Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a period when Russian influence on the international political arena and on the balance of global powers dwindled, Moscow is resurgent, and returning to play a key dominant role in shaping geopolitical conflict.
Since the end of the 1980s, the United States stood alone as a unipolar global power. This has now changed, with Russia shaking off its torpor and becoming a key player in the new multipolar global order, driven by President Vladimir Putin’s vast ambition. Putin is intent on building a modern superpower that no longer lives on the margins or plays a spectator’s role, with this changing role shaping and reshaping the world on both the political and economic levels.
If we look at Russia’s alliances in the Middle East, we find that the regime in Iran is one of its closest regional allies, with the two states sharing a common vision, at least for the time being, regarding Syria, and cooperating closely in their support for the Assad regime and targeting of the Syrian people in their efforts to crush the revolution.
With the rosy glow fast fading from this geopolitical honeymoon stage for Moscow and Tehran, an important question is coming to the fore: Does Tehran trust Moscow?
It is rare to find any report or analysis touching on this issue, particularly in the context of the two states’ stance on Syria. My own modest knowledge about the Iranian regime’s mindset allows me to assert with confidence that the regime’s ideological, political and intellectual leadership have no trust in Moscow, but are pragmatic in allying with Russia in order to benefit in various ways as it has done during a number of critical periods, with the interests of the two intersecting to their mutual advantage.
History is always a consideration in any Iranian narrative, on both the official and the popular levels. Historically, Russia’s presence and reputation in Iran has been overwhelmingly negative, with Russia defeating Iran in two major wars during the first half of the nineteenth century, as well as annexing areas of Iranian territory and playing a hegemonic role over Iran’s economy in the early twentieth century. During the latter period, Russia also shared influence with the then-British Empire in Iran throughout Iran’s era of constitutional revolution from 1905 to 1911. Although Iran and Russia now enjoy positive and mutually beneficial political and economic relations, this does not eradicate Iran’s collective memory of these historical wounds and change its general mistrust towards Russia.
Most importantly, Russia is aware of the risk for itself of Western economic openness to Iran, especially with American, German and French companies keen to target the lucrative Iranian market opened up by the 2015 nuclear deal. The resumption of relations between Tehran and Western capitals means that Iran will become a strong competitor for Russia in the field of gas exports to Europe. Iran’s geographic location and massive levels of natural gas production at competitive prices also make it a potentially favorable supplier over Russia for European nations, a factor that Moscow has so far apparently not considered in its own calculations. Another crucial issue for Europe in any such equation is that replacing the natural gas currently supplied to Europe by Russia with Iranian gas would prevent Russia from using this political and economic card against the European nations in any emerging European-Russian conflict. Given these factors, it is natural to wonder: will Russia accept being a party to any agreement that might act against its own interests and policies, whether in Eastern Europe or the Middle East?
While Moscow does not wish to spoil any negotiations between Iran and other parties or to be the cause of any failure of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 nations, it is highly unlikely to accept any agreement that might harm its own interests regionally or globally.
It is known that the game of geopolitical chess played by governments is based primarily on the principle of balancing one’s political interests and potential expenses with all the possible strategic, political, economic and military costs. Given this consideration, any future Russian or Iranian move will be preceded by a detailed study of the potential profits and losses involved. The Iranian regime is likely to be in a more sensitive position among its followers and admirers, as well as needing to consider the possible consequences of any move on its standing among the allies and backers from its recent past. While Iran’s increasing economic openness to foreign investors has seen Iranian politicians competing to woo overseas businesses, this may alienate the leadership in Moscow, who know – perhaps better than the Iranians themselves – the secrets of Iran’s nuclear plants and military power, and who are regarded as untrustworthy friends from the Iranian perspective. Striking a balance between these factors will play a key role in Tehran’s decision-making process for some years to come.
We should also bear in mind the other political equations involving both parties outside their domestic and bilateral spheres, such as their roles in Syria. When we look at Russo-Iranian coordination in Syria and the unlimited support of both for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, we can see that this is tactical rather than strategic coordination. Tensions have already emerged between Russia and Iran over the control of Aleppo and Iran has exerted efforts to block any consensus between Ankara and Moscow, with Tehran-backed militias attempting to prevent the evacuation of civilians from the stricken city, leading Russia to threaten to bomb any side which tried to scuttle its deal on Aleppo.
All of these factors lead us to predict an increasingly troubled future for Russo-Iranian coordination on Syria, especially concerning other external players’ involvement in negotiations, with Russia’s strategic objectives in Syria being markedly different to those of their counterparts in Tehran. It is certain that the main reason behind the current alliance between Russia and Iran has been the combative relationship between Moscow and Washington. With many believing that there’s likely to be a US-Russian détente once Trump becomes president, however, Iran is likely to be pushed out of the geopolitical Great Game, becoming at best a marginal player.
There are certainly many indicators suggesting that US-Russian relations are set to undergo major changes with Trump coming to power; perhaps the most recent of these is Trump’s choice of Rex Tillerson, a figure with close ties to President Putin, as his Secretary of State. Trump has frequently made comments about the future closeness between the two countries once he comes to power. Relations between Moscow and Arab nations are currently tense, with this situation unlikely to have any negative repercussions on the alliance between Moscow and Tehran. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see any signs of change in the near future, with the Arab countries, regrettably, likely to remain only marginal players in the Great Game being played out in the region. We can only hope that this unhappy situation is temporary and short-lived.
Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of The Arabain GCIS