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