The marriage is one of convenience, meaning it is more fragile than it looksby Rupert Stone / February 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Iran and Russia are closer than ever before. They both have tense relations with the west and stand united in opposition to the United States. “Our cooperation can isolate America,” said Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, when Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Tehran last November. Russia and Iran have also been the main supporters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as he battles rebel fighters backed by the US and other countries. And, as violence escalates again in Syria, Moscow and Tehran show no sign of separating. At a meeting with his Russian counterpart this week, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif praised Russia’s “sober strategic perspective” in a gushing tweet.
It was not always this way. Indeed, Iran-Russia relations have been hostile until quite recently. In the early 19thcentury, Russia won two wars against Persia (as Iran was then known), seizing much of the Caucasus in the process. After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which saw the US-backed Iranian king toppled and replaced by an anti-western Islamist theocracy, relations remained poor. The new Islamic Republic of Iran did not share the Soviet Union’s atheist communist ideology. The Soviets also backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. Tensions cooled after the end of the Cold War but rose again in 2010, when Russia backed United Nations sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.
Then, in 2014, Russia’s ties with the west declined sharply after Putin annexed Crimea and incurred fresh sanctions from the US and EU as a result. This drove Moscow into Tehran’s embrace, with Putin and his defence minister making trips to Iran in 2015 to discuss trade and economic assistance. That year also saw the nuclear deal between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council (including Russia), and Germany. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the accord curbed Iranian nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions. Russia was quick to capitalise on sanctions relief, signing deals with Iran to sell weapons and develop the country’s energy sector.
Later that year Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Assad, who was struggling to suppress an armed revolt by Islamic State and other militants against his regime. Iran—a long-time ally of Syria—was already helping Assad with military advisors and economic assistance. The US and other states, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, were aiding the anti-Assad rebels and wanted the Syrian president to step down. But, thanks to the Iranian and Russian aid, Assad survived. Russia led peace talks in the Kazakh city of Astana last year, which also involved Iran and Turkey (but not the US). Further discussions between the three nations have occurred in Sochi, Russia, in recent months.
“’Our cooperation can isolate America,’ said Iran’s Supreme Leader when Putin visited Tehran”
But, while the Syrian war might have brought Russia and Iran closer together, they are not in total agreement as regards Syria’s future. Russia, for example, has expressed a willingness to see President Assad step down as part of any peace deal. Iran, by contrast, has insisted that Assad stay in power. Russia has also supported tentative plans for a federal Syria, where regions, such as the Kurdish area in the north, are granted greater independence from the central government. Iran, which has a restive Kurdish region of its own to worry about, has opposed regional autonomy. Tehran is also concerned that Russia may get closer to the US, given Donald Trump’s admiration for Putin and talks last year about Syria’s future. Furthermore, Russia is reportedly trying to limit Iran’s economic influence in the country.
Another key difference between the two is Russia’s close relationship with Israel. Putin was the first Russian leader to visit Israel and has hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow many times. Iran and Israel are, by contrast, bitter adversaries, and tensions between them reached boiling point recently when an Iranian surveillance drone strayed into Israeli airspace and was shot down, prompting Israel to unleash further retaliatory airstrikes inside Syria. Russia must have allowed the strikes, as its air force dominates Syrian airspace and could have intervened. Indeed, Russia’s ambassador to Tel Aviv said last week that, in the event of a conflict between Iran and Israel, Russia would support the latter.
Iran wants to maintain military assets in Syria so it can pressurise Israel. It already has the capacity to strike Israel from Lebanon, thanks to the Hezbollah militia it helped create in the 1980s. Iran still provides Hezbollah with weapons shipped through Syria and needs a friendly regime in Damascus to keep those supply routes open. Netanyahu has repeatedly raised concerns with Putin about the growing Iranian threat on his northern border. Russia must strike a delicate balance and compromise between its two allies. A deal was reached last year which did not meet Netanyahu’s demands, but at least withdrew Iranian forces some distance from the Golan Heights.
As if Russia’s proximity to Israel wasn’t bad enough for Iran, Putin has also cultivated stronger ties with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and Iranians are fierce rivals and back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict. Moscow’s relations with Riyadh improved markedly in 2017, when Putin hosted Saudi King Salman for a magnificent state visit. When Saudi Arabia severed ties with the tiny Gulf state of Qatar last summer over its supposed links to Iran, Russia remained neutral, while Tehran increased its support for the Qataris. In Yemen, where the Saudi-backed government is engaged in a bloody war with ethnic Houthi rebels, Iran supports the rebels, but Russia is deepening its ties with the government.
Despite these tensions, the Iran-Russia alliance will likely survive for the foreseeable future. The key factor uniting the two countries—anti-Americanism—shows no sign of changing. Trump strongly opposes Iran and has vowed to abrogate the 2015 nuclear deal, while US-Russia relations are deteriorating again. Last year saw the US Congress pass new sanctions against Russia, and a further round of measures is currently in the pipeline. Moreover, the Trump administration, in its latest national security strategy, listed Russia as a threat and has decided to arm the Ukrainian government in its fight with pro-Russian separatists. So, there is less and less chance of a rapprochement between Trump and Putin now. Moscow’s partnership with Tehran may be a marriage of convenience, but don’t expect a divorce anytime soon.