Iran-Russia relations under new regional dynamics

Iranian Diplomacy | Kaveh L. Afrasiabi: The Iran-Russia relations has a lot going for it. The maritime neighbors in the Caspian basin are strategic allies against the scourge of jihadist terrorism, which has wreaked havoc in the Middle East and beyond, drawing Moscow and Tehran closer to each other in “shared strategic spaces” such as Syria, representing a winning strategy for both countries, which work in tandem with Turkey through the so-called Astana process.  In the post-nuclear accord milieu, Iran and Russia have signed important bilateral trade agreements, and Iran has also signed a free trade zone agreement with the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union.  In addition, Iran is an observer at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and, chances are, Iran’s current bid for full membership will be granted in the not so distant future.

Still, in terms of the evolving dynamic of Iran-Russia relations, there are some worrying signs requiring careful attention by policy-makers on both sides.  The overall context for these relations reflects the influence of third parties, varying interests, and potential points of tension, which need to be addressed in order to sustain the present positive climate between the two countries.  Of course, it is not necessary for Moscow and Tehran to be in complete agreement on various issues and each side must respect the other side’s autonomy to craft its policy according to its own incandescent interests and atmosphere.  Russia and Iran are both targets of US sanctions and this too represents another commonality between them, Russia complains of NATO encirclement and Iran too is encircled by a net of expanding US military bases in its vicinity.

Above and beyond such similarities, however, there are certain “competitive” sides to the Russia-Iran relations worth analyzing in order to grasp a deeper understanding of the dynamic of these relations today.  For instance, Russia’s and Iran’s energy policies are not always in harmony with each other and some energy experts have viewed them as gas competitors.  Russia and Saudi Arabia have been cooperating with each other on OPEC decisions, which reflects a broader reality of closer Russia-Saudi relations, vividly demonstrated in the recent Riyadh visit of Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who also met a Syrian opposition figure during his trip.  Saudi Arabia, which has committed to making huge investments in Russia, is eager to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran, just as another Moscow ally, namely Israel, is also working extra hard to tilt Russia against Iran in Syria, in light of a recent announcement of a “working committee” by Russia and Israel on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria.

Concerning the latter, after a slight delay, Russia’s President has confirmed the creation of this committee with Israel while nuancing it in broader, and more ambivalent, terms by stating:

“The idea is to create a structure that includes all involved parties…It should deal with the final normalizing [of the situation] after crushing the final remnants of terrorism. This is also connected with the complete military withdrawal from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic as well as with the reconstruction of the Syrian state as well as the preservation of its territorial integrity.”  Clearly, by pursuing relations with states that are hostile toward each other, Russia shows the priority of its national interests, which dictate maximizing the benefits of positive diplomacy aimed at minimizing the risks to its national interests.  Russia is reportedly also conducting discussions with US on the status of its forces inside Syria, which show little or no sign of any imminent departure despite Trump’s recent announcement to the contrary.

Concerned about an indefinite quagmire and the sunk costs, Russia’s approach nowadays appears to be one of seeking to reach out to all the “stakeholders” in the Syrian conflict, at a time when Damascus has regained control of most of the lost territory, with crucial help from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.   As the recent surprise visit of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Tehran indicates, Tehran and Damascus are intent on maintaining their close strategic ties and bolster them with enhanced economic relations, thus strengthening Damascus’ autonomy; the latter has been undermined by the Trump administration’s recognition of the occupied Golan Heights as part of Israeli territory, in flagrant violation of international norms.

One of the important questions regarding Russia is how the Trump administration will conduct itself toward Russia now that the cloud of suspicion as a result of the Russia investigation has been lifted by the new report?  Chances are that Trump will seek a new Russia diplomacy now that the heavy boulder of Russiagate has been removed, likely affecting Iran.  For the moment, however, US and Russia are at loggerheads over Venezuela, which weighs heavier for Washington due to geographical proximity, compared to distant Syria, so it is unlikely that the two powers can come to any agreement on Syria while they are drifting apart over Venezuela.  The Venezuela crisis will likely linger for some time, barring unforeseen developments such as a successful pro-US coup, thus putting a premium on US-Russia relations.  Also, with respect to Israel, its annexation of Golan Heights has been universally condemned in the Arab and Muslim world, which in essence means that President Putin has to be careful on how dear he keeps the Israeli interests to his chest.

In sum, despite their overall healthy bilateral relations, neither Russia nor Iran can take for granted the harmony of their interests and must keep vigilant eyes on potential factors that can harm them.