Syria: A convergence of interests for Russia and Iran
Russia’s recent use of an Iranian airbase to launch airstrikes into Syria is the most recent evidence of the strengthening of ties between Russia and Iran. Russia’s recent use of an Iranian airbase to launch airstrikes into Syria is the most recent evidence of the expedient strengthening of ties between Russia and Iran thanks to the Syrian conflict. There are reasons to believe that this rapprochement will strengthen over time, but it may reach a point of conflict of interest in the distant future.
An opportunity to collaborate
Both Russia and Iran have had close relations with the Syrian government for a number of decades. Russia has had a military presence in Syria since 1971 (when the Soviet Union opened a naval base in Tartus), and during Soviet times it provided military and financial assistance to the Syrian regime. As for Iran, the Assad regime has been a singular ally in the Middle East since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Syria has provided a link for Iran to one of its military branches, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. For both Russia and Iran, their alliances with the Syrian regime form a group that is in opposition to ‘Western’, especially American, interests in the region. It is for this reason that it has been inevitable that the crossing paths of Russia and Iran in Syria would approach one another in a time of crisis (i.e. the Syrian civil war). Assisting the Assad regime is perceived to be beneficial to both parties.
How did it come to this?
The culmination of Iran and Russia’s cooperation has been Russia’s recent use of an airbase in Hamadan, Iran, whence its air force carried out airstrikes against anti-government forces in Syria. Although both Russia and Iran’s interests coincide in Syria, this most recent episode demonstrates that there has been an acceleration in rapprochement between the leadership of both countries, since it takes much diplomatic trust to allow a foreign power to use the military facilities situated on one’s sovereign territory. This is also the first case of a foreign power conducting military operations from within Iranian territory since the Revolution of 1979.
Much has been discussed about the increase in economic collaboration between Russia and China during the Western sanctions on Russia, perhaps due to its greater geopolitical consequences, however, this has also been the case between Russia and Iran, since both have been suffering economically from sanctions from the same source. Western sanctions have certainly played a role in pushing these two countries closer into an alliance, despite the fact that Russia had actually joined the UN-mandated sanctions against Iran in 2011.
Aside from economic sanctions, American military forces have a presence in several countries in the region surrounding Russia and Iran, such as in Turkey and Afghanistan, and a hefty dependence on American arms in Saudi Arabia. This has led to the perception from Russia and Iran that a foreign superpower has gained too much influence in their backyards.
Up and down relations
The basis of Russia and Iran’s recent collaboration is a coincidence of mutual interests in the battlefield of the Syrian civil war and both countries’ antagonism towards US-led Western political dominance of the world. The Syrian civil war has been looking more and more like a proxy war between great powers that have interests in the region, rather than a genuine struggle within Syria to create a society that takes into account the interests of all denominations and groups. Taking into account the history of political relations between Russia and Iran, and the current state of geopolitics in the region, this sole basis for collaboration is shaky, yet there are some trends that may lead to a reifying of these positive relations.
There are historical memories in Iran of Russia’s presence in the country in the 19th century, when the two countries fought a war, after which Iran ceded all of the South Caucasus and led to the split of the northern province of Azerbaijan. This has had great geopolitical consequences until this day. The South Caucasus had been a part of the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union, until 1991. Russia still has a prominent influence in the region. Nevertheless, Iran has recently made inroads back into the region and is seen by Georgia and Armenia as a trading alternative to Russia. In the near future, we may see a vying for geopolitical influence in the South Caucasus between Russia and Iran, a common feature throughout history. However, the region may also be seen as a platform for further collaboration, since the South Caucasian states are fairly weak in dictating their interests to greater powers, and both Russia and Iran may wish to cooperate in the face of American influence in the region, which has taken strides since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Syria conflict can be used as a basis for Russia and Iran to entrench a more solid alliance with other Eastern partners, especially China, in order to redraw the balance of power in international politics. Iran is currently a candidate for the Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which comprises post-Soviet states at this moment in time. In addition, Iran enjoys observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a political, economic and military organisation led mainly by China and Russia.
The recent lifting of sanctions on Iran may give the country more confidence to see itself as a regional power in the “Russian neighbourhood”, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Whether this will lead to a conflict of interest between Russia and Iran is yet to be seen. As Russia ceased to use the Hamadan airbase, some top Iranian officials criticised Russia for making the use of the airbase public. This is a sign that Iran does not wish to be toyed with as it has in the past.
Is this cooperation likely to continue?
The general trends listed above foresee a tighter relationship between the two countries. The Syria conflict may be a temporary opportunity for collaboration, but there are other reasons to believe that this bilateral cooperation may continue into the near future. Nevertheless, in the very long term, the imperial history of both countries has the potential to lead to a re-emergence of a former rivalry between Russia and Iran.