In the volatile Middle East, Iran's key allies include Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Outside of the region, Iran has strategic relationships with Russia and Venezuela, but those are more rooted in strategic relationships as opposed to religious and ideologically based allegiances. In those realms, Iran is more closely tied to religious militia groups that the country has sponsored and trained in countries including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip. Those are principally Shiite militias, including Hezbollah in Lebanon. Other are part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces that were incorporated into the country’s armed forces in 2016. The group totals more than 140,000 fighters, and are under the command of Iraq’s prime minister, who is aligned with Iran. Those militias and Iran's allies are unified in their disdain for the United States and Israel.
The U.S. Kills a Top Iranian General, January 2019
On January 5, 2019, just days after U.S. President Trump ordered the killing of Iran's top military leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran announced it would no longer comply with the terms of the Iran Nuclear Deal that President Barack Obama signed in 2015. Trump had already pulled the U.S. out of that deal in 2018, and the fatal military strike on Iran's top General has stoked the embers of conflict in the region.
The Iran Nuclear Deal: 2015
In 2015, when President Barack Obama signed the controversial deal enabling Iran to keep its nuclear program active without sanctions, provided the country adheres to a list of ongoing conditions, many doubted Iran would cease its attempts to build nuclear weapons.Those conditions set limits on uranium stockpiles and enrichment levels, phased out certain centrifuges and required the shipping of spent fuel to other countries. Most importantly, the deal stipulated that Iran at no time can use its program to develop nuclear weapons.
Opponents of the deal charged that any agreement that enables Iran to continue developing nuclear technology is too much of a concession given the country's track record of open hostility toward cooperating with Western nations, in particular the United States. Many people were unconvinced that the country planned to make any effort toward upholding its end of the deal. Another concern brought up by dissenters involved the countries with which Iran was allied.
In May of 2018, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, which did not please Iranian lawmakers who burned a U.S. flag in their Parliament and chanted “Death to America."
A shared hatred of Israel, the lone Jewish stronghold in the predominately Islamic Middle East, is the primary factor that links Iran and Lebanon. Iran provides Lebanon with over $100 million in aid every year, most of which goes toward military supplies and weapons.
Iran's alignment with Lebanon is problematic largely due to Hezbollah, the political party in control of the Lebanese government. Most Western countries, including the United States, Canada and France, classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The group has been implicated in a long list of terror attacks against its neighbors and Western countries. These include a 2012 Bulgarian bus bombing, a 2008 bombing of a U.S. embassy vehicle in Beirut and extensive training of military insurgents to track and kill U.S. troops during the Iraq War.
After Iran's revolution in 1979, when the Soviet Union was still intact, the country's Ayatollah found many principles of Soviet communism, in particular atheism, incompatible with Iran's new Islamic government. As a result, Iran-Russia relations remained strained until the fall of the Soviet Union.
During the 1990s, amid a toppled Soviet Union and Western sanctions against Iran, relations improved rapidly between the two countries. Iran found Russia to be the most convenient provider of weapons while Russia, determining it might help stanch the spread of Western influence, agreed to help Iran develop its nuclear program.
As of 2015, relations between the United States and Russia were as bad as they had been at any point since the end of the Cold War. Amid such renewed hostility, Russia found Iran to be a strategic ally in the Middle East where the U.S., on account of its alignment with Israel, seeks to exert greater influence.
In 2018, Presidents Putin and Trump held a summit in Helsinki and indicated that new business opportunities between the two countries might lie ahead. But the state of the relationship between the United States and Russia is unclear. According to the U.S. government website Export.gov, "There are two broad considerations when considering business prospects in Russia: geopolitics and market dynamics. Russia's continued aggression in Ukraine and Syria and interference in the 2016 U.S. elections have raised tensions with the United States and its allies."
The partnership between Iran and Venezuela, fostered before the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2013 and while the notorious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ruled Iran, results from a shared hatred of the United States.
Both countries view the United States as an imperialist nation, obsessed with spreading its form of government where it is not wanted and, as a result, both countries consider the country a threat to their own national interests. In January 2007, Chavez and Ahmadinejad reached a deal to unite against what they termed U.S. imperialism, going so far as to earmark a $2 billion joint fund to provide military aid to other nations they identified as having anti-U.S. interests.
While as of 2015, Iran and Venezuela remain allies, the latter's influence has waned as a result of a new president and economic calamity from falling oil prices. Venezuela, to Iran's delight, was once able to use its oil riches to provide aid to other anti-U.S. countries in the region, most notably Cuba. That money has since dried up, leaving Iran with little to gain from maintaining close ties.