Ali Fathollah-Nejad: "One can speak only about tactical partnership of Russia, Iran and Turkey"
The de-escalation zone for southwest Syria, agreed by Moscow and Washington, can be expanded, the State Department spokesperson Heather Hauert said yesterday. The initiators of establishment of de-escalation zones in Syria in May were Russia, Turkey and Iran. It is forbidden to conduct any military operations on the territory of these zones. The expert of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), an Associate with the Iran Project at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad, told Vestnik Kavkaza about the prospects for cooperation between Moscow, Ankara and Tehran on Syria.
- Dr. Fathollah-Nejad, do you think that a trilateral alliance has emerged between Russia, Iran and Turkey in the Syrian conflict?
- This is too early to tell. First of all, one cannot speak about an unconditional Russian-Iranian alliance in Syria. Yes, there is a certain coincidence of the interests of these countries in Syria, but each side ultimately has its own interests, and we cannot talk about the existence of a strategic partnership between Russia and Iran in general. Therefore, we see both sides coordinating with each other in military operations and international diplomacy, occasionally involving Turkey. Moscow and Tehran’s positions also slightly differ to the extent that Iran is less flexible when it comes to the preservation of the Assad power structure.
When it comes to Turkey, despite pushing for a political transition plan, Ankara and Tehran actually support opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, which serves as their respective leverage for any future arrangement. Here, Moscow’s challenge is to align Turkish and Iranian interests on the long run. However, both Tehran and Ankara are opposed to Kurdish empowerment, providing a basis for mutual cooperation.
Generally speaking, coincidence of interests may shift as a result of the dynamic and volatile nature of the Syrian conflict. But all three states ultimately pursue their own quite distinct agendas, which cannot serve as a solid basis for an axis or alliance, but is rather tactical in nature.
Russia on its part wants to preserve its interests in Syria, securing its military access and making sure Syria is not taken over by Islamists, whose repercussions might affect Russia’s security down the road. Now, after the territorial defeat of IS in Syrian Raqqa – the self-declared capital of its so-called caliphate – and Iraqi Mosul, Moscow wants to present itself as arbiter, or peace broker, of Syria’s future, while Iran may push for a land corridor to the Mediterranean Sea. The latter, if realized, will put Tehran at odds with the U.S. – and also Russia –, both allies of Israel.
The U.S.-Russian truce agreement in southern Syria made at the sidelines of the recent G-20 summit in Hamburg is a further sign of the narrowing Syria positions between Washington and Moscow. What is more, future challenges concern questions on how a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria will affect adverse parties, e.g. Israel who views Iranian access to Lebanon as a security threat, and on whether territorial integrity can be preserved all the while zones of influence among various parties are emerging.
- Under what conditions might such tactical partnership be stopped?
- Global as well as regional geopolitical considerations and dynamics play a key role here. For instance, such partnership might be scaled back when Russia feels the need to mend ties with the West, prompting a change of position towards Iran. Russian-Iranian relations should be viewed in the context of Russia's relations with the West, since its relations with the West are more important for Russia than its relations with Iran. In view of the many areas of tension and the structure of the entire international system, the West has a much greater significance for Russia than Iran.
In Southwest Asia, Iran is arguably the most forceful power on the ground. Hence, Moscow’s partnership with Tehran is important for it to enter the geopolitics of the region. However, Iran’s behavior after the collapse of the IS caliphate will be significant as a more assertive Iranian posture in implementing its Syria designs might create points of friction with friends (Russia) and foes (U.S.) alike.
- In your opinion, what is Iran's main interest in Syria?
- Iran's key interest in Syria is the preservation of the power structure of Bashar al-Assad's regime, i.e. the preservation of Damascus as an Iranian ally and its military and political prerogatives there. The big question is what will happen now after the expulsion of ISIS [a terrorist group banned in Russia].
- Iran's Arab neighbors fear the strengthening of the religious and ideological influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Is the idea of exporting the 'Islamic revolution' relevant to Iranian politics?
- The discourse about the export of the "Islamic Revolution" was dominant in the first decade after the 1979 revolution. After that there was, so to speak, a pragmatic turn, which reduced the status of this discourse - under Presidents Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami – in favor of pragmatism. However, it does not mean that these ideas have disappeared: There is still a discourse with an Islamic revolutionary fervor, which originates from hardline power circles in Iran. This has raised concerns among Iran's southern Arab neighbors about destabilization in their countries – and still constitutes a key conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Arabian Peninsula perceive this Islamic revolutionary discourse as an incitement aimed at their Shia citizens whose loyalty they fear can be bound to the Iranian leadership rather than their own home countries. Yet, their own mistreatment of Shia minorities makes any Iranian interference possible in the first place.
- How strong are the positions of hardliners in today's Iran?
- Iranian hardliners enjoy structural power as they control the bulk of political, military and economic entities. The U.S. position (although it is still not clear, as before) and the political signals from Riyadh indicate a worsening in their attitude towards Tehran, which can play in favor of hardliners in Iran. It is likely that hardliners will increase their influence against this background. Economically and politically, they have not lost much power and influence as compared to their heyday during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration. After the double terrorist attack in Tehran, there is also political instrumentalization of the situation on the part of hardliners as well as extremists, which in the face of lacking potent resistance from more moderate forces will lead to their further strengthening.