Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived to Iran on 11 December –his first visit to the Islamic Republic since President Hassan Rouhani took office in August this year. The accompanying commentaries from the Kremlin's official newspaper of record, Rossiyaskaya Gazeta, (Russian Newspaper), provide a Russian perspective on the visit.
The visit appears to have further boosted ties between Russia and Iran and reaffirmed each country's belief of the other's importance in resolving critical international issues. The title of the second article, "Iran Gave Russia a Six in Diplomacy," plays humorously on the traditional Russian school grading system, where "five" is the highest grade, and "one" is the lowest. A grade of "six" therefore implies Russia's superior excellence, and at the same time plays on the P5+1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany, who work together on Iran's nuclear issues) or "group of six," as it is sometimes referred to in the Russian press.
Rossiyaskaya Gazeta notes that Lavrov and top Iranian officials searched together for a solution to the Syrian crisis and discussed cooperation on Afghanistan-related drug trafficking and the 2014 Caspian Summit in Astrakhan. These are among the issues that serve as the basis for the Russian-Iranian alliance, so they come as no surprise.
Both Russia and Iran are affected by drugs coming out of Afghanistan and both share similar concerns about Afghanistan's post-2014 future. The Syrian crisis brought the two countries even closer together, as both oppose Western intervention, and both see Syria under Bashar al-Assad's leadership as perhaps their closest, if not only, Arab ally.
Russia has continued to push for Iran's inclusion in the Syrian peace talks in Geneva, while Iran, for its part, stressed the importance of Russia's international role, which is something Russian President Vladimir Putin wants. "We consider it is of principal importance to invite Iran to this international conference [Geneva 2]," Lavrov stressed during his visit to Tehran, while his counterpart, Javad Zarif, said, "Russia's role is very important in averting a regional catastrophe."
Notably, Zarif also said that Russia is one of Iran's best friends in the group of 6. It's important to keep this comment in perspective. Indeed, Russia is Iran's strongest supporter in the P5+1 group. Yet Russia and Iran are not exactly friends. Rather, they share an alliance built on mutually-shared interests and animosities.
The two countries' history of relations is complicated, vacillating for centuries between conflict and competition for territory and influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Later, Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was hostile to the Soviet Union. Perhaps as a result, Moscow supported Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War. It was only with Khomeini's death in 1989 that both Moscow and Tehran sought to improve relations.
To be sure, Russia and Iran are indeed close allies at the moment, beyond cooperation in the P5+1 group, and the two countries' ties appear only to be growing. It is important, however, not to mistake this alliance for genuine friendship. Here, historical context matters.