Pawn And Proxy: Cold Truths Behind The Iran-Russia Alliance

As close as the two countries may appear, for Russia, Iran is simply a pawn in its chess game with the West.

In Deir ez-Zor, Syria, a flashpoint of Iran-Russia relations
In Deir ez-Zor, Syria, a flashpoint of Iran-Russia relations
Ahmad Ra'fat


The Islamic Republic's relationship with Russia is one of love and hate, or a mixture of collaboration and rivalry. And Moscow unquestionably has the upper hand. Tehran may be wooed at times as a potential partner, but it is in reality simply Russia's plaything.

Iran's relations with Russia are strategic and must be viewed through the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's "look east" vision. There is eagerness but it is one-sided, as confirmed by Khamenei's recent letter to Putin, who has yet to respond and refused even to receive Khamenei's emissary.

For Khamenei, Russia, unlike China, is not just a political and economic partner. It espouses the anti-Western and especially anti-American policies Iran's revolutionary regime has similarly adopted since taking power in 1979. But Russia sees the Islamic Republic as another pawn on its chessboard of complex ties with the West and its maneuverings to spread its influence in the Middle East. Clearly, Russia does not intend to jeopardize its interests to preserve Iran's regime.

Proxy forces aligned with Russia and Iran have been battling in Syria since 2018.

Through his "postman", the parliamentary Speaker Mohammadbaqer Qalibaf, Khamenei wanted his letter to convey his goodwill to Putin. Khamenei's website cites the letter as stating that even with a deal with the Biden administration, Iran would never betray Putin, and Khamenei's "strategic" gaze remains fixed on Moscow. The Leader assured Putin effusively: "Developments at the White House will not affect our strategic relationship."

But Russia's relations with Tehran are anything but strategic. They are circumstantial, and restricted to time and place factors. It is a different outlook, which Russia has confirmed over the years in a range of dossiers like the Caspian Sea (and its division), the Caucasus and especially in Syria.

Specialists in Russia discussed its foreign-policy perspectives in terms of Iran at a seminar in December 2020 organized by the Russian International Affairs Council. The council, a body affiliated with academic institutions, was formed in 2010 on Putin's instructions, as a strategic and foreign-policy think-tank. The recent seminar's view was that Russia would benefit from heightened tensions and even a war between Iran and the United States, as the latter might then transfer troops from eastern Europe to the Middle East, and alleviate pressures on Russia's western frontier.

Putin and Khamenei meeting in Tehran on Nov. 1, 2017 — Photo: Azarov Dmitry/TASS/ZUMA

Russia will also benefit from continued oil sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The economies of both countries depend on oil and gas, and less Iranian oil on international markets is an opportunity for Russia to strengthen its position in European energy markets. Increased earnings would further boost its investments in its oil and gas sectors. In the case of a war, Russian specialists believe Iran's regime would immediately hit Arab oil installations in the Persian Gulf, which again, could only benefit Russia's position in global energy markets.

Syria has become the setting for political and military rivalries between Tehran and Moscow. While both states back Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, their rivalry is fueled by opposing goals. Iran wants to further its regional influence through the Assad regime, ease its way into Lebanon to back Hezbollah, and gain access to a Mediterranean port.

Russia has been present in Syria for years, and makes commercial and military uses of its Mediterranean ports. It has already sought the necessary assurances from Assad's opponents and the United States over its continued presence there after the civil war. The Islamic Republic's presence in Syria may benefit Russia for now, but, after the war, it would become a fundamental problem. Russia has been discussing the post-war scenario with Assad's opponents for months, and is already selecting agents to influence future elections, if and when Assad goes.

Since 2018, proxy forces aligned with Russia and Iran have clashed in southern, northern and eastern Syrian. This happened most recently in the Hama province, in mid-January, between the fourth armored division led by Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, and special Syrian Army forces (known as Saqur al-sahra") led by Suheil al-Hassan. Assad takes orders from Iranian military commanders, while Hassan is one of Russia's candidates to lead the Syrian army after the war.

In the Dera'a province in southern Syria, both sides have recently tried to increase their influence by killing leaders loyal to the other side. This has produced at least 49 targeted killings in the province in the past five months, assassinations that local sources attribute to rivalry between the two powers. The Syrian journalist Muhammad al-Khatib lives in Al-Sanamein in Dera'a. He told Kayhan London that the rival powers were fighting to control sensitive spots like the Nasib crossing into Jordan, and also to recruit youngsters into their proxy forces.

These forces, he said, were also reorganizing themselves ahead of a political reconfiguration in Syria after the war. Those signing a pact with Assad with Russian mediation, he said, would soon turn on Iran and its allies. Russia is counting on them for decisive roles in Syria after the war.

Russia has been discussing the post-war scenario with Assad's opponents for months.

Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria is another flashpoint. It is the area recently bombed by the United States and previously struck by Israeli jets. Iran has placed its Fatemiyun militia of Afghans there, and also moved in members of some of its sponsored Iraqi militias into the frontier town of Abu Kamal.

Faras Alawi, editor of the Al-Sharq news network, told Kayhan London that after Israeli strikes on Jan. 13, many Syrians who had joined the Iran-backed militias in the past two years were now fleeing the area, and "interestingly, the Russians have immediately taken them in. For $100 a month, they are using them in the Fifth Syrian Army Division led by Suheil al-Hassan. After the recent American bombing, it is likely that more have left Abu Kamal and will soon join Russian forces."

Alawi says U.S. and Israeli strikes prompted the Fatemiyun to evacuate their headquarters for supposedly safer premises. While the Russians condemn such strikes, he says, they do not pass on the prior warnings given them by the Israelis or Americans to their Iranian "allies', "because they consider any strike on the Islamic Republic's proxy forces to be to their advantage."

Another Syrian reporter, Muhammad Adib, confirms this rivalry. He recently told the website Al-Monitor that the Syrians now consider collaboration with Russia a safer bet, believing Iran's forces will eventually have to leave Deir ez-Zor.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!