Common Goals and Interests of Iran and Russia in Syria

Friday, February 17, 2012

Vali Kouzegar Kaleji

A prominent characteristic of international political players is relativity of relations among them. This essential characteristic forms the basis for the regulation of each country’s goals and interests and determines with what countries, relations should be cordial, hostile, or neutral. Naturally, Iran and Russia, as two major players in international political scene, are no exception to this essential rule. In fact, vacillations in two countries’ relations over the past few centuries should be explained in the light of this rule, which has caused them to get close or distance from each other in various junctures of history. Rapid and complicated developments in the Middle East, especially in Syria, should be considered a turning point in historical relations between Tehran and Moscow, which despite certain differences between the two countries have created many common grounds for the promotion of relations between Tehran and Moscow. This brief article will explore those commonalties in a bid to provide better understanding of recent developments in two countries’ relations.

Political developments in Syria have provided a good ground which has given objective prominence to Iran's commonalties with Russia with regard to developments at international level and in the Middle East region. Both countries, for various historical and geopolitical reasons and because of their interests and national security concerns, are opposed to further expansion of the West’s political, economic, and military domination in their peripheral regions. Therefore, Tehran and Moscow have taken generally similar stances over the past years on such important issues as the eastward expansion of NATO; deployment of the United States’ missile defense shield in the Republic of Czech, Poland, and now Turkey; colored revolutions in peripheral regions of Syria; activities of Western-minded cultural and political institutions; and expansion of the West’s economic activities, especially in the field of energy. Therefore, both countries’ position on the ongoing developments in Syria should be explained in the light of their common concern about unbridled expansion of the West’s influence in the strategic Middle East region.

Russians are well aware that if the current political system in Syria is overthrown, the whole Middle East region will come under the West’s, especially US, domination and this would be a great loss for a reviving Russia. For Iran, Syria is also an important and strategic gravity center of resistance against Israel and the West in the region. Therefore, the fall of the incumbent Syrian government in favor of a Western government will, by no means, be beneficial to strategic interests of Iran and Russia. This issue is important enough to prompt Russia to put up full-force presence in the Syrian developments despite its passive role in developments of other Middle Eastern countries, especially Libya. In the political sphere, Moscow has shown strong resistance to efforts made by the West – Arab – Turkish axis to bring about regime change in Syria. Moscow also categorically vetoed the UN Security Council’s resolution on Syria. On the other hand, at a time that European states, the United States, and Arab countries of the Persian Gulf have recalled their ambassadors from Syria, the Russians have sent their foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Mikhail Fradkov, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Office, to Syria for official meetings with President Bashar Assad.

In the military sphere, Russians have sent their Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier – with advanced Sukhoi 23 and MiG 29 warplanes, K A 27 gunships, as well as missile and submarine systems – to the Syrian territorial waters. In addition, they delivered Yakhont ballistic missiles as part of Bastion coastal defense system to Damascus to prove to the world that, unlike Libya, they are quite serious about developments in Syria. Military relations between Russia and Syria have been vast since the Cold War era. A large part of military technologies in Syria are originally Russian. At that time, relations between Syria and Moscow were at their best and Syria allowed Russia to establish a military base in Tartus port city. The base is still run by Russians and is among few points where the Russian military is directly present in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Therefore, recent developments in Syria have provided a very good ground for further strengthening of military relations between Moscow and Damascus. On the other hand, a militarily powerful Syria will also be beneficial to Iran's interests as it will be very helpful in countering Israel’s threats. These developments, especially delivery of Yakhont missile defense system for countering Israel’s threats are also important in that delivery of the missile system to Syria has been a matter of controversy and dispute between Russian and Israeli officials since 2007.

Therefore, Russia’s approach to developments in Syria can be compared in terms of sensitivity and the type and intensity of reaction to Moscow’s approach to developments in its peripheral regions. That approach has already led to adoption of strong positions on the expansion of NATO toward Central Asia and Caucasus; establishment of NATO’s missile shield in Eastern Europe; proposed membership of Georgia in NATO; and breakout of colored revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. In August 2008, the Russians also proved that they will not hesitate to resort to the military in order to protect their strategic interests. Russia’s measures in the case of Syria also prove that it attaches the same degree of importance to Syria that is attached to Moscow’s immediate neighborhood. In fact, if Moscow gave up its role in Syria, it would have to say goodbye to the Middle East, in favor of the West, for good and ever. This will be in stark contrast to large-scale and strategic interests of Moscow. The Russia’s concern is totally in line with Iran's worries about developments in the Middle East, especially expansion of the West’s regional clout and weakening of Syria’s standing in the face of Israel.

Another common ground between Iran and Russia is their support for Assad’s government and the political reforms introduced by the Syrian regime. Unlike the Arab League, Turkey and Western countries which are staunch supporters of regime change in Syria, Iran and Russia are strongly against it and support controlled political reforms. The main concern of both Iran and Russia is internationalization of the situation in Syria, like what happened in the case of Libya. The remarks made by Russia’s permanent representative to the Security Council, Vitaly Ivanovich Churkin, clearly prove this fact. Opposing Morocco’s proposed resolution which called on Assad to step down and transfer power to his vice president, Churkin noted that the Security Council was not a place to appoint or dismiss country leaders. He added that a new framework should be set for the Security Council to prevent its members from trying to oust prime ministers or presidents from power. Iran and Russia have, therefore, made frequent efforts to convince Assad to implement reforms, though they have not been generally successful because Syria’s opposition figures are opposed to Syrian government’s reforms.

The two countries’ vast economic interests in Syria are also a common cause of concern for Moscow and Tehran. As a country which has been under the West’s economic sanctions for long years, economic relations with Iran and Russia are the main source of economic development in Syria. Russia’s exports to Syria stood at over 1.1 billion dollars in 2010. According to Moscow Times, Russians have invested more than 4.19 billion dollars in Syria in 2009. These figures are in addition to four billion dollars of weapons that Russia has sold Syria. Widespread presence of the Russian oil and gas companies in Syria is also remarkable. Iran, on the other hand, has extensive economic relations with Syria as a result of vast political ties between Tehran and Damascus. Total volume of trade exchanges between the two countries hit 5 billion dollars in 2010. Iran and Syria have extensive relations in such areas as tourism, automobile industry, construction of power plants, as well as oil and gas industry. Syria’s unrest has had great negative impacts on economic activities of Iran and Russia in Syria over the last year and has slowed down, or at times stopped, those activities. Both countries are concerned about losing all their economic interests as a result of the overthrow of Assad’s government and its replacement with a Western-minded government which would take anti-Iran and anti-Russia stances. Therefore, economic considerations are of very high importance in determining common positions of Tehran and Moscow on developments in Syria and should be taken into account in any analysis of the ongoing developments.

The last common concern for Iran and Russia is the concern about possible empowerment of radical Islamic figures affiliated with Salafi and Wahhabi currents in Syria. An important part of the opposition to the Syrian government comes from such political currents which enjoy powerful support of regional Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. Russia is already familiar with Salafi and Wahhabi approaches in Northern Caucasus, especially Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghistan. Iran is also well aware about anti-Iranian and anti-Shia tendencies of these currents. As a result, in addition to concerns about strengthening of Western tendencies in the country, Iran and Russia also feel greatly threatened by strengthening of Salafi and Wahhabi currents and this issue is another reason why their positions on developments in Syria are so close.

Syria is considered by both Iran and Russia as the most important strategic foothold in the Middle East through which they are able to influence political developments in the whole region, especially in Palestine and Israel. The two countries’ large-scale strategic considerations with regard to the West’s developing influence in the Arab world, military and economic ties, as well as concerns about Western or Salafi currents snatching power in Syria has brought their positions on Syria close. It is very unlikely that the West would go for military intervention in Syria without coordination and consent of Russia. If Moscow succeeds in curbing international pressure against Syria in the Security Council and paves the way for reforms and dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition, one may expect that Iran's and Russia’s interests will be met by preserving Assad’s government to implement reforms without any need to foreign intervention. However, if the West decides with support from Turkey and Arab countries to ignore Russia’s considerations and embark on military intervention in Syria with the final result of regime change in that country, Iran and Russia will be facing dire conditions in the region. In addition to drastic geopolitical changes in the whole region, it would also be very difficult for both countries to try to establish ties with the future Syrian government which will be dominated by a combination of Western-minded and Salafi politicians. In the light of such conditions, Iran and Russia seem to be experiencing one of the most sensitive stages in their bilateral relations which can turn into a tough test for the two countries’ strategic collaboration.

Source: International Peace Studies Centre (IPSC)
Translated By: Iran Review

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم