Moscow’s reach in the Middle East continues to expand. Recently Russia made major oil deals with Saudi Arabia, deepened its involvement in Libya and made deals with Morocco. But an abiding cornerstone of Russia’s Middle East policy remains its admittedly problematic partnership with Iran. Despite Russia’s long-standing opposition to Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons and efforts to restrain Iran from provoking Israel into a full-scale war, Moscow’s partnership with Tehran apparently is growing thanks to regional developments and Washington’s offensive against both states.
A Partnership of Convenience
Iran and Russia need each other to realize their Middle Eastern ambitions, even if their interests sometimes clash. Moreover, Russia has no compunction about sacrificing Iranian interests if they diverge from its own. For example, Russia has created “an OPEC within OPEC” with Saudi Arabia to at least attempt to set global energy prices. Thus in October 2018, Iran accused Saudi Arabia and Russia of breaking an OPEC deal on output cuts that would if implemented, have raised global energy prices and increased Iran’s sorely needed energy revenues. However, despite such rivalries — and the checkered history of Russo-Iranian relations since the 1800s that induces an abiding Iranian mistrust of Russian policy — Moscow and Tehran sustain their relationship.
Iran clearly needs Russian political, economic, and military support — not only to ensure the victory and staying power of Bashar Assad’s government in Syria after the civil war ends, but also to gain support from quarters that are not susceptible to the U.S. sanctions on Iran and access to newer military systems and technologies against American military threats. Moscow provides all this and is even willing to invest $50 billion in Iranian energy.
At the same time, Russia needs Iran as a partner in the Middle East and Afghanistan even though it has no illusions concerning the nature of Iran’s regime, its tactics, and the discrepancies between Russian and Iranian interests. Russian experts and officials argue that since Iran is their neighbor, they must work with it to pursue common goals whenever possible. Even though Iran does not border Russia except through the Caspian Sea, this argument underscores Russian elites’ belief that Russia’s security frontier remains the former USSR’s borders.
Indeed, Russia’s quest for partnership with Iran began with Yevgeny Primakov’s governmental tenure from 1996-1999. Russian writers openly advocated tactical partnership with Iran to enhance Russia’s presence and standing in the Gulf. And it remains true that despite Russia’s continuing Middle Eastern successes, it cannot play its coveted great power role without functioning partnerships with key states, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, and — on energy issues — Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, a close examination of the bilateral Russo-Iranian agenda reveals increasing coordination.
Russia’s Support of Iran
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently announced, “We have never considered Iran as a terrorist threat.” At the same press conference, Lavrov stated that while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have legitimate interests beyond their borders, so does Iran, and it would be unrealistic “to lock the Iranians within their own borders.” Essentially, this reiterates Moscow’s longstanding advocacy of a Gulf security conference where it would participate and be recognized as an arbiter — if not the arbiter — of the Gulf’s security order.
Russia also firmly states that Iran is in complete compliance with the agreement to forego nuclear weapons production (JCPOA). Therefore, it will cooperate with Iran on oil sales and energy to thwart the sanctions imposed by Washington.
In Syria, Moscow increasingly cooperated with Iran precisely because of the U.S. pressure on Tehran. According to Israel’s Debka reporting agency, when Moscow gave Syria S-300 missiles after Syria shot down a Russian airplane and Moscow blamed Israel for the action, it turned over operation of these systems to Iranians.
Russia and Iran are discussing ways to bring together both sides in the Yemeni civil war in a way that would complement Russo-Iranian positions. And in Iraq, Moscow and Tehran are cooperating to avoid rivalries while exercising strong influence over the Iraqi government.
It is more evident that although Moscow is restraining Iran’s presence in the Golan Heights, it has become much colder toward Israel since the aforementioned Syrian downing of the Russian plane. Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the sidelines of the Paris celebration of the centenary of the ending of World War I. Putin has reiterated that despite Israel’s demand that Russia somehow compel Iran to leave Syria, Moscow does not have the means to do so. But it also has no interest in doing so; without Iran’s presence, Assad’s government likely would become unsustainable, forcing Russia to expend valuable resources to uphold a most likely doomed regime. And Russia has announced that it will adopt Iran’s position that it had previously rejected and supported the objective of returning Assad to rule over all of Syria.
Russia and Iran will continue to cooperate to thwart U.S. policy in the Middle East and Gulf. Therefore it is quixotic to believe that Moscow is or believes itself to be “stuck” in Syria and that Washington can use this situation as leverage to end Iran’s mission there. Unfortunately, despite the plain evidence of the growing Russo-Iranian partnership, tilting at windmills appears to be a permanent feature of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Yet flouting reality in the absence of a political instrument to bring about our desired goal in Syria is dangerous and foolhardy.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers, and monographs – specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia, and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.