the fall of the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the ayatollahs seized upon this radicalization to solidify their hold on Iran and to turn a theological schism, “simmering for 14 centuries,” with Sunni Muslims, the largest branch of Islam, into a violent one. This has led to repeated deadly conflicts — including in Syria and Iraq mostly recently, the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88), nonstop in Yemen, and the ongoing kinetic clash with Sunni Saudi Arabia for primacy of Islam.

Nor is this widening schism going away soon. Not with a militant Shia theocracy regime constitutionally firmly in control in Tehran. Chapter I, Article 12 of the 1979 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran enshrined into law that “The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja’afari [doctrinal] school” and that this “principle is immutable.” Radicalized Twelver Shi’ism theocracy has been solidly welded to militant Iranian nationalism ever since.

Enter Putin and the Kremlin. To date, Moscow’s need for Iran has been one of tactical convenience. Now it is one of dire strategic necessity given Putin’s faltering war in Ukraine. Putin underscored this new (and humiliating) reality by making a “rare” out-of-country trip to Iran on July 19 to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei rewarded Moscow by selling Putin drones for use in Ukraine — likely, the Wall Street Journal reports, Iran’s “Shahed-129, a [kinetic] Predator-style drone with a range of 1,000 miles” and/or the “Shahed-191 with a shorter range of 300 miles.” But at what true cost? And to whom? According to the Biden administration and U.S. intelligence agencies, the Iranians are training “Russian officials” and it is a certainty that Khamenei demanded far more than just continued tactical cooperation in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Arguably, Washington, Jerusalem, Cairo and Riyadh already know the likely price. Tehran wants a free hand from Moscow in pursuing nuclear weapons, regardless of any agreements Iran may subsequently enter with the United States, Russia, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other affected parties.

The cost to the U.S. and its allies is that Putin, wittingly or not, might be setting the table in the Middle East for a future nuclear conflagration and/or elsewhere, including Los Angeles, New York City or Washington — if you will, a “Red Armageddon.”

Israel may be Khamenei’s preferred first target, but President Biden must not overlook that the ayatollahs’ ultimate desired target would be Saudi Arabia — and, by extension, the preeminence of Twelver Shi’ism over Sunni Islam. Israel and the U.S. are the short game; Riyadh, the long. In all Revolutionary Iran’s 43-year history, there has been one constant in Tehran’s militancy: The intended overthrow of Sunni governments throughout the Middle East.

Nor should Biden assume that Putin was not willing to make that nuclear deal with Khamenei — even if unwritten — let alone blindly agree to a revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action currently being negotiated by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Vienna under the aegis of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Biden only needs to take Putin at his word. In a welcoming speech at the “Army-2022” international military conference, Putin explicitly stated, “[We] are ready to offer our allies the most modern types of weapons.”

To those who would argue the Kremlin never would go down a nuclear path with Iran, Belarus is probative. In late June, Putin announced after a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that he would “transfer to Belarus the Iskander-M tactical missile systems, which are known to use both ballistic and cruise missiles, both conventional and nuclear.” The precedent is there and it begs the question: Will Putin say “no” if Tehran demands Iskander-M tactical missiles of their own, or at least the technology?

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program grows unabated and largely outside of the range of the IAEA’s cameras. In early August, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi warned that Iran’s nuclear pursuit is “growing in ambition and capacity” and that Tehran is telling him their “program is moving ahead very, very fast.” And in an interview with National Public Radio, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, acknowledged Iran has enough highly enriched uranium to build a bomb.

Biden and the U.S. no longer can wait to act. Israel will not wait. The time to act is before Putin, standing in Moscow’s Red Square, concocts a recipe for a “Red Armageddon” in the Middle East, or here in the U.S., and tempts Iran’s radicalized theocracy into believing a nuclear holocaust would accelerate the return of Shi’ism’s revered Hidden Imam, Muhammed al-Mahdi. 

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTLread more