Future Patterns of Iran-Russia Relations
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Master of Art in Regional Studies
Iran’s position in Russia’s foreign policy will not remain unaffected in the future by the regional and international developments, including the crisis in Syria and Moscow-Washington relations. At the regional level, now it seems that Russia does not intend to leave Syria after establishing peace in the country. Russia recently signed an agreement with Damascus that allows Moscow station its warships in the port of Tartus for 49 years. It is clear that in this case, Moscow will give more importance to the security of this country; however, a stable security in Syria will not be achieved without engaging Iran. Iran has access to Syria though Iraq and, Iran and the Syrian army have the upper hand in the ground battle in Syria. But Russia has no shared border with Syria, and it can only have access to the country though Iran-Iraq route or the Black Sea-Turkey route. Given the NATO’s plans to strengthen its forces in the Black Sea, the best route for Russia to have access to Syria is Iran. In fact, from now on the Iraqi security will be also important to Russia, and unlike the analyses of some Arabic media that Russia, reconciling with America, may give Iraq to the US in return for Syria, it seems that Russia will pay more attention to Iraq in the future, because in the case of the US increased presence in the country creating a distance between Iran and Syria, Russia’s position in Syria will be also in danger.
In Russia, some even believe that Moscow has a weaker position on the future of Syria, because it only relies on Bashar al-Assad. But Tehran is in contact with the Syrian senior military and political officials, and Iran likely has a large number of candidates to meet its own interests in the future. So Iran is the country that determines the post-war policy in Syria. From this perspective, Moscow has a limited room to maneuver, and if Assad is ousted, a scenario like that of Egypt might occur in which Anwar Sadat cancelled all contracts with the Soviet Union, and expelled all Soviet advisers from Egypt overnight. But there is also another view which believes Iran’s leverage in Syria is limited as well. From this perspective, Russian military power is a game changer in the Syrian multi-front hostilities, and Iran is also aware of this. On the other hand, the Syrian war is unlikely to end soon. There are also multiple actors with divergent goals during the peace period, and Iran is unable to maintain a lasting peace without Russia. On the Russian red line concerning Israel and the withdrawal of Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, this perspective believes that this problem, like many others, is negotiable. Iran has to make a deal with many unfriendly countries such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and its historical rival Turkey. In addition, there are also threats from America. So in dire situations, Iran knows that it must seek allies, and in this case, Russia is the most obvious choice. Yet, both views show the importance of strengthening relations between Iran and Russia.
On the other hand, any weakening of Iran’s position in the region will strengthen the positions of Iran’s competitors - the Arab countries and America. This, in the long term, will limit Russian influence in the region, and in turn, will enter America into another area of Moscow’s interests. The reason for Moscow’s relative resistance against some of the Israeli demands on Iran is also the same concern over the strengthened positions of Washington. In fact, Russia has played a strong role in the developments of the Middle East through cooperating with many countries in the region, including Iran, and any weakening of Iran’s positions will limit Russia’s room to maneuver on some issues in the region.
Relations between Moscow and Washington will also affect Russia’s relations with other countries, including Iran. When the Trump administration came into power, Russians had hoped partly to improve the relations with America, but Trump’s set of positions on relations with Russia, and the delay to lift sanctions against Russia turned the Russian optimism about their future relations with America to a reality. Russia now is more than ever aware of the importance of diversifying its foreign policy after the Crimea crisis. In the past, the high level of economic cooperation between Russia and Western countries had created the suspicion that having relations with Iran, China or India has no value to Russia by themselves, but they only serve as a means to attract the attention of the West, and as soon as Russia’s relations with the West are improved, other foreign relations of Russia will be defined as next priorities. This was speculated while Russia after the Crimea crisis and the West’s sanctions against it has increasingly sought to develop its ties with Asian countries. Now Russia is trying to pursue its own foreign policy, and is attempting to avoid being in a position to choose between America and its own non-Western partners. On the other hand, other countries in the region such as Iran, China and India are also diversifying their partners on foreign policy, and any dealings with America, and creating distrust in the regional countries toward Russia will adversely affect the future cooperation between these countries and Moscow and the Russian influence in the region. Iran’s talks with Belarus for exporting gas to this country - and even to Ukraine and other European countries - in recent weeks can be seen in line with Iran’s policy of diversifying its foreign relations.
However, there are factors that threaten the continued cooperation between the two sides in its current form. Russia needs peace be established in Syria as soon as possible, because continued war and Russia’s direct presence in this region do not much benefit Moscow. At the beginning of the Russian presence in Syria, it seemed that the West was distracted from the crisis in Ukraine, and even sanctions of the West against Russia were expected to be lifted, but they are still renewed, and NATO still continues its provocative policy along Russia’s western borders. Now only establishing peace in Syria can be considered a success for Russia which will show the difference between Russian diplomacy and the failed diplomacy of the West. All coalitions and bilateral and multilateral cooperation of Russia with the countries of the region can make sense only in the context of such a peace. While the prolonged peace process increases the risk of the US widespread intervention in the region.
On the other hand, at the same time with continued sanctions of America and Europe against Russia, the two sides may be willing to talk about some regional and international issues. Since one of Trump’s plans was to resolve the US problems with Russia, naturally he is expected to take action to improve relations between the two superpowers. Russia may not see any reason to give concessions to America to improve their relations, but failure to improve relations and finally the increased tensions may lead to the US unilateral actions in the Russian sphere of influence such as Syria and North Korea.
Another obstacle to relations between Russia and Iran is Israel. In the Syrian peace process, Moscow somehow considers Israeli concerns over establishing peace as soon as possible. It seems that statements of Oleg Syromolotov, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, that Iran and Hezbollah will leave Syria after the war is over are expressed more than anything to ease the Israeli concerns. According to Mark Katz, in the complex situations of the region, if Iran insists on its stance on Syria, Russians may finally prefer to take the sides of Iran and the Syrian government, and leave it to America to defend Israel. Of course, this does not contradict the Russian policy in the Middle East, because Israel will finally attempt in this way to force Russia modify the behavior of Iran in the Middle East.
*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.