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How Daesh Has Changed the Iran-Russia Relations

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Kayhan Barzegar

Kayhan Barzegar in the Iranian foreign policy magazine Diplomat editorial writes: the emergence of Daesh has changed the nature of the Iran-Russia relations.

The emergence of Daesh (the so-claimed Islamic State), subsequent of the Syrian  crisis, has changed the nature of Iran-Russia relations from a historical passive context to an active situation based on the necessity of enhancing regional cooperation for preserving their geopolitical interests. This change can create a kind of political equality in the two sides’ relations, consequently adding to the significance of Iran in the regional and international equations.

Beyond immediate security threats, the emergence of Daesh has triggered new geopolitical rivalries at regional/trans-regional levels namely between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the one hand, and Russia and the West on the other. Although all these actors have currently made fighting against Daesh a top priority of their regional policies, one should accept that there exists in parallel a geopolitical rivalry among them to fill the possible power vacuum in the region especially in Syria.

On the one hand, the American-led international coalition, comprised of Western powers and conservative Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf and recently Turkey, is bent on fighting Daesh and simultaneously toppling the Assad regime in Syria. On the other, the opposite Iranian/Russian-led coalition, comprised of Iraq and Syria, and supported by China, holds that the sole way to defeat Daesh is to bolster the state system in Syria and keep Assad in power, at least in the course of the political transition. The issue becomes even more sensitive and complicated when one considers that all these actors have also their own individual interests, based on their specific and historical understanding of how to contain the regional threats posed to their national security.

As a result, for instance, Russia preferred to get directly involved in the Syrian war. Preserving this measure to be in line with its geopolitical interests, Iran has supported Russia’s action. Russia’s success needed Iran's logistic and operational supports on the fields, which was realized. At present and with the new coalition the military equations on the ground are changing to the detriment of the terrorist and opposition forces and in favor of the Syrian government.

In the meantime, the Daesh attacks of Paris and the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey have somehow weighed down on the existing geopolitical equations. With France willing to work with Russia in fighting Daesh, followed by the UK support of France in the fight against Daesh, a relative united front is being formed at the international level. This development has mounted political pressures on Saudi Arabia and Turkey to change their current counter-terrorism policies and play a more realistic and honest role in fighting the terrorist group.

The most significant result of the abovementioned geopolitical equations is the ongoing change in the nature of Iran-Russia relations from the traditional passive perspective on their regional roles to the benefits of their increased regional cooperation, which can add to their political-military weight especially vis-à-vis the rival bloc. Despite historical distrust resulting from political developments in past centuries, including the 18th century’s wars, geopolitical rivalries during the Cold War, or ideological rivalries following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, relations between Iran and Russia have been expanding during past years especially through the nuclear cooperation and weapons transfer.

Yet, the common geostrategic threats of the collapse of states in Iraq and Syria, the two regional allies of Iran and Russia, followed by the emergence of Daesh in the territories of these two states, have been a turning point in bilateral relations. The risks of the rise of unfriendly governments in these two countries, have warned Iran and Russia of their immediate common interests and also mutual needs. Russia needed Iran as Iran is the sole actor that has coalitional-building and effective role concurrently in Iraq and Syria and in their field and political equations. At the same time, Iran needed Russia in the regional aerial equations and creating political-security balance against the rival front formed mainly by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States in any peace or ceasefire initiatives. Iran and Russia have also reached the understanding that without a change in the Syrian air and field equations, the rival regional actors are unlikely to accept a win-win situation in Syria.

As the issues of Asad’s staying in power and defeating Daesh have become interconnected in the course of the Syrian crisis, the positions of Iran and Russia on three significant issues are getting closer. First, both countries consider the enhancement of the state in Syria as a priority in defeating Daesh. In this respect, they accept the role of non-state actors, as well as political and militia groups only in bolstering the Syrian state and in time of threat and insecurity. This model was also evident in Iran's position in Iraq. That is, Iran mobilized Shia militia fighters against Daesh only at a time that the risk of the fall of major cities such as Samarra and Baghdad seemed imminent. Finally, those forces continued their operations under the supervision of the Iraqi government.

Second, the two countries’ positions on simultaneous fight against Daesh terrorists and other opponents of the Syrian regime have come closer. Once, Russia believed in dialogue with the moderate opponents of Assad’s regime hoping that Russia can keep its influence by talking to all groups involved in Syria. As a result, Russia held several meetings with these opposition groups in Moscow. However, as time passed by, Russia reached the conclusion that there exist deep divisions between these forces, causing the equations on the ground to fare to the detriment of those groups and the Syrian government, and in favor of Daesh. At the same time, some forces affiliated with these groups were absorbed by Daesh. It was then that Russia’s positions became closer to that of Iran stressing that all such violent groups should be fought against equally and there is no such thing as moderate or extremist terrorist.

And third and most sensitive issue is about future of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Here also the two actors reached this conclusion: Asad’s staying in power is vital to defeat Daesh. Some prevailing perspectives tend to believe that the Russians will finally enter into a deal with the West over Assad’s replacement on the basis of their own interests. Yet, Russia’s direct involvement in Syria shows that the Russians have changed the course sharing more the Iranian view which said from the outset of the crisis that defeating Daesh is equivalent of enhancing the state system in Syria and this means keeping Asad in office until the political transition in the country is realized with the votes of the Syrian people.

As Iran and Russia’s geopolitical interests converge, another question raised is whether the new situation in the two sides’ relations is strategic or tactical? No doubt, strategic relations take shape in the course of history, common understanding of threats and interests, and the degree of the two sides’ support for each other in time of crisis and insecurity and etc., on the one hand, and through the institutionalization of political, economic and military ties on the other. The fact of the matter is that the political-security threats of Daesh, with its all precarious geostrategic consequences, have put Iran and Russia in the early path of the strategic relations. 

In this respect, one should also note that it is the first time in contemporary history that Russia has called for the expansion of relations with Iran based on equal political-strategic terms. Previously, the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, followed by the Western sanctions on Russia, turned the country to the East, to Iran, China and India, for energy cooperation, economic exchanges and political partnership, and already increased the significance of relations with for Russia. Subsequently, the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and concerns about possible increased relations between Iran and the West, especially the United States, motivated Russia to expedite the process of expanding relations with Iran. Yet, the turning point in relations is still based on strengthening the new political coalition between the two countries in dealing with the changing regional geopolitics. This situation was evident during the recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Iran when he emphasized on the importance of expanding strategic relations with Iran and that the two sides have common understanding towards the regional issues and especially the Syrian crisis.

In sum and given all the above-mentioned equations, one can conclude that: First, the nature of the Iran-Russia relations is changing and the two sides are giving due weight to the significance of their increased regional cooperation. Second, this change is in the beginning of its course and needs to be examined and institutionalized with tangible results in actual policies. Third, this situation at any rate is an opportunity for Iran and will add to the geopolitical significance of Iran before the Western powers and their regional allies. And fourth and most importantly is that Iran should take advantage of the new situation and balance its regional and global relations within an independent context.

*Kayhan Barzegar is the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran and a former research fellow at Harvard University. He also chairs the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran.

Key WordsDaesh, Iran, Russia, Relations, Syrian Crisis, Historical Passive Context, Active Situation, Regional Cooperation, Geopolitical Interests, Political Equality, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Barzegar

Source: Diplomat monthly, November 2015
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

More By Kayhan Barzegar:

*Russia’s Presence in Syria: Implications for Regional Equations and Iran’s Interests: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Russia-s-Presence-in-Syria-Implications-for-Regional-Equations-and-Iran-s-Interests.htm

*Obama and Iran: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Obama-and-Iran.htm

*How Iran Deal Could Bring Multilateralism to Middle East: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/How-Iran-Deal-Could-Bring-Multilateralism-to-Middle-East.htm

*Photo Credit: IRNA

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