By Hossein Kebriaeizadeh*
Following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the United States, which saw Russia as heir apparent to the Soviet Union, caught Moscow within a passive framework through implementing a well-calculated strategy and building international institutions.
This framework, whose base was the commitment of key actors and regions, including the Middle East, could remain stable as far as no changes happened to its procedures, structures and processes. Of course, developments in the Middle East, due to their form and ideological content, were considered as a sign of rapid spread of democracy, but the pace of those developments was so high that it even took Washington by surprise. And wherever the United States was taken by surprise, it was a desirable opportunity for the opportunist Russia.
The developments in Syria offered the opportunity that Russia was waiting for, because it was there that Daesh took the entire world by surprise, thus making way for an agile and pragmatic political system like that of Russia to show off its prowess.
In the meantime, Russians correctly understood the importance and role of Iran in Syria and tried to take advantage of Tehran’s capacities in this regard. It was then that high acting power of Iran provided Russia, which was avidly bent on showoff, with a golden opportunity by taking advantage of which these two actors managed to make the West withdraw from the Syrian war front.
Geopolitical rivalry between Iran, on the one hand, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, on the other, in addition to Russia’s geopolitical rivalry with the United States set a common goal based on correct understanding of conditions, potentialities, and threats, the result of which was an unprecedented division of labor according to which Russia conducted military operations and Iran provided operational and logistical support.
This time, unlike what had happened in past relations between the two countries, both sides were happy with their alliance. Of course, the age-old pessimism cannot be dispelled overnight and some Iranian circles are still looking upon developments in Syria with suspicion.
However, it must be accepted that Moscow’s behavior has changed one way or another. Now, Russians see Iranians on the same par in terms of political clout, at least in the Middle East. This approach, which has its roots in the existing realities of the region, has even affected the behavior of European sides. On the other hand, Turks do not see conditions in the past light anymore as a result of which they have finally accepted to sit at the negotiating table with Iran and Russia to discuss an agreement on the future of Syria.
This, however, is not the final point for the efficiency of the alliance between Iran and Russia. Russians boosted their international prestige through fighting terrorism as an accepted norm, and now can bargain and interact with the West over issues of difference, such as the situation in Ukraine, from a different position. Now, a Russia plagued with sanctions is no more passive, though this does not mean that the alliance of Iran and Russia has achieved all its goals. The existing conditions in the region show that the common threat to both countries still exists in other forms. Now, both Iranians and Russians find themselves on a crossroads at which they should decide whether this is a tactical or strategic cooperation.
In addition, following this success, an ambitious Moscow will probably come up with new definitions for Middle Eastern roles, tools and strategies. Of course, cooperation between the two countries in the restive Middle East is still at the beginning of a bumpy road.
In doing this, both countries equally need each other. Russians need Iranians’ help in order to remain in the game while Iranians, at least following victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, have been a reliable ally for Russians, which in a West-dominated Middle East, has been a ray of hope for Moscow, though Russians failed to take good advantage of this capacity due to certain reasons.
Iran, on the other hand and as a country, which has fundamental differences with the West, especially the United States, and their regional allies, can hope to have military and political backing of Moscow.
The region and entire world can be also hopeful about this proximity between Tehran and Moscow. In the meantime, the West’s policy to fight terrorism has been going astray as a result of the confusion caused by dividing terrorist groups into good and bad terrorists. As a result, the clear policy adopted by Iran and Russia in fighting against terrorism without making any differentiation among its various forms will have positive effects for the Middle East and the entire world.
The question is will these common needs and grounds, which have been provided for proximity between the two actors subsequent to developments in Syria, be strong enough to lead to common understanding of interests and threats with regard to other issues as well? In other words, can the mutual support of the two actors for each other be as strong with regard to other issues as it has been in the case of Syria, which was of vital importance to Moscow and Tehran?
Domestic circles in the two countries are clearly enumerating the benefits of this cooperation. This time around, the public opinion, especially in Iran, has become more sensitive about this cooperation than any time before.
It is obvious that the future outlook for cooperation between the two countries in the Middle East, and of course in other areas, depends on the result of their current collaboration, but it is also clear that relations between Iran and Russia in Syria have ushered the two countries’ ties to a new phase of mutual understanding. In reality, before Syria, cooperation had a different meaning for the two countries and was mostly defined within framework of a seller – buyer relationship. From the viewpoint of Iran, cooperation in a single area had no meaning and if a hand of friendship was extended, it should have been extended in all areas, especially with regard to Iran’s nuclear case, financial crisis as well as sanctions. Russians, however, through a different logic, restricted cooperation with Iran to special issues and with certain limitations.
The difficulty for formulating a model of cooperation between the two countries was the most important challenge, which had caused relations between Tehran and Moscow to remain at a tactical level. As a result, even with regard to those issues, which entailed evident benefits for the two sides, relations remain limited and, for example, the trade volume between Iran and Russia had not exceeded 1.5 billion dollars.
Acceptance, understanding and management of negative factors that affect the two countries’ relations would be only possible through agreement on a cooperation model. Such factors include understanding of different logics pursued by the two countries, which result from their different positions and roles, as well as management of expectations that the two sides have from regional cooperation and partnership. At the same time, although misunderstandings that exist between the two countries are at times profound and deep-rooted and cannot be done away with overnight, if the two sides remain committed to maintaining their alliance and cooperation, it would not be impossible for them.
* Hossein Kebriaeizadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues