Al Monitor | Paul J. Saunders: The fact that Russia and Iran are both supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government — and that Moscow has launched air attacks on Syrian opposition forces from Iran as well as directed its cruise missiles through Iranian airspace — has fueled widespread speculation that Moscow and Tehran are allies. Advocates of this view usually also point to Russia’s efforts to shield Iran from punitive UN Security Council sanctions over its nuclear program and to extensive Russian arms sales to Iran. As tensions between Shia Iran and powerful Sunni states like Saudi Arabia have deepened, some even argue that Moscow is backing Iran in a bid for regional hegemony. Notwithstanding such fears in Washington and select Middle East capitals, Russia’s objectives in the Middle East appear much less ambitious.
Indeed, Moscow would face considerable obstacles in any attempt to support Iran’s dominance in the Middle East. Fyodor Lukyanov, a respected foreign affairs scholar who is chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy — an organization broadly analogous to America’s Council on Foreign Relations — told Al-Monitor that “to deliberately support the Shia over the Sunni would be suicidal for Russia” because 90% of Russia’s Muslims are Sunni. Tamping down Sunni religious identity and preventing extremist terrorism inside the Russian Federation have been among Russia’s top national priorities since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having pacified Chechnya in two bloody wars, and having suffered from mass terrorist events like the 2002 Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis and the 2004 Beslan school massacre, the Kremlin is hardly eager to pursue a Middle East policy that extremists could use to recruit new followers and justify new atrocities.
Perhaps more important, Lukyanov said, even if Russia’s leaders wanted to pursue such a policy, Moscow lacks the capability to establish and sustain Iran as a Middle East hegemon. Only a superpower would possess the combination of political, financial and military tools necessary to implement this strategy — and Russia is no longer a superpower. Arming Iran, and doing so only when Iran wants to pay market prices, would not be enough, even in tandem with Moscow’s political defense in the UN Security Council. Beyond that, Lukyanov argued, alluding to Iran’s self-confident sense of national pride, “under no circumstances will Iran be anybody’s client state. It is simply out of the question.” To the extent that Iran is seeking regional dominance, it is acting on its own behalf.
According to Lukyanov, Russia’s actual Middle East policy is based not on confessional divisions but on “traditional great power balance calculation.” Because Moscow is not a superpower and does not have a superpower’s influence or resources, Russia needs an approach that maximizes its impact relative to its efforts. From this perspective, the Kremlin has the best opportunities as a player in the Middle East when the region is in a rough sort of balance — and when even limited exertions can tip the balance in one direction or another, at least for a time. In theory, this approach allows Russia to extract benefits from cooperation with all sides while avoiding serious conflict with anyone.