Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, “neither East nor West” has been an omnipresent slogan in Iran’s foreign policy. It has been so, because this was exactly what the Revolution aspired to foster: to emancipate the country from any form of external domination and to shield Iran’s sovereignty. In this sense, Tehran’s August decision to allow the Russian Air Forces to use the Hamadan air base in their bombing campaign against Syrian territories comes as an unanticipated but at the same time an equally symbolic case from two perspectives. One the one side, it indicates that for Tehran the Revolution rhetoric yields to pragmatic security considerations. On the other side, it could be said that it epitomizes the Iran-Russia hookup in Syria which, in turn, could complicate the ongoing reconciliation process between the former and the West. It naturally follows that interpreting the essence of the Iran-Russia association is a prerequisite in order to fully comprehend what implications Iran’s embrace with Russia might have for its relations with the West.
To a great extent, the coordinated actions of Iran and Russia have been the root cause of the Assad regime’s hitherto survival. Indeed, the two countries have invested an invaluable amount of military, diplomatic and economic resources to hold Assad in power, as the guarantor of their respective interests in Syria. Yet, although the Syrian context appears to be the melting pot of their bilateral relations, the two countries’ mutual penchant seems to stem from a much broader set of interests that ultimately cross the Syrian threshold.
For Moscow, Iran is an asset. It is an agent of regional security in Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East, an energy source, a lucrative market, as well as a trump card in the Russia-U.S interplay. In Tehran at the other end of the spectrum, there is a general agreement that nurturing friendly ties with Moscow is vital to the country’s geopolitical position and its ambitions to become a regulator of the regional affairs. Besides, in its essence, a close relationship with Moscow provides a kind of maneuvering capacity in Iran’s negotiations with the West.
However, against such a favorable background of overlapping interests and their shared desire for Assad being in the center of any Syrian political future, a sense of mutual distrust seems to slimmer beneath the surface. In Tehran’s point of view, recalls of the country often being used as a bargaining chip in the Moscow-Washington negotiations have apparently not faded. It is indicative for example, that the August decision did not appear to enjoy full legitimacy with many in Iran’s Majlis challenging its constitutionality.
More importantly, a closer observation reveals discrepancies even in regards to Syria. First and foremost, while for Iran keeping Assad in office is a red line issue, this is not the case for Russia. Surely, this is not to say that Moscow has abandoned its predilection for Assad, but that in the long run the Russian leadership would be willing to compromise on an alternative political establishment without elements of the Assad regime – especially considering the conciliatory proclamations of newly elected President Trump. Second, Moscow has no interest in challenging the Israeli security or stepping any further than attacking ISIS and Jabhat al-Fateh a-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). Iran’s uppermost goal on the other side is to enhance its foothold in southern Syria in order to have a more direct access to Hezbollah and Israel’s backyard. Third, as Nikolay Kozhanov explains, engaging in any Shia-dominated axis is far from Moscow’s plans insofar this could yield internal security risks given that the 17 million of Russian Muslims are primarily Sunni.
Coming to a conclusion, divining the maturation of the Iran-Russia partnership into a fully-fledged alliance would be a gross simplification for the time being. Instead, it might be safer to anticipate that their shared operational goals will continue to foster an area of relative convergence until a complete cessation of hostilities is achieved in Syria. That moment will after all be the most critical juncture for the Iran-Russia association; when eventually the two partners will be compelled to convert their long-term strategy into concrete actions.