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The perspectives of Russia–Iran relations in the context of the recent US–Iran escalation

Gündem, İran, Rusya 15 Ocak 2020
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The recent US – Iran escalation is the hot topic for the Middle East pundits. Many policy briefs have already been published discussing the motives behind the US and Iran actions, the implications of these developments on the US Presidential campaign and Iranian Parliamentary elections. Many experts are seeking to assess the future of the US – Iran relations and the Iran’s influence in the region. Meanwhile, US – Iran tensions which fell short of the full blown war will have impact also on Russia – Iran relations and in particular on their uneasy partnership in Syria.

Russia views Iran as a key anti-American actor in the Middle East which has an ability and wish to counter the US influence in the region. Given Russia’s strategic goal of supporting the world order transformation from an uni-polar to multi-polar system, Iran’s tough anti-Americanism is useful for Russia. Iran is helpful in decreasing the hegemonic role of the US in the Middle East. Through the establishment of “axis of resistance” Iran fosters the creation of multi-polar system in the Middle East. In this context the flashpoint is Syria where currently Russia and Iran has more influence than the US. Thus, the US – Iran tensions and Iran’s asymmetric fight against the US influence in Syria and Iraq is fully in line with Russian Middle East strategy.

Meanwhile, the fight against the US interests in the Middle East is not the end for Russia. The strategic goal is the elevation of Russia into the great power status and recognition of that status by the US. The same logic is also behind Russia – Turkish growing partnership. By cultivating Turkey’s anti-American sentiments pulling Ankara away from Washington Russia makes another step towards multi-polar Middle East where US has no omnipotent power. Thus, If the US is ready to recognize Russia as an equal player in the Middle East, Moscow most probably will be willing to negotiate a new deal for the Middle East, which could be harmful for Iranian interests.

Given the growing US pressure the strategic goal of Iran is the regime survival. Iranian society is in the midst of growing resentment against authorities due to the several reasons – key of which is economic decline. Since late 2017 Iranian authorities are facing almost non-stop protest movements, which are being oppressed by the use of force. However, this creates a vicious circle – protests – tough response – more protests with no visible solutions ahead. In this context Iran views its partnership with Russia as one of the tools to balance the US. Tehran seeks to use Russian might to decrease the US influence in Syria. Iran views Russia also as a source of relatively modern weaponry which may increase the cost for the US if Washington decides to launch direct military invasion for the regime change.

Thus, interestingly, both Moscow and Tehran view their partnership as one of the tools to reach their respectful goals in the region. Meanwhile, Tehran is fully aware that in case of the US – Russia deal Moscow most probably is ready to sacrifice Iran’s strategic interests while Kremlin understands that Russia being viewed in Tehran mainly as a tool to counter American influence.

In this strategic context recent US – Iran escalation and de-escalation should be perceived positively in Moscow. The current situation makes any future Iran – US negotiations less likely. Most probably Tehran will continue to fight against American influence in Iraq and the Iraqi parliament’s non binding decision requiring the withdrawal of the US forces from the country is the victory for Tehran. The growing American problems in Iraq will make Russia stronger in the region, as Americans will have fewer resources to concentrate on Syria and other places. Meanwhile, Russia is not interested in the direct military clash between the US and Iran as most probably it will result in chaos in Iran which will destabilize the South Caucasus, Afghanistan and Central Asia creating numerous problems for Russia. The US – Iran war will put Russia in difficult situation. If Moscow remains neutral it will ruin Russian position as one of the key players of the region. Meanwhile, support to Iran will destroy any chances for the Russia – US great bargain, which is the only path for Russia to internationally acclaim its great power status.

Moscow will make all efforts to keep US – Iran relations strained meanwhile seeking to avoid full blown war. Thus, the Iranian decision to inform Iraqi government regarding the January 8 missile strike against the US bases should be welcomed in Moscow. It elevates Iran – US contradictions to the unprecedented level, meanwhile providing the US reasonable argument not to strike back.

Meanwhile, the surprise visit to Syria of the Russian President Vladimir Putin on January 7 may be interpreted as the Russian move to solidify its position as a number one player on the Syrian chess board. Russia has a history of using its involvement in Syria as an opportunity to serve as mediator between different powers involved in Syrian conundrum including Iran and Israel. Currently Moscow may be the only working channel for Iranians to reach out to Israel and Moscow is ready to fulfill this goal and get additional leverage over Tehran. Meanwhile, given growing domestic unrest and economic problems in Iran as well as growing problems with the US, Iran may be forced to decrease its involvement in Syria. The Russian President’s visit to Syria was a clear message that Moscow is ready to take more responsibilities. Given the tacit Russia – Iran competition in Syria regarding the level of influence over the President Assad and the involvement in the reconstruction process, the side effect of the US – Iran tensions may be the Russian efforts to get an upper hand in Syria.

The tragedy of Ukraine international airlines plane shot down by the Iranian missile may well serve Russian interests in its tacit competition with Iran. Moscow will welcome the growing international pressure on Tehran over handling of the tragedy and initial efforts to deny responsibility. Simultaneously, Moscow may use this tragedy to underscore its unique role and capacities to implicitly defend Iranian government within international audience, thus solidifying its leverages over Tehran.

Thus, the recent US – Iran escalation and the both sides decision to avoid the full scale war bode well for Russia. Moscow may well use the current situation to get concessions from Iran in Syria and simultaneously to strengthen its role n as a key Iranian partner to counter the US pressure on Tehran.

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies

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