Hamed Mousavi and Amin Naeni
Dr. Mousavi is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tehran. Mr. Naeni is a research assistant in political science at the University of Tehran.
Iran and Russia are cooperating on the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant as well as others. Iran is a major importer of Russian arms, including the S-300 missile system. Efforts to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria have led to unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries. They were also recently able to reach an agreement on rights to the Caspian Sea after many years of strife. Moreover, trade between the two has increased in the wake of Western sanctions. Russia has become disillusioned about better relations with the West following unsuccessful attempts to improve them during the tenure of Dmitry Medvedev. Iran is coming to a similar realization with the collapse of the nuclear deal (JCPOA). The two countries also share the goal of limiting U.S. global influence.
These issues have made better bilateral relations central to both countries’ foreign policies. This has especially been the case for Iran, which has come under intense pressure from the Trump administration. Hence the reemergence of the possibility of a strategic alliance between the two countries. This article argues that while U.S. foreign policy has been largely responsible for improved relations between Tehran and Moscow, complexities of domestic politics in Iran and differences on foreign policy present major challenges to such an alliance. Even under the pressure of the Trump administration, it is unlikely that the two countries will be able to overcome barriers to the strategic alliance they seek.
RUSSIAN FOREIGN POLICY
Since 2000, when Vladimir Putin took over in Moscow, all of his foreign-policy efforts have been aimed at reestablishing Russia as a great power. Russia’s foreign policy aim since the beginning of the twenty-first century has been to change the global order from unipolarity to multipolarity.1 Starting in 2012, Moscow began to develop a “Turn to the East” strategy to achieve this. This strategy can be dated from Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly in December 2012, when he stated, “In the 21st century, the vector of Russia’s development will be the development of the East. Siberia and the Far East represent our enormous potential.”2
This turn gained momentum following the 2014 Ukraine crisis. The annexation of Crimea brought Russia’s relations with the West to a new low and demonstrated Putin’s determination to revise the global order in Russia’s favor. Russia effectively challenged major elements of the global order such as “international law,” “sovereignty” and the “right to use violence.”3 Russia’s actions also led to economic sanctions by the United States, effectively limiting Western investment in the country’s economy.
Moscow understands that the greatest barrier to its emergence as a great power in a multipolar world is the weakness of its economy. At the same time, the economic growth of China, India and other Asian countries has made Russia’s pivot to the East inevitable. In the 2015 Valdai conference, this strategy was labeled the “Greater Eurasia” idea. In 2016, Putin explained:
Recently in Astana we discussed this, and we propose thinking about the creation of a greater Eurasian partnership with the participation of the Eurasian Economic Community and also countries with which we have close relations: China, India, Pakistan, Iran. 4
The Greater Eurasia strategy is aimed at creating a power center that challenges American hegemony and strengthens Russia’s position in the post-liberal order.5 The Greater Eurasia idea emphasizes many of the concerns eastern countries have had about the West in recent years, such as sovereignty, the prohibition of intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries and the condemnation of imperialism. What is important is that Russia sees itself as the center of a coalition of countries united on the above goals.6 At the same time, Russia insists that it does not want to challenge all of the principles of the global order, due to the closeness of its people to Europe and the country’s needs for economic modernization. As a result, the Turn to the East strategy should not be understood as an alternative to relations with the West.7In fact, Moscow understands that the re-emergence of a new Cold War would weaken Russia. This is why they are not after the defeat of the West, but rather seek to achieve favorable agreements.8 Today’s Kremlin does not bear any resemblance to the Soviet Union, which was willing to sacrifice its economic interests in favor of its ideology. 9Rather, Russia seeks a central position in the emerging multipolar global order.
IRAN IN RUSSIA’S STRATEGY
Russia’s adoption of its turn-to-the- East strategy, coupled with deteriorating relations with the United States, has increased the importance of pressure levers it can use against Washington. Like Russia, Iran also has fraught relations with the West, particularly the United States. This commonality has been the most important factor in the cooperation between the two countries.10
Russia has usually exploited its close relations with Iran to pressure Washington. The export of weaponry to Tehran is one such instrument. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians have used this lever very cautiously; nevertheless Russian-U.S. relations have been a constant factor in the quantity and quality of arms sales to Iran. 11 The most important example of this is the suspension of the sale of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Tehran in 2010, when Moscow-Washington ties improved following Barack Obama’s “Russian reset” policy. In the same year, Russia voted at the UN Security Council in favor of American resolutions sanctioning Iran. In fact, Russia was able to use this in its bargaining to terminate U.S. sanctions against some Russian companies dating back to 1999.12
In recent years, Moscow’s view of Iran’s position in its new policy has also been varied and tactical. In fact, the improvement of its ties with China has become the cornerstone of the Turn to the East strategy, showing that Moscow has understood the economic rise of China and its future power projection. Russia, however, does not want to make the country dependent on China. This is why it has also sought better economic ties with countries such as India, Japan, South Korea and Iran. This would allow the Russians to improve ties with Beijing while also preventing China from becoming a hegemon in Asia. Thus, Russia’s Iran card can also serve its complex relationship with China in addition to its relationship with the United States. Iran’s vast natural resources, its important role in Middle Eastern politics, its potential access to Central Asia and its closeness with Moscow have brought the country into the center of Russia’s Turn to the East policy. One of the steps in this direction is the agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union, signed by Putin in 2018, which would establish a joint free zone. 13At the same time, Iran has been unable to upgrade its observer status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to full membership. This shows that Moscow and Beijing are still unwilling to turn the organization into a full-fledged lever against the United States.14
As a result, there have been limits to Iran’s relationship with the East. This can be understood as part of Russia’s emphasis on its independence in a new multipolar world as well as its emphasis on realist notions of self-reliance and avoidance of long-term alliances. Such an approach, which does not see countries as friends or enemies but focuses on national interests, is constantly cited by Russian politicians as well as academics.15 Russian analysts believe that Russia does not have the power to singlehandedly lead a bloc. This is why its foreign policy should be flexible, to promote Russia’s position in a multilateral regional and global order. 16
Since Iran-Russia relations have always been dependent on the U.S. factor, Russia has adopted a dual policy, based on current circumstances.
Iran’s view of its relationship with Russia is an understudied topic, simplified to Iran’s wish to have Russia as a strategic partner in its opposition to the West. Iran’s latest push for better relations with Russia comes after the election of Donald Trump and increasing U.S. pressure. Alaidin Boroujerdi, at the time the head of the Iranian parliament’s foreign-relations committee, explained in March 2018, when John Bolton replaced H.R. McMaster as the new national security adviser: “The Americans plan to adopt more hawkish policies toward Iran and we should strengthen our relationship with the East, particularly with Russia and China.”17 Ayatollah Khamenei also emphasized improving relations with the East, stating in February 2018, “In foreign relations, favoring the East over the West, neighbors over far countries, and nations that have commonalities with us is one of our priorities today.”18
Nevertheless, Iran’s relationship with Russia is influenced by factors pulling in different directions. To establish strategic relations, the support of public opinion, consensus among elites and commonalities in strategic goals are needed. In Iran, however, there is historical mistrust of Moscow. Treaties such as Turkmenchay and Gulistan led to the loss of large parts of Iran in the nineteenth century. The occupation of Iran by Soviet troops in World War II and their reluctance to withdraw; Soviet support for Saddam Hussein in its eight years of war against Iran; voting in favor of sanctioning Iran in the UN Security Council; delaying the transfer of S-300 missiles as well as construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant and unfairly dividing the Caspian Sea have led to a negative view of Russia among Iranians.19 Common policies of the tsars, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation have led to severe doubts in Iran.
At the same time, American pressures have led some Iranian politicians to favor a pivot to the East. The general result has been an inconsistent approach in Tehran toward Russia. Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign-policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader and one of the foremost advocates of better ties with the East, said in June 2018, after the Trump administration decided to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear deal: “A strategic approach toward the East would be our easiest way out of the West’s deviousness. We shouldn’t come under the influence of Westernized individuals who like Paris more than Moscow.”20 At the same time, this policy has many opponents in Iran. After Velayati’s speech, the Jomhouri Eslami newspaper, affiliated with traditional conservatives, harshly criticized him and claimed that his views were similar to those of the Iranian communists, who once supported the Soviet Union. “Should we go under the Russian security umbrella like Turkmenistan, Armenia and Tajikistan in order to free ourselves from the West? This is a very dangerous idea that should be discarded by elites. What is the difference between this statement and those of communists?”21
There are also serious doubts regarding how much of a security umbrella Russia is willing and able to provide for Iran against the United States. For example, General Hossein Alai, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy, now the CEO of Aseman Airlines, stated:
The Russians were supposed to lease us three super-jet-100 planes, which they produce with the assistance of the West. They negotiated for two years and then the Russian ambassador told me on three separate occasions, we cannot even lease you these planes because more than 10 percent of its parts are American. I told him you always claimed that you were a superpower and a great power. How is it that you cannot even lease a plane that you have built in your own country? He replied, you don’t understand the U.S. like we do.22
Such views have called into question a pivot to the East for Iran. Going under a Russian security umbrella also has constitutional barriers in Iran. The “neither East, nor West” slogan is manifested in Article 152 of the constitution:
“The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based upon the rejection of all forms of domination, both the exertion of it and submission to it, the preservation of the independence of the country in all respects and its territorial integrity, the defence of the rights of all Muslims, non-alignment with respect to the hegemonic superpowers, and the maintenance of mutually peaceful relations with all non-belligerent States.”23
The “neither East nor West” ideology was the main foreign-policy doctrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 revolution. In recent years, however, the slogan has been interpreted differently. The conservative and influential Kayhan newspaper in 2017 criticized what it saw as a weakening of this ideology:
With the collapse of the bipolar structure, many analysts questioned the neither East nor West principle and declared that this was suitable for the first decade of the revolution, which has in effect lost its meaning with the collapse of the Eastern bloc.24
But the same newspaper declared in 2018 after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal:
Pivot toward countries other than the U.S. and the three-four [sic] disloyal European countries [UK, France and Germany] is not undermining our slogan. Neither East nor West was for a bipolar world structure which does not exist anymore. Today there is no Soviet Union. Is the world still bipolar? Aren’t China and India new poles? Is today’s Russia the Soviet Union?25
This demonstrates the lack of consensus even among Iranian conservatives, who are all traditionally anti-Western.
One of the most important factors that can help us assess the possibility of the formation of a strategic alliance between Tehran and Moscow is the Russian use of a military air base in the Iranian city of Hamedan. In August 2016, media reported that the base had been used by Russian planes for attacking ISIS in Syria. This was first reported by Russian media and subsequently confirmed by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The report was then also carried by Iranian news outlets, leading to controversy and denunciation from Iranian politicians and the media. Some members of the Iranian parliament pointed out that this was unconstitutional, since Article 146 of the Iranian constitution forbids any foreign military bases in the country, even for peaceful purposes.26 In fact, 20 Iranian MPs wrote a letter asking for a confidential parliamentary meeting on the issue. Heshmatollah Fallahatpishe, who at the time was a member of the parliament’s foreign-relations committee and is currently its chairman, stated:
I’m the representative of a city which was hit by a thousand missiles and bombs during the (Iran-Iraq) war, 80 percent of which were Russian made. The Russians usually have political calculations which weigh the benefits and costs of actions. If based on such calculations, they (the Russians) give Iran’s confidential military data to the country’s enemies, then what would Iranian politicians say to the nation?27
Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, subsequently declared, “In no way has Iran given a military base to the Russians or any other country. Therefore I deny the establishment of a Russian military base.”28
At the same time, the Russians favored a written agreement regarding the use of Iranian bases by Russian forces. Victor Ozerov, a member of the Russian senate’s security committee, emphasized the need with Iran for what exists with the Syrians, allowing the Russian air force to operate, adding, “I think the Russian Federation is ready to adopt such a decision.”29 In order for Iran to establish strategic relations with Russia and bring it under its security umbrella against the United States, it needs to make such high-level decisions. Even the limited and short-term use of the Hamedan base by the Russians was very controversial and highly criticized. Finally, General Hossein Dehghan, Iran’s defense minister, put the issue to rest by declaring on national TV:
We most definitely did not provide them with a military base, and under no circumstances were the Russians allowed to settle in at [the base]. They did not come to stay, but rather used the base for a short and specific time period due to the operational needs of ground and air forces in Syria. There was never a written agreement, rather it was just operational cooperation. Naturally, the Russians are interested in presenting themselves as a superpower and an influential country. As a result, the declaration of such news [by the Russians] was a kind of showing-off and disloyalty.30
If the two countries did in fact have a strategic alliance, then the presence of Russian fighters on Iranian bases would be appropriate and natural. However, the reactions of the Iranian public, media and even politicians including MPs and the defense minister, demonstrate the difficulties of establishing such an alliance.
Aside from military and security cooperation, economic relations are another measure of the depth of Iran-Russia relations. As a developing country, Iran has traditionally seen development as a result of cooperation with the West and the attraction of Western investors and corporations to the country. The actions of the Iranian government show that following the signing of the nuclear deal, the country tried to obtain contracts with Western corporations, even though prior to the deal it talked about widespread economic cooperation with the East. Iran’s official government newspaper reported in October 2017, prior to the American withdrawal from the JCPOA, that economic contracts after the deal amounted to $86 billion. The biggest share was related to contracts with the French Renault and Peugeot car corporations, Airbus and Boeing, the Italian railroad corporation, Germany’s Siemens and France’s Total, with only $1.4 billion going to Russian companies.31 Such contracts with the West actually drew the open criticism of Moscow. Russia’s ambassador to Iran declared:
The Iranians prefer to buy Boeing, Airbus or ATR. We really helped in lifting the sanctions and expected Iran to buy from countries that helped with the lifting of sanctions, not the countries that imposed the sanctions. I’m surprised that you say we will not forget the sanctions period, but at the same time buy Boeing and Airbus planes. Where are the Russian planes?32
In addition to the above statistic, the website of the Iranian government reported that in the one-year period after the implementation of the nuclear deal, from December 2015 to December 2016, Spain invested $3.2 billion, Germany $2.96 billion, France $389 million and the UK $245 million, while Russia’s investment was zero.33 After Donald Trump declared the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, however, Iran’s economic relationship with Europe quickly deteriorated, leading to the rise of trade ties with Russia. From March to November 2018, Iran’s imports from Moscow saw an increase of 90 percent over the previous year, reaching $866 million and making Russia number eight among the countries from which Iran imports. In comparison, in 2017, Russia was not in the top-ten list. Russia was not even in the top 20 destinations for Iranian exports.34
Although economic interdependence is a measure of the relationship between countries, the economic relationship between Iran and Russia is again strongly influenced by Iran’s relationship with the West and its fluctuations. Moreover, since both Iran and Russia have economies that heavily rely on the export of oil and gas, they lack the diversity necessary to expand bilateral trade. Even though U.S. pressure on Iran has temporarily expanded ties, Europe remains the most important trading partner for both countries.
IRANIAN RHETORIC ON RUSSIA
Comparing the rhetoric of President Hassan Rouhani regarding Russia from 2014 to November 2016, when Iran’s relationship with the West, including the United States, was improving, and from November 2016, when Donald Trump was elected as president, until the end of 2018, we notice a significant difference. In the 2014-16 period, Rouhani made 11 statements about Russia in official diplomatic dialogue and public interviews.
In 2014, Rouhani told Putin in a telephone call, “The development of economic ties with Russia, especially in the fields of oil and trade, will soon increase our bilateral cooperation to the highest in the region.”35 In March 2015, Rouhani told Putin, “We expect Russia as a neighbor and friend to take more serious steps and become more involved in the [nuclear] negotiations.”36 In July 2015, when Rouhani met Putin, he emphasized the strategic character of Iran-Russia relations and emphasized the increasing economic cooperation between the two countries in recent years.37
On September 25 of the same year, Rouhani told an audience of media executives in New York, regarding cooperation with Russia in Syria, “Our relationship with Russia is close, and we have talks, but we do not have an alliance.”38 Four days later, when he met Putin on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly meeting, he stated, “The [Nuclear] Deal opens the way for the development of the relationship between the two countries in all aspects.”39 Moreover, in November 2015, he declared, “economic cooperation, the nuclear [industry] and fighting terrorism have strengthened the pillars of Tehran-Moscow relations more than ever.” 40In 2016, Rouhani also talked about cooperation and talks with Russia regarding reaching a ceasefire in Syria.
By analyzing Rouhani’s statements during this period, we see that he characterizes the relationship as “strategic” only once. All his other comments were about the nuclear negotiations, economic cooperation, and interactions in Syria. In the one instance where he characterizes the relationship as strategic, it is mostly regarding economic ties.
On the other hand, we see, in Rouhani’s statements after Trump’s election, an increase in frequency as well as a change in tone regarding Russia. From November 2016 to the end of 2018, Rouhani mentioned Iran-Russia relations on 24 occasions. Only one week after the U.S. presidential election, Rouhani told the head of the Council of the Assembly of the Russian Federation, “Iran-Russia relations are at their peak in the past decade. Russia had a constructive role in the nuclear deal, and today Moscow can help ensure the implementation of the obligations of other parties to the deal.”41 In December 2016, Rouhani told Putin’s special envoy that “the nuclear deal is the work of seven countries and ensures international peace and security... Everyone should help with the preservation of its fruits.... One country should not be allowed to weaken the agreement.”42
In March 2017, when Rouhani met Putin in Moscow, he stated, “The relationship between the two countries has entered a new phase and we can now talk about a stable and long-term relationship.” 43He added, in a press conference after the meeting, “the relationship between the two countries has moved from an ordinary relationship to one based on grand and long-term projects.” To set the long-term strategy of the relationship, careful decisions had been made.44
In August 2017, in a phone call with Putin, Rouhani claimed that “the principled policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to develop strategic relations with its neighbors, especially Russia.”45 In October 2017, when Rouhani met Putin in Tehran, he called Russia a friend, a neighbor and a strategic partner.46Rouhani further emphasized this in April 2018, when he told Putin, “Cooperation between Iran and Russia will continue on a strategic level.”47
In June 2018, Rouhani stated that, “the relationship between the two countries is developing on all fronts” and that, “after the illegal unilateral withdrawal of the U.S., Moscow plays an important role in the stability of the deal and ensuring that the other sides fulfill their obligations.” 48Analysis of the statements of Iran’s president during the November 2016 to December 2018 time period shows that Iran-Russia relations are characterized as “strategic,” “very extensive,” “unprecedented,” “stable and long-term” and full of “unprecedented trust.” In addition, the number of Rouhani’s statements on the relationship is more than double that of the previous time period. The change in quantity and quality of the rhetoric used by the Iranian president demonstrates how much the country’s relationship with the United States impacts its relationship with Russia.
POLICY TOWARD THE MIDDLE EAST
In addition to the internal barriers to closer relations between Russia in Iran, there are also important differences in the objectives and policies of the two countries toward the Middle East. Russia’s military involvement in Syria after 2015 brought cooperation between the two countries in the region to unprecedented levels. The military-intelligence cooperation has been seen as a success by both sides. The objectives of the cooperation were to defeat ISIS and regain territory in favor of the Assad government, both of which have been achieved. In June 2018, on the sidelines of the Shanghai summit, Putin told Rouhani, “We have been working well together to settle the Syrian crisis. This is an issue for discussion because of the practical results achieved.”49 In September 2018, the supreme leader told Putin in Tehran, “One of the areas where the two sides can cooperate is the containment of the United States, since the U.S. is a danger to humanity, while it is possible to contain it. The case of Syria has been one of the successful containment instances of the U.S..... Americans have really lost in Syria, and have not been able to reach their objectives.”50 While the two sides have successfully cooperated during wartime, we must ask if they can maintain this during peacetime. To answer the question, we must analyze the long-term objectives of the two sides in Syria and the Middle East more generally.
Iran’s view of the Middle East is influenced by two competing tendencies: a realist strategy and an ideological one born out of the Islamic revolution of 1979. The result has been a foreign policy centered around the “Resistance Axis,” which aims to support resistance movements in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine. The objective of the axis is to counter Israel and fulfill Palestinian ideals. Supreme Leader Khamenei said in 2012, “Wherever a nation, a group fights with the Zionist regime, we support and help them, and we are not afraid to say this. This is the truth and the reality.”51 Part of Iran’s foreign-policy ideology is also unifying the Islamic umma (nation), and Israel is seen as an obstacle to achieving this. General Yahya Rahim Safavi, former head of the IRGC and current senior adviser to the supreme leader, explains in his book Unification of the Islamic World, Future Perspectives: “The creation of a union of Islamic countries is a major goal . . . And according to many the most effective substitute to the current world order.”52<.p>
Iran’s foreign policy in the region cannot, however, be solely attributed to ideological goals. Iranian leaders see some of the developments in the Middle East as a threat to their security. The strategic isolation of Iran since 1979 was most aptly demonstrated during the eight years of war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. A result of the war is that Iran has been trying to change the regional balance of power in its favor ever since. This realist and security-oriented approach is also very much part of Iranian foreign policy. The presence of American military bases in the region, the increased arming of Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the latter’s improving ties with some Arab countries have today made Iran’s “resistance” foreign-policy approach a realist one. It is aimed at ensuring the country’s security, even though the framework was initially based on revolutionary ideology. This is why prominent realist scholars such as Kenneth Waltz have analyzed Iranian foreign policy as based on security and survival through power politics, as in other states.53 Iran came to see the Syrian crisis as an American-Israeli plan designed to weaken the Islamic Republic. Iranian leaders believed that regime change in Damascus was a precursor to regime change in Tehran. That is why the protection of Assad became a top priority.
The removal of Assad and of Iran’s influence in a future Syria — as well as in the rest of the region, particularly the loss of its land connection to Hezbollah — have been a major Iranian concern.54 Mehdi Taeb, an influential conservative cleric in Iran, declared:
Syria is the 35th province of Iran and is a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take Syria or Khuzestan [an Iranian province], then our priority would be to hold on to Syria because with Syria we can also take back Khuzestan, but if we lose Syria, then we will not be able to defend Tehran.55
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, also stated in 2018, “We see the security of Syria as our own security.”56 Thus, strengthening the resistance axis can be viewed as Iran’s primary goal in the region. Even though the concept was developed based on Islamic and revolutionary ideology, today it is viewed by Iranian leaders as ensuring Iran’s security. This is why weakening the U.S. presence in the region and preventing rivals such as Israel and Saudi Arabia from gaining hegemony have become the centerpiece of Iran’s foreign policy. We should also note that, unlike Iran’s policy toward the East and the West, the country’s policies toward the region have enjoyed strategic stability. There have been no important changes from the conservative government of Ahmadinejad to the present moderate administration of Rouhani.
RUSSIA’S MIDDLE EAST POLICY
After the Cold War, Russia became seriously involved in the Middle East only with the start of the Syrian conflict. This led to increasing cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, since both governments supported Assad. Russia saw the war as part of the West’s policy of regime change in unfriendly countries. Such a view was strengthened when Western countries led the cause of overthrowing Qadhafi in Libya. With military intervention in Syria, Moscow once again became an important actor in Middle Eastern politics, forcing the United States to have to view Russia as a great power. Therefore, the Russian presence in Syria cannot be attributed only to keeping Assad in power.57
In contrast, as noted earlier, Iran sees the Syrian conflict as a national-security issue, while Russia can use its advantages in Syria as part of its much broader power politics with the United States and Europe. This gives Russia much more flexibility for compromise. In addition, in direct opposition to Tehran’s Resistance Axis foreign policy, Moscow has increasingly good ties with Tel Aviv. In fact, the Russian-Israeli relationship has been strengthened under Putin’s reign, partly due to Israel’s significant Russian population.58
In recent years, the Kremlin has emphasized on numerous occasions that it understands the security concerns of the Jewish state. For example, Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister of Russia, denied in a CNN interview that Russia was allied with Iran in Syria. “We in no way underestimate the importance of measures that would ensure very strong security of the State of Israel…. The Israelis know this, the U.S. knows this, and everyone else, including the Iranians, the Turks, the government in Damascus [know this]. This is one of the top priorities of Russia.”59
In fact, Moscow has coordinated many of its military activities with the Israelis since it became involved in Syria. Israeli warplanes have attacked Iranian and Hezbollah positions without the Russians showing any reaction, even though they have significant surface-to-air missile installations in the country.60 A study by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) of Russia-Israel relations states: “Russia stands to benefit from the weakening of Tehran’s military positions in Syria, as it is a clear obstacle to a peaceful settlement, creating the illusion in Damascus that the military option for resolving the conflict remains open.”61
The Russians do not want the long-term presence of a foreign force in Syria, aside from themselves. The Russian naval base in Tartus and the air base in Khmeimim have important geostrategic value for Moscow. In fact, in December 2017, the Russian defense minister declared that Russia had started establishing a permanent military presence at naval and air bases in Syria.62 In May 2018, Putin stated on the issue: “We presume that, in connection with the significant victories and success of the Syrian army in the fight against terrorism, with the onset of the political process in its more active phase, foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.” 63The statement was clarified a day later by Putin adviser Alexander Lavrentie: “This statement involves all foreign troops in Syria including the Turkish, American, Iranian and Hezbollah.”64
Israel, obviously, is not the only regional power affecting Iran-Russia affairs. Moscow is also trying to improve relations with rich Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia that have the money to invest in Russia and make major weapons purchases. Aleksandr Mikheev, the CEO of Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, has said in this regard: “Russia has signed deals worth $8 billion.” Orders from countries of the Middle East make up about 20 percent of Russian arms exports, according to him. Russian armaments have reportedly attracted the attention of Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia.65 Improving relations with Arab countries is one of Moscow’s long-term objectives. The “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation,” according to Putin in November 2016, is as follows:
Russia intends to further expand bilateral relations with the States in the Middle East and North Africa, including by relying on the ministerial meeting of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum, and continuing strategic dialogue with the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf.66
At the same time, Iran’s relations with GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, have become increasingly tense. When Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and imposed oil sanctions on Iran, Moscow and Riyadh in coordination increased their oil production to make up for the loss in the market. The event drew the ire of Tehran, with the Iranian oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, declaring in June 2018:
Do not forget the famous quote by Churchill when they asked him, how did you become allied with Russians in the Second World War even though they are our strategic enemies? He replied that Britain does not have permanent friends or enemies, but constant national interests.67
The relationship between Russia and Arab countries has complicated its relationship with Iran. As Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs and chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, has said, “Deliberate support of the Shiite against the Sunnis would be suicidal.” 68Thus, while Iran is after weakening and containing regional rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia, Russia is not interested in getting involved in such a policy. Any form of military confrontation between these parties would be detrimental to Russian interests in the region.69
In response to Western pressure, both Iran and Russia have resorted to geopolitics. Russia annexed Crimea and reentered Middle Eastern politics with its involvement in Syria. On the other hand, Iran’s regional policies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen have served the objective of weakening the American presence in the region. At the same time, the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal has strengthened the hand of pro-Russian politicians in Iran at the expense of politicians who favor better relations with the West. The result has been closer ties between Tehran and Moscow. Nevertheless, this relationship is far from becoming a strategic alliance, as this article has demonstrated. Iran-Russia ties will only get stronger until one of the two improves its ties with the United States. This happened in 2009, when for a short time U.S.-Russian ties improved following the American “Reset” strategy. Another example is when hostilities between Iran and the United States subsided following the nuclear deal in 2015. In both instances, Iran-Russia relations suffered.
Russia sees its pivot-to-the-East strategy as part of a larger goal of elevating the country to great-power status once again. This does not equate to a Russian confrontation with the West; rather it is aimed at providing Moscow with more bargaining power when dealing with the West, particularly the United States. Russia’s involvement in the Middle East can also be understood in this regard. If Russia is able to achieve its objective of being the only remaining foreign force in Syria, it will gain considerable geopolitical influence. Russia is also trying to improve ties with both Israel and Saudi Arabia and in some instances has openly taken their side against Iran, increasing oil production with Riyadh and in effect paving the way for Washington’s sanctions. At the same time, Russia sees Iran as an important regional country, relations with which will provide Russia with another lever in global politics. Contrary to Tehran’s hopes, however, this does not mean that it will shield the country against the United States. Russia’s relationship with Iran is very much based on cost-benefit calculations.
In Iran, distrust of Moscow, a preference for Western-style development among elites and the lack of consensus among politicians have prevented the country from taking any major steps, such as seeking shelter under a Russian security umbrella and establishing strategic ties with Moscow. Iranian decision makers as well as the public have shown on various occasions in the past few decades that they are not ready for such a move and only accept closeness with Moscow as tactical and short-term.
Finally, while both Iran and Russia share the goal of containing American unilateralism in the Middle East, there are important differences. Iran sees Middle East politics as a struggle for survival and has adopted a policy that promotes the Resistance Axis against Israel and Saudi Arabia. In contrast, Russia sees the Middle East as an area where it can increase its power and standing in global politics, the result of which has been the adoption of flexible and multidimensional policies that in some instances have inadvertently led to the weakening of Iran. The result of all of these factors: the formation of a strategic alliance between Russia and Iran is highly unlikely.
*This article was funded by the Center for Central Eurasia Studies, University of Tehran
1 Simon Duke, “The European Security Strategy in a Comparative Framework: Does It Make for Secure Alliances in a Better World,” European Foreign Affairs Revue 9, no. 4 (2004): 459-481.
2Vladimir Putin, “Address to the Federal Assembly,” Kremlin, December 12, 2012, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/17118.
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