Managing Iran's Relations with Russia

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

As expected, the western media has perniciously interpreted Russia's sudden announcement of removal of its forces from Syria as an indication of a rift with Iran, thus spinning the news as a wedge between Moscow and Tehran. 

Of course, President Putin's explanation for the planned departure of most of the Russian forces stationed in Syria is that their mission has been largely accomplished, thanks to some 9000 air sorties which have helped turn the tide of war in favor of the embattled regime in Damascus. Concerned about a costly "mission creep," Moscow's decision must be seen in tandem with the initial expectations and the net results, which have contributed to the groundwork for the present cease-fire and the Geneva dialogue between the government and the opposition. In other words, the western misperceptions about a policy dispute between Iran and Russia over Syria ought to be debunked and set aside in favor of a more accurate interpretation that takes into consideration the myriad domestic and external factors behind Putin's Syria decision.

Simultaneously, this issue lends itself to fresh reconsideration of the dimensions and depth of Iran-Russia relations, particularly in the new, post-nuclear agreement era, in light of Russia's role in the intense negotiations and the long history of Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran. There are both intended and unintended consequences of the post-sanctions era with respect to Iran-Russia relations that, on the whole, denote a more complex dynamic than before. 

On the one hand, compared to Russia, China and the European Union countries have been the main beneficiaries of the post-sanctions trade windfalls, reflected in the whopping $600 billion dollar agreement with China inked in the immediate aftermath of the agreement's "implementation day," followed by similar openings with various EU countries. Comparatively, Russia's share of the pie has been so far rather small and mainly targeted to military sales, i.e., $8 billion dollar sale of sophisticated fighter jets and the like, which at this point is unclear if they are finalized given the loud opposition by Washington on the ground of their violation of the UN resolutions. 

Not only that, Iran's quest to raise its oil output and expand its gas imports also represent problems for the Russian energy sector that is similarly grappling with the devastating consequences of sharp price decline. This is augmented by the parallel efforts to export gas to Europe which, again, raise the issue of compatibility of Russia's and Iran's interests, an issue requiring joint sessions to study and make recommendations by experts of both nations.

Another factor is Turkey, which has been accused of "creeping expansionism" in Syria and is presently highly at odds with Moscow over Syria and, yet, has been able to "mend fences" with Iran, particularly as a result of the latest Tehran visit of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Mr. Davutoglu has sought to enlist Iran's collaboration with an Azeri pipeline to Europe through Turkey, which the Russians view as a competition to their downstream gas projects to Europe. Of course, Iran has made no commitment in this regard, but the mere absence of a show of lack of interest on Iran's part may be more than sufficient to cause a Russian disquiet. 

In turn, the latter brings us to a consideration of the Syrian conflict and its impact on Iran-Russia relations. After committing the forces that practically saved Damascus this past winter, perhaps Moscow was inclined to dictate the political terms and was somewhat dismayed that due to other stakeholders it is not that simple. The logic of coalition-building in Syria requires compromise and flexibility, as well as comradarie and consensus, which is not always easy to attain in the fog of war and unequal weight of contributors banding together around a common cause.

Indeed, one of the complicating factors may have been Russia's cozy relations with both Saudi Arabia and Israel, compared to these two countries' hostility toward Iran, which might have affected in some capacity the nature of Iran-Russia cooperation in Syria. The Saudi-backed opposition has been delivered a manna from heaven by President Putin's announcement in the middle of the Geneva talks, which may have caught both Tehran and Damascus by surprise. Of course, it is still too early to tell whether or not Putin's announcement is somewhat similar to his earlier announcement on Ukraine, which according to many experts has yet to materialize. After all, Putin said that "some" forces will remain, and it is unclear if the air campaign will come to a complete halt as well? 

In evaluating the pros and cons of Putin's sudden decision, time is a big factor and it may well turn out that it has been hasty and premature, indirectly aiding the cause of Bashar al-Assad's ardent opponents, at least on the politico-psychological level. Nonetheless, what is clear is that managing the Iran-Russia relations in the new milieu is a complicated task that requires sensitivity to each side's concerns and potential complaints, in order to avoid any unnecessary setbacks in the hitherto robust strategic closeness of the two countries. Perhaps a renewed effort by Iran to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has inducted Iran as an observer, is a step in the right direction in order to improve the climate between Tehran and Moscow.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, Ph.D, is a former political science professor at Tehran University and the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

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*Photo Credit: Newsweek

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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