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How is Iran crucial to Russia’s West Asian policy?

Alwaght– One of most significant dimensions through which Russia regulates its Iran-related West Asian policy is Tehran’s being a factor establishing the balance of threat in the region. Getting involved in West Asian developments, Russians are actually eyeing minimizing the Western presence and influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, despite the fact that they are facing some roadblocks as well as deficiency ahead as they press forward with their plans.

Moscow, in general, does not want to exercise influence in the republics of the former Soviet Union, and this is because it lacks the political, military, and economy capabilities necessary to rebuild its traditional area of influence, especially that under the Soviet Union. The Russians instead pursue an alternative policy: deterring NATO expansion toward the East and at the same time bolstering their power wherever they hold sway.

To this end, Kremlin has been striving after reinforcing its arms of control over Caucasus and Central Asia regions. This policy is largely followed through backing countries like Iran and others which oppose the Western influence in the region. Such support contributes to Moscow’s efforts to check the NATO and Washington which are persistent in developing their clout eastward.

This Russian strategy gives Iran a great place in Moscow’s security calculations and policy. This significance is even doubled when one takes into account the fact that Tehran and Moscow are facing common security threats and at the same time fall at the same camp which has an overarching role in holding the region secure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin knows it well that any damage to Iran works against the Russian interests. He, for instance, in his March 2012 speech said “the growing threat of a military strike on this country (Iran) alarms Russia, no doubt. If this occurs, the consequences will be truly catastrophic. It is impossible to imagine their real scale.”

Also in NATO meeting in 2012, the Russian envoy to the coalition Dmitry Rogozin, said that Iran is a neighbor of Russia, warning that any anti-Tehran military action by the West will pose a direct t threat to the Russian national security. Ariel Cohen, a political scientist, suggests that Russia by no means wants to see the power of Iran, the key ally of Syria, be undermined. Cohen continues that the Syrian war that includes other regional sides such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, targets the Russian interests and at the same time aims at eroding Iran’s power in the region, something Moscow never approves of.

Feeling this danger by Russia has led to rise of new coalitions in the region, especially after Syrian conflict sparked in 2011. Beyond the immediate security challenge, ISIS terrorist group’s emergence in the region unleashed geopolitical competition both regionally and internationally, between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey on the one hand and Russia and the US on the other hand. All these actors say fighting ISIS terrorists is a priority for their regional policy, however, it is undeniable that along with their anti-terror campaign they are engaged in a geopolitical rivalry to fill the power vacuum existing in the region, particularly in the war-ravaged Syria.

On the one hand the US-led anti-terror international coalition, which also includes the conservative Persian Gulf Arab states and Turkey, presses forward to fight ISIS and also works toward toppling the legitimate Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad. And on the opposite side stands the Russia-Iran axis which also includes Syria and Iraq and even China that argues the only effective anti-ISIS battle is strengthening Damascus power in the face of terrorism and even saving President Assad in power, at least until the Syrian sides agree on a peace deal and stage a political transition process. The issue becomes more sensitive if we know that each of these actors, based on their geographic and historical position and their specific interpretation of their national security threats, consider their individual interests.

The frequent meetings of the Russian officials with their Iranian counterparts in past years and particularly recently which majorly focus on bilateral cooperation improvement are a persuasive evidence that Iran as a West Asian nation holds a significant place in the Russian power play.

By delivering the S-300 missile defense systems to Iran and giving a green light to Iran’s permanent membership at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional bloc with Russia and China on top, Russia— amid tense relations with Washington— made it clear to the US that it holds the potentials to challenge the American interests and the US-desired West Asian power balance in response to the West which took anti-Russian measures, including imposing sanctions on Moscow in the wake of Ukraine crisis in 2013. The Russian steps had also the secondary messages to the US that Moscow is still a crucial actor and an effective pole on the global stage.

Therefore, Iran’s position remains key in the eyes of Russia as it finds Tehran’s moves are on a collision course with the Western and American influence in the region. Moreover, thanks to the Iranian stances, including supporting Syria’s Assad, Russia can flex muscles in the face of the US and even push up Washington’s costs and address its own political and security concerns. Moscow’s attempts to enhance collaboration with Tehran bears some goals, among them building an alliance in response to the Washington-led challenges. This alliance is also advantageous in terms of contributing to developing a circle of allied states on the strength of which Russia can play a pivotal regional role. Such an alliance also gives the Russians a bargaining chip to debate with the Americans Moscow’s vital areas of influence.