Nikolai Kozhanov - Ph.D. in Economics, is a nonresident scholar in the Foreign and Security Policy Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Resume: Russia and Iran have found themselves to be partners of convenience in Syria. Their interaction is limited due to different motives behind their interference in the conflict and the possibility to harm their relations with third states.
Tehran’s official position on Russian military involvement in the Syrian civil war was absolutely positive. The mainstream news agencies, such as IRNA, ISNA, ILNA, and Mehr highlighted the bombing campaign favorably, playing up to Russian propaganda. A majority of Iranian officials hailed Russia’s joining the fight against ISIS, too.
However, experts differ in assessing the dialogue the two states have started. While some say that a new alliance is emerging, others point to the unreliability of bilateral accords, persisting in their search for the imminent signs of a split between Moscow and Tehran. The former cite the facts of active Russian-Iranian interaction. They emphasize that the Syrian issue was among top items on the agenda of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran on November 23, 2015 and his meetings with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The opponents to the version alleging the emergence of an alliance argue that Russia and Iran will split over Syria sooner or later as they pursue different objectives and their vision of the prospects for settling the conflict is not the same. In making their case, they refer to controversial opinions about the Russian military presence in Syria voiced by the Iranian establishment.
Our viewpoint is that Moscow-Tehran interaction in Syria has a long-term prospect, yet a number of factors will prevent it from evolving into a full-fledged military and political alliance.
COOPERATION OR RIVALRY?
In behind-the-scenes polemics, the Iranian establishment is pondering the expediency of having relations with Russia in matters concerning Syria as well as Tehran’s need to participate in the Syrian conflict. However, the controversy is confined to a certain group of the political elite and seldom appears at the national level.
A certain segment of Iranian society is apparently tired of Tehran’s active inference in regional affairs which is quite taxing for national budget. These people simply wish that Iran stop feeding foreign countries because the money earmarked for Iraq, Palestine, and Syria could be used more effectively to develop the national economy which is going through hard times. The controversy is gradually assuming public significance with certain Iranian pragmatists anxious to have their say. In 2013, high-placed Iranian diplomat Mohammad Sadr openly came out against unquestionable support of Bashar al-Assad.
Interaction with Russia, too, is considered within the framework of the discussion over Iran’s presence in Syria. For example, after Russia began its military operation in Syria, noted Iranian politician Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani rejected a military solution to the Syrian issue loud and clear. He showed his negative attitude towards any kind of bombings, clarifying that the Syrian problem could only be settled through negotiations. None of Iran’s leading politicians—except Hashemi Rafsanjani and Sadr—had had the courage to voice such radical ideas in public, a fact that some experts often overlook. Incidentally, the two politicians became more discreet in their statements once they saw that the non-interference idea was not popular.
On the other hand, Russia is criticized by representatives of Iran’s other political pole, i.e. the radical Conservatives and certain members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC views Syria as its private domain, assuming that it has paid for its possession not only with money but also with blood. Indeed, the Iranian military (or, to be precise, servicemen and their colleagues from the elite military Quds Force) have appeared in Syria only recently, and while Moscow is trying to play the role of mediator between the regime and the Opposition even now, Tehran firmly stepped in as an ally of official Damascus from the very first days of the civil war.
Aside from military assistance, it provided financial support to al-Assad (in the most difficult periods in 2013-2014) and supplied fuel and energy resources. It was actually Iran that paid to Syrian servicemen. Iranian military instructors trained the Syrian army and militia in urban combat while civil specialists helped put the Syrian economy on a war footing. Against this background, Russia’s growing presence and direct interference in the Syrian conflict makes certain Iranian law-enforcement officials jealous and willing to rival Moscow.
However, as the case with Hashemi Rafsanjani and Sadr shows, radical Conservatives only reflect the opinion of part of the population without setting the tone to domestic political debates. The foreign experts basing their views on the statements by such groups often forget the specifics of the Iranian political system. The latter allows certain plurality of opinions and cautious questioning of government decisions, yet the final word in all sensitive issues belongs not to the president, but to the Supreme Leader and his associates. In other words, both Sadr and HashemiRafsanjani can express an opinion that differs from the country leadership’s, yet Iran will do as Khamenei says. The Supreme Leader de-facto greenlighted interaction with Russia and reiterated it during his meeting with Putin in November 2015.
Khamenei’s opponents will be unable to challenge his opinion not only because of the Supreme Leader’s unquestionable authority, but also due to the fact that it coincides with the vision of the bulk of Iran’s political elite. The position of the country’s top leadership on interaction with Russia was best expressed by Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati who supervises the Syrian issue. He stated that Tehran was hoping for lasting and long-term ties with Russia. “Russians seek coordination with Iran in measures against terrorist groups,” Velayati said. “The Russians at times had had a different standpoint but they reached a common stance with Iran after consultation.” To give more effect to his words, Velayati urged not to be surprised at possible future visits to Moscow by Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani “for information exchange.” Such an opinion of Russia as a partner in Syria became canonical for the Iranian political establishment, and is accepted by Iranian society, though with certain reservations.
UNITY AND STRUGGLE OF OPPOSITES
Iranians’ vision of their tasks and objectives is playing a significant role in their resolve to cooperate with Moscow in Syria. The experts who talk about considerable differences between the Russian and Iranian motives behind the military interference are absolutely right. Their only major oversight is that different motivations prove to be unifying rather than divisive, unexpectedly creating common goals.
First, both Iran and Russia are stakeholders in Syria’s keeping its state institutions, though their motives differ. By September 2015, Russia’s leadership was fully convinced that so-called “Russian-speaking jihadists” and radical Islamist groups fighting the al-Assad regime posed a considerable threat to the stability of the post-Soviet territory, while the Syrian regime (or, rather, its government bodies) was the last hope for stability in the country. We will leave open the answer to the question whether those concerns were justified. What is important is that by September 2015, Moscow believed that the downfall of the al-Assad regime was a matter of time. It could not let it happen.
Keeping in mind the experience of Libya and Iraq where complete dismantling of old government bodies and the establishment of new ones did not work, Moscow was convinced that a new Syria could only be created on the basis of what remained of the old one. The disappearance of old government bodies would imply the loss of Syria as a state, the beginning of an endless civil war, and, as the worst consequence, further radicalization of the warring groups with a negative impact on neighboring regions. As a result, Russia found itself facing a choice between a bad scenario (involvement in a risky military operation) and a very bad scenario (collapse of the Syrian state which Moscow considered to be the only hope for stabilization). Thus, Moscow chose the lesser of the two evils.
Tehran is seeking to save whatever is left of the Syrian statehood for other reasons. Its policy in Syria is in the hands of Supreme Leader Khamenei and his conservative milieu, who still view Iran as a “besieged fortress.” They see the current improvement of relations with the outside world (the West in the first place) as a temporary respite in the struggle for national interests. The country’s leadership regards its moves in Syria as an element of a more global strategy with the final goal to secure the right to determine the course of events in the region. In this vein, Iranian Conservatives formulated the concept of a “chain of resistance” consisting of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. According to their idea, each of these countries is the forefront of Iran’s defence against the design of the regional states seeking to undermine Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Among Iran’s enemies is Saudi Arabia in the first place, as well as Qatar and Turkey, depending on the situation. A dramatic weakening of Iran’s presence in any of them can have a negative impact on Iran’s regional position in general.
A motto was formulated: “The struggle for Syria is the struggle for Iran” implying that the Iranian leaders obviously have no intention to withdraw from Syria. Velayati even called Syria a “golden ring of resistance.” Also, Iran’s military presence in that country is seen as an element of old confrontation with the key ideological opponents, Israel and the United States. As Velayati stated in December 2015, Syria was “an important bridge” connecting Iran with Lebanon (i.e. Hezbollah) and Palestine. The latter inevitably makes Damascus one of the crucial elements of Iran’s standoff with the U.S. and Israel. According to another advisor to the Supreme Leader, Brigadier General Yahya Rahim Safavi, the key objective of the U.S. policy in Syria is to provide security for Israel. This makes the preservation of the pro-Iranian regime in Syria an existential question for Tehran, and consequently, it places Iran in one camp with Russia which is saving the al-Assad regime, too, albeit for different reasons.
Neither Russia nor Iran sees the return of full control over the country to al-Assad as their final objective. The two countries are well aware that this is not possible as they lack enough resources. As a result, Moscow and Tehran supported the international community’s efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict diplomatically as long as it guaranteed continuing Russian and Iranian influence in Syria. This, in turn, reconciled their negotiating positions. Lastly, Tehran and Moscow are brought together by their view of ISIS (which is banned in Russia—Ed.) and the Jabhat al-Nusra group as a considerable threat. However, whereas they pose a challenge to Russia’s national security in the first place, Iran views them as a major ideological challenge. Though the Iranian leadership has long given up the export of Islamic revolution in practice, it still feels hurt by any attempts to dispute its right to the use of Islam for political purposes.
INTERACTION WITHOUT ILLUSIONS
Another factor bringing the two states closer in Syria is the extraordinary pragmatism of the Russian and Iranian leadership. Neither Moscow nor Tehran is entertaining the illusion regarding the differences in their final goals which make Russia and Iran struggle for the survival of Syrian state institutions. Velyati said that “every country seeks its own interests; Russia cannot defend its interests in the Middle East and the region by itself.” According to Velayati, one of the reasons behind the Kremlin’s attempt to involve Iran in Syrian negotiations was Moscow’s unwillingness to be left alone during its meetings with the foreign sponsors of the Syrian Opposition. Meanwhile, Iran, assuming that “a small world war” had been waged in Syria and understanding that it could not do without Moscow’s assistance, agreed to provide the necessary diplomatic support and together with Russia, Iraq, Lebanon, and Oman set up a negotiating group which Velayati called “resistance axis diplomacy.”
In other words, the Russian and Iranian leadership’s standpoint is that Damascus’ survival can only be ensured by pooling efforts and sidelining the disputed issues for the time being. Thus, a “marriage of convenience” took place where coexistence enabled each party to pursue its own goal.
For example, the “marriage of convenience” temporarily helped Moscow and Tehran overcome their differences over the fate of al-Assad and the Alawi regime as such. Russia is not connected to the Syrian regime as strongly as Tehran. For Moscow, the key objective is the survival of state institutions, while the long-term goal is al-Assad’s stepping down in the course of peaceful settlement, on the condition that this will not harm the interests of Moscow in Syria or the peace process itself. Vladimir Putin’s administration understands the need to make the Damascus regime more democratic and inclusive. The Iranians, however, often put the equal sign between Syrian government institutions and the incumbent president. Initially, al-Assad’s stepping down was absolutely unacceptable to Tehran. By December 2015, Russia and Iran had managed to temporarily resolve their differences by agreeing that al-Assad could be replaced, but only by plebiscite.
Yet the parties’ statements never mentioned the date of Syria’s national vote or the mechanisms which would help avoid the “staged” elections characteristic of the al-Assad regime. It seems Tehran and Moscow have found a convenient wording enabling them to postpone the discussion of Bashar al-Assad’s fate until the moment when they can guarantee the fulfilment of the priority ask, i.e. the survival of Syrian state institutions.
NOT A UNION
The designated common interests of Moscow and Tehran lay the groundwork for coordinating their policies in Syria. Nonetheless, we cannot claim that the two have a full-fledged military union because it lacks the key feature: a Joint Staff or some other supra-national body for continuous and steady coordination of military efforts. The parties engage in situational coordination, but do not go further than that. By and large, Iran and Russia continue to act independently. In 2014-2015, Tehran contacted the Syrian Opposition and Syrian government representatives with an offer of peace plan, though it did inform Moscow about the move. The Iranians also tried their hand as negotiators in Syria. In September 2015 they achieved a shaky truce between the Syrian regime and units of Jaish al-Fatah (a loose alliance of rebel groups) in a number of settlements.
It is unknown to what extent Moscow coordinated its efforts with Tehran towards establishing a truce which has been effective since February 2016, or coordinated partial withdrawal of its Airspace Forces starting March 15. The initial reaction by Iranian politicians showed that Tehran did not quite understand the Russian leadership’s plans. The approving statements coming from Iran were quite reserved, resembling a contrived attempt to show that Tehran had known about the plans, yet one could see that it was perplexed. Iranian policymakers and experts obviously had questions to Russia. The Iranians were particularly bewildered by the fact that the beginning of ceasefire in Syria could decrease the intensity of operations against the Islamist groups and make it easier for the Americans to oust al-Assad. However, Moscow had allayed most of Tehran concerns by April 2016.
Russia and Iran also differ in their tactic of interaction with the Syrian regime. By 2015, Tehran, in view of the material and human costs to support the al-Assad regime, had begun to look upon Syria as a junior partner to whom it could dictate its terms. The Iranians also showed a propensity for paternalism. Tehran began to impose upon Damascus certain military and political decisions. Some reports said that Syrian officials and the military who were outraged at Iran’s dictate tended to die under unclear circumstances. Starting from 2014, Tehran began to invest in the establishment of military organizations alternative to the Syrian army, and take them under control in order to make Damascus more dependent. For example, Iran experimented by setting up an organization similar to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Moscow tried to act correctly in its dealings with Damascus and never put tough pressure on it. Unlike Tehran, it refrained from acting behind the back of the Syrian regime (although some Syrian Opposition members claimed Moscow had made attempts to find an alternative to al-Assad from time to time). This created a favorable image of Russia in the eyes of the Syrians loyal to the regime, especially among those who felt irritated by Tehran’s attempts to make al-Assad its puppet. As a result, Moscow is viewed in Syria as a sort of counterweight to the persistent Iranian influence, which is another sign of insufficient coordination between Moscow and Tehran.
Lastly, Russia and Iran cannot have a military union because their cooperation is built upon forced interaction with obvious differences in the vision of strategic objectives. Of course, the “marriage of convenience” helps smooth things over, yet it does not resolve the problem and merely delays the moment when the issue will be put point-blank. For example, despite the formal common position on al-Assad, the parties stick to their own opinion in practice. The leading Iranian politicians continue to reiterate that keeping the Syrian leader at the helm is the “red line” whereas Russian authorities do not rule out the scenario of a “post-Assad” Syria. In mid-December 2015, Reuters even published the information that the Kremlin had drafted a list of al-Assad’s possible successors. The two countries’ positions are close but they do not coincide, which makes a military union unfeasible.
In this context, it is significant that Iranian Foreign Ministry representatives studiously avoid unequivocal statements about the nature of Russian-Iranian relations. On October 6, 2015, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in an interview with The New Yorker, avoided a direct answer to the question if Iran supported Russia’s military interference in Syria. Instead, Zarif said that “[the Islamic Republic] supported anyone’s involvement in the fight against ISIS.”
Nor did he play up to Moscow’s version that the Russian Airspace Forces had only been targeting ISIS. The Iranian minister admitted that Moscow foremost aimed to hit such organizations as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Zarif made a similar statement in another interview with The New Yorker in December 2015. In response to the question about how closely Moscow and Tehran were interacting in Syria, the minister said: “We try to coordinate regularly with Russia, as well as with others—except for the United States—on what is happening in the region. And we’re open to discussing with everybody the situation in Syria, because we believe it’s a common threat.” In other words, the Iranian official, though acknowledging the fact of interaction between the two states, tried not to make it exclusive, taking the conversation in the general vein of Tehran’s openness to dialogue with the international community.
All these facts conspicuously point to constraints in the development of Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria. The difference in Moscow’s and Tehran’s motives that sustain the concern for Syria’s statehood is not the only cause of these constraints. The factor of “third forces” is also involved. Both countries take into account how their union might impact the dynamics of relations with states in the West and the Middle East.
Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East is based upon the principle of balancing between countries of the region as long as they show even a slight interest in dialogue with Moscow. So far, the Kremlin has been successful in maintaining relatively good relations with Middle East states (with the exception of Turkey for the time being) without joining any regional coalitions.
For this reason, a full-fledged alliance with Tehran in Syria is not expedient for Moscow. Joining the Iran-led coalition of Shiite forces in the Middle East and the beginning of full-blown confrontation with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies will harm Russia. The Kremlin still hopes for joint projects with Gulf states and their investments. Russia needs the support of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in developing relations with Egypt, which heavily relies on financial backing by rich Arab monarchies. Lastly, a union with Shiite Iran will provide a trump card to those who are trying to cast Russia as an enemy of the Sunnis and use this card to not only weaken Moscow’s position in the region, but also unsettle the Muslim regions of the Russian Federation. The Russian leadership is well aware that the Iraqi and Gulf Salafi have long been discussing the idea to portray Russians as “new crusaders.”
The “Petition of Saudi Ulama with Regard to Russian Aggression on Syria” announced in early October 2015 was an “alarming signal.” The Sharia judgement formulated by 52 representatives of the second and third tier of the Saudi clergy branded the Russian interference as a war against the Sunnis and urged Muslims to launch a “holy war” against Russia. Such statements lay the ideological groundwork for consolidating various radical groupings in Syria to fight the al-Assad regime and boosting the financing of Russian religious radicals by representatives of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC).
The idea to make Syria “a second Afghanistan” for Russia is actively discussed by the Islamic clergy and the leaders of radical groups, as well as by the political establishment of the Gulf states (such as Qatar). These discussions have already led to an increase in supplies of anti-tank systems to Syrian rebels by some GCC members, as well as to the attempts by Arab monarchies of the Gulf to convince “Western partners” that it was necessary to arm the anti-Assad groups with shoulder-fired air defence weapons.
In this situation, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia that mounted after the execution of Shiite religious leader Nimr al-Nimr became a test for Moscow. Tehran’s full support or its absence was equally inadmissible. As a result, Russian policymakers made the only correct decision, suggesting mediation services to both Al-Riyadh and Tehran to resolve their contradictions.
Lastly, the Israeli factor hampers the Russian-Iranian rapprochement over Syria. During Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Russia on September 21, 2015, a number of important agreements were reached. Russia provided guarantees that its actions in the Middle East would not harm Israel. The parties also agreed to exchange information on Syria to avoid unnecessary clashes. Israel’s reaction to Russian air strikes in Syria can be described as meeting Moscow’s interests. On October 4, 2015, Netanyahu stated that although the goals his country was pursuing in Syria differed from Russia’s, “they shouldn’t clash.”
“We don’t want to go back to the days when... Russia and Israel were in an adversarial position,” Netanyahu said. “I think we’ve changed the relationship [since]. And it’s, on the whole, good.” In unofficial talks, Israeli diplomats go even further stressing that Tel Aviv is glad to finally “get at least one responsible adult around the Syrian sandbox,” which clearly shows their attitude to the EU and U.S. military efforts. In their opinion, a positive effect from the coming of “responsible adult” even outweighs the negative fact that the Syrian sky is not quite open to the Israeli Air Force any longer.
When asked if Russia’s entry in the Syrian conflict would be destabilizing, Netanyahu said: “I think time will tell.” Unsurprisingly, Tel Aviv has no questions regarding Russia’s capability, yet it is apprehensive about Moscow’s partners in Syria: Iran and Hezbollah. Israel is concerned about three things. First, Russian weapons deployed in Syria could end up in the hands of a militant group. Second, Moscow and Tehran can divide spheres of influence in Syria into the Russian North and the Iranian South, thus letting the Iranians handle the situation in Syrian-Israeli border areas. Third, Iran, under the cover of the Russian military presence, might start creating bases against Israel and go for open provocations, undaunted by possible retribution from Tel Aviv.
In a long-term perspective, Russia will inevitably face the question whether it should call Iran down or close eyes to anti-Israeli provocations. The choice is difficult, with an unclear outcome. Any decision will definitely upset the balance in the Moscow-Tel Aviv-Tehran triangle. An alarming signal for Moscow was the speech by Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ja’alon at the Brookings Institute, Washington, on December 11, 2015. Some experts concluded from his remarks that Tel Aviv had become increasingly concerned by January 2016 over the growing Iranian-Russian cooperation. To allay Israel’s concerns, Moscow had to close its eyes to Israel’s air strikes at the positions of Hezbollah and the Syrian army, launched in order to prevent the militant groups hostile to Israel from getting more weapons.
Furthermore, the Russian media citing Arab sources reported in March 2016 that Moscow had suspended the handover of S-300 missile systems to Tehran in Israeli interests. The decisive role was allegedly played by the information about Iran’s passing to Hezbollah the Pantsir-S1air defence systems and Yakhont antiship systems it had received from Moscow. The information could not be verified (Tehran’s being silent on the issue implies that the reports could be a fake). However, given Moscow’s and Tel Aviv’s close ties, this is how Russia would react in case such information becomes available to it.
MOSCOW IS MY FRIEND, BUT…
The factor of ties to third countries is a restraint for Iran, too, as Tehran’s attitude towards the Russian-Turkish conflict shows. Representatives of Iran’s political elite, for a number of reasons, denounced Turkey’s decision to shoot down the Russian warplane, yet the Iranian leadership does not intend to give full rein to anti-Turkish sentiment.
In a telephone conversation with his Iranian colleague in early December 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described as unacceptable the situation where Iranian news agencies and certain politicians accused the Erdogan family of links to ISIS and of trade in ISIS oil. The Turkish leader demanded that Rouhani take measures, but the reaction of the Iranian Foreign Ministry and the presidential administration was quite moderate.
Although the spokesman for the Iranian president, Mohammad Nobaht, recommended the Turkish leadership to avoid the language of threats when talking to Tehran, his criticism was directed not at Erdogan but at his “negligent” advisers issuing incorrect recommendations. On top of that, during Erdogan’s meeting with Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri in Turkmenistan on December 12, 2015, Turkey received a clear signal about Iran’s readiness to continue cooperation. Jahangiri acknowledged the differences over Syria, yet he was conspicuously friendly urging cooperation in fighting terrorism. The tone of Jahangiri’s statements did not change even despite the Turkish president’s renewed attempt to raise the issue of the Iranian media campaign. In addition, the Iranians expressed readiness to mediate the Moscow-Ankara dispute.
Tehran’s exceptional pragmatism played a role in its unwillingness to quarrel with Ankara. The Iranian political elite obviously finds the conduct of the Turkish president irritating. Unlike Moscow, however, which started falling out with Turkey immediately after the downing of the Su-24, Iran calmly assessed the situation and came to the conclusion that it could and should engage in verbal sparring with Ankara but that further aggravation of the crisis would be an unwelcome development. First, the Syrian issue should not be settled without the participation of all the parties involved. Turkey is one of such parties, and dialogue is the only way to find a common language with it (for example, through mediation between Ankara and Moscow). A quarrel would deprive the Iranians of this opportunity.
Second, the Iranians have always tried to avoid situations where politics harms the economy. In the light of the upcoming lifting of economic sanctions, trade/economic and investment cooperation with Turkey is quite attractive for Tehran. In 2014, bilateral trade was worth approximately $14 billion, with Iran posting a trade surplus. In 2015, Tehran and Ankara actively discussed the opportunities to boost cooperation and bring their trade turnover to $30 billion in a short term.
Third, after Erdogan’s coming to power, the Iranian leadership got used to seeing Turkey as a partner. Tehran approves of the Turkish ruling party’s leaning on Islam, among other things. It welcomed Erdogan’s show of independence from the policy of the West. The countries actively interact within the framework of the regional Economic Cooperation Organization. Ankara came out against the sanctions imposed on Iran and made attempts to help resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Also, Turkey was one of the countries that helped Iran circumvent the sanctions and Iran remembers those who did it a good turn. Furthermore, it believes that good relations with one’s neighbors should be maintained to the last.
The Kurdish factor might play an unexpected role. Russia’s efforts in March 2016 to intensify the discussion of creating a federation in Syria caused certain tensions in Tehran and increased its concerns about potential autonomy for Syrian Kurds. Given the fact that the problem of Kurdish nationalism is quite relevant for Iran (though to a lesser extent than for Turkey), the Iranians are very cautious about a possible emergence of a semi-independent Kurdish territory in Syria. This brings the positions of Tehran and Ankara closer together.
Thus, economic and political benefits from dialogue with Turkey outweigh the mounting displeasure in Iranian society. The Iranian government chose a dual approach. On the one hand, Rouhani allows the advocates of interaction with Russia and the politicians displeased with Turkey to blow off some steam, without restraining Erdogan’s critics too much. On the other hand, the Iranian government demonstrates friendliness to Ankara in the international arena by distancing itself from the Russian-Turkish conflict.
This approach, where the rhetoric about Russian-Iranian interaction sounds much louder within the country than in the international political arena, is characteristic of Tehran irrespectively of Turkey. Obviously, when Zarif spoke in an interview with The New Yorker, he made allowances for how the West might feel about his remarks. There is no reason for the Iranian leadership to seek a full-fledged bloc with Russia: Tehran has expended too much effort to start getting out of the pit of Western economic sanctions.
The Iranians are not keen to get involved in the Russian-Western argument about the principles of the world order or to begin a new confrontation with the United States and the European Union for the sake of bolstering Moscow’s ambitions, although Tehran needs good relations with Russia in case of new tensions with the United States. At the present stage, however, the Iranians need to secure the return of Western companies. For this reason, Tehran is trying not to bring the level of confrontation with the West to the point where it would harm the reanimation of economic ties. As Ali Larijani noted in Sochi, his country was “entering a new phase now.”
The Iranians are also influenced by their long-standing mistrust of Russia. They remember well Moscow’s repeatedly backing out of the accords with Tehran since 1991 for the sake of improving relations with the United States. The Islamic Republic cannot forget the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement of the mid-1990s (which scrapped Russian-Iranian military cooperation for years) or the unilateral sanctions introduced by Dmitry Medvedev on the wave of Russian-U.S. reset. This explains Iran’s very cautious attitude and comments regarding the stepping up of the Russian-U.S. dialogue on Syria in February-March 2016, and subsequent accords on the beginning of truce between Damascus and the Opposition. It fears that Moscow can neglect Tehran’s interests for the sake of toning down its own confrontation with the West. Some Iranian policymakers do not rule out that the Americans simply can outplay Russia, using the truce to reach their goals (such as ousting al-Assad). Velayati actually mentioned the possibility of such a scenario.
As of today, a number of factors are pressing the Iranian leadership towards the decision to provide political support to the Russian military operation in Syria, as well as to engage in some practical coordination. At the same time, a Russia-Iran axis in Syria is out of the question. Factors contributing to Russian-Iranian rapprochement over Syria are quite strong and no split between Moscow and Tehran can be expected in the near future. In the long term, however, this cooperation will be limited due to a number of factors.
For example, issues related to the future of post-conflict Syria create inevitable risks. It is not only about the fate of al-Assad or Kurdish autonomy, but also about the government system of the Syrian state. As has been said above, Tehran feels apprehensive about the idea of federation in Syria, which has a powerful and insistent lobby in the international community. On the whole, Iran does not object to federalization of Syria, yet it fears that it would weaken Damascus’ control over the rest of the territory, making al-Assad and his successors merely figureheads. Iran has put too much effort and resources into the Syrian president and his close associates to let them lose their significance in governing the state. Russian politicians’ statements in support of federation do not add to Tehran’s confidence that its interests in Syria will hold.
Keeping a considerable Russian force in post-war Syria can foil the implementation of a number of ambitious Iranian plans such as the use of Syrian territory for military and technical sustenance of Hezbollah or for operations against Israel. The Russian military presence can frustrate Tehran’s attempts to resume talks with Damascus over the pre-war project to build the Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline which clearly contradicts Moscow’s interests.
By and large, Russia and Iran have found themselves to be partners of convenience in Syria as well as in some other cases. Their interaction is limited and situational. This is due to different motives behind their interference in the armed conflict and the possibility to harm their relations with third states by creating a full-fledged military and political union. Moscow and Tehran will continue to exchange information and interact, if need be, but even now their cooperation opportunities most likely have reached their limit.