Mahmoud Shoori

Iran and Russia in the Middle East: Cooperation without Partnership

Date of publication : June 17, 2017 07:55 am
Pictured in this video screen grab are cruise missiles launched by the Russian Navy
Pictured in this video screen grab are cruise missiles launched by the Russian Navy's Admiral Essen frigate and Krasnodar submarine from the Mediterranean Sea, hitting Islamic State targets near Palmyra

There is no doubt that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been not only the closest Middle Eastern state to Russia, but also the most stable and durable one working with Kremlin in the region during the last two and half decades. Despite many ups and downs, Tehran-Moscow ties have been special and strategic for both states during most of the post-Soviet era. Nonetheless, Iranian-Russian cooperation has not become active in the entire Middle East for various reasons, despite some common regional approaches between the two neighboring states, namely opposition to US military involvement in the Middle East. Joint work to cope with the Syrian crisis is indeed a new task both Iran and post-Soviet Russia have taken on. Before the Syrian civil war, Iran and Russia worked together on resolving the Tajik Civil War and to some extent the crisis in Afghanistan in the 2000s, but the recent bilateral collaboration of Tehran and Moscow in regard to the Syrian crisis has distinct significance and features. None of the previous collaborative attempts between Iran and Russia were not alarming to other regional and extra-regional powers. More importantly, while decisive in the stability of the Middle East, Tehran-Moscow regional cooperation would not propose a new definition for "regional order". Unlike the case of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the Iranian-Russian cooperation in regard to the Syrian crisis would perform a pivotal role in forging future security order of the Middle East – or it could do so at last. In this context, the article sets about addressing the questions of possible outlooks for the Iranian-Russian maintenance of cooperation in the Middle East and the likelihood of turning such cooperation into a foundation for a new regional order.
Middle East and the Order
Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks for researchers in the field of international relations is arriving at a definition of order in the Middle East. The fact that the Middle East is a mental or discursive construct makes it difficult and challenging to define its boundaries and identify the elements, actors, and rules that form this concept. As a discursive construct, the Middle East has had different nodal points at different times, from the geopolitical competition among European great powers at the beginning of the twentieth century to the issue of energy and simultaneously Arab nationalism and the Arab-Israeli conflict in the post-World War II era. During the final two decades of the twentieth century, Islamism was added to the various issues of the Middle East, and the region has since witnessed different issues, from weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to terrorism, and from Arab revolutions to religious extremism. The Middle East does not match Buzan and Waever's definition of security complexes, nor can it be defined or explained by theories of integration and divergence. Even the concept of regionalism, which explained many regional trends and processes in many regions of the world in the post-Cold War era, is not applicable to this region. For some analysts, the Middle East is "a region with regionalism"; for some others The Middle East presents an interesting anti-case for the analysis of regionalism. That is to say, there are several reasons why the Middle East is an anti-case with regard to regionalism, including divergence of national interests, the involvement of global powers in regional affairs, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the role of "political Islam".
There is yet no consensus regarding what elements we need to consider if we want to comprehend the logic of the developments in the Middle East. From a realistic point of view, explaining the balance of power among the major actors in the region and, above all, the policy of the great powers clarifies the disputes and coalitions in the region to a certain extent. However, the problem with realistic approaches is that they are overly state-centered and power-centered and are, therefore, unable to capture social trends. Power issues in the Middle East cannot be analyzed or explained without considering social and discursive developments. For more than several decades, great powers, including the US, Europe, and the USSR/Russia, have been trying to bring the issue of Arab-Israeli peace to a conclusion. Nevertheless, the issue has never been fully resolved and has kept coming back to the fore from time to time. Similarly, the issue of Islamic resurgence, revived by Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, keeps reproducing itself in various forms and micro-discourses despite opposition from great powers. The anti-dictatorship and freedom-seeking discourse, too, has retained its vitality in the region over the past century and has triggered new developments in the region at different points in time. The developments in the Arab World known as the Arab spring (2010-2011) are indeed the latest product of the freedom-seeking discourse in the region.
Perhaps it was once great powers that determined the fate of the Middle East, but now discursive conflicts and the competition among regional powers influence the geographical area of West Asia and North Africa. Moreover, subnational and supranational non-state actors in the region such as the Kurds, Daesh (ISIL), Lebanon's Hezbollah, and many other groups have gained a significant role in determining the course of regional developments.
The Syrian crisis, since its beginning five years ago, has influenced the security order in the Middle East while Syria has in practice turned into a collision point for the opposing discourses in the region and the interests of various actors. Therefore, many analysts believe that the future order in the region will be determined by how the Syrian crisis will be settled. One important issue in the Syrian crisis that can influence the management of the crisis and the future of regional order is the alliances and coalitions shaped within the crisis. The key point regarding the nature of the coalitions in the Syrian crisis is that although five years have passed since the beginning of the Syrian crisis and many local, regional, and extra-regional actors have been involved in it, no full-fledged coalition has yet been formed among the different actors. What has happened so far is in reality cooperation among some major actors in the crisis. So far, we have seen cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and between Turkey and the United States on one side and cooperation between Iran and Russia on the other side. The only coalition in the region is the one between Saudi Arabia and some countries supporting Riyadh on the Yemen war, but that is not a full-fledged coalition either. There are many commonalities among the goals and interests of the actors on either side. However, regional and international circumstances such as the fluidity of the Syrian crisis and the existence of some tactical and even strategic differences, ambiguities, and disagreements have prevented the actors on either side to be fully linked to one another. Under these circumstances, all the actors try not to align fully with one another. The US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are not fully aligned with one another in this crisis and, likewise, there is no full alignment between Iran and Russia.
In addition, given the constant changes in the circumstances and dimensions of the crisis, the distance between expectations (the ideal situation) and realities (the existing situation) for all the actors involved in the crisis has constantly been changing over the past years. These changes have, in turn, caused some of the actors to adjust their expectations or change their behavior. The situation of Turkey in the crisis up to now illustrates this point. These changes can also mean that there will probably be more changes in the coalitions and behavior of the actors in the future.
Besides the major actors in the Syrian crisis, there are also some minor actors (e.g. European powers, Israel, Jordan, Qatar, and Egypt) which are not heavy weights in the crisis equations but whose behavior can nevertheless influence the course of the crisis under certain circumstances. Iraq is the only actor in the crisis that has tactical and strategic interactions with the US and the European powers (and to a lesser extent Turkey) on one side and with Iran, Russia, and the government of Bashar al-Assad on the other side. Therefore, the tilting of Iraq towards one side can have a decisive role in the crisis. Further, Iraq can serve as the link between some opposing actors.
Iranian-Russian Cooperation on the Syria's Crisis
Although the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the closest Middle East country to Russia over the past quarter-century, Iranian-Russian cooperation in the Middle East was not significant before the Syrian crisis. Common interests of Iran and Russia before the crisis were restricted to bilateral or international issues, such as common opposition to unilateralism of the US. The Syrian crisis operationally put Iran and Russia on the same front in the Middle East for the first time. Hence, the Syrian crisis not only can affect the future security order of the Middle East and standing of Iran and Russia in this region but also will probably play a decisive role in the level of Iranian-Russian cooperation in other areas. If both states have successful experience in managing the crisis in Syria, that can also be used in some other areas. Currently, without a comprehensive military alliance in Syria, Tehran and Moscow have managed to advance their policies and goals through shared responsibilities in the embattled Syria. During one year of Russian military involvement in Syria, although Iran has tried not to become Russia’s ground force and Russia has attempted to avoid playing the role of Iran’s air force, the two neighboring states collaboratively have managed to prevent the Syrian Oppositions from achieving their goals in Syria. Although Iran and Russia have pursued a single goal in Syria so far and are seemingly at the same side, the reality is that both countries have fought in their own sides through a clever division of duties. Neither Iran nor Russia are fighting in each other’s side in Syria. However, as long as the agenda of both sides in Syria has not changed, it can be expected that this cooperation can continue based on division of duties and shared responsibilities in a way that ensures the objectives of the both involving states. In the case of any change in the agenda of either of Tehran or Moscow, conditions can completely change. In other words, the possibility of more or less equal division of labor between Iran and Russia in Syria is not the same under any circumstances. If Russia wants to make a shift from military operation to diplomatic efforts, Russia can practically take control over the management of this crisis and there will be fewer opportunities for division of duties as a way of cooperation between the two sides. If it is realistically understood that neither Iran nor Russia are willing to accept a hundred percent Russian or Iranian solution to Syria crisis, then division of duties is the best way for cooperation between Tehran and Moscow. Regarding the future of the Syrian crisis, Vitaly Namkin, former director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences and senior Russian expert, turns attention to three possible scenarios for the war-torn Syria:
- gradual national reconciliation through the Geneva dialogue,
- a military victory by President Bashar al-Assad, or
- a major war involving global powers.

According to his analysis, "Russia, like most global and regional powers, continues to support a political solution to the Syrian crisis based on the June 2012 Geneva communique and agreements reached in 2015 by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna."
The Islamic Republic of Iran has repeatedly announced its support for political solutions to end the crisis in Syria. However, the problem is that the Iranian leadership may not be as optimistic as the Russian leaders about fairness and impartiality of solutions or agreements in which the US is one of the parties. By contrast, it seems that Kremlin not only hopes to achieve an agreement with the US on the Syrian crisis but also believes that such an agreement is the only possible way in this context. In an article published by Foreign Affairs, Fyodor Lukyanov, chair of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, wrote "when an acute international crisis breaks out, Russia and the United States are often the only actors able to resolve it."
According to Iranian analysts, Russia seeks great achievements in the Middle East with limited capital and a more limited investment. This increases the risk of Russia’s behavior for all major players in the Middle East, including Iran. In addition, Russia tries to settle its conflicts with the West or at least push them to the margin through the Syria crisis. In diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria, Russia is greatly hoping for association and cooperation with the US.
Despite the strategic partnership between Russia and Iran on the Syria's crisis and its possible impact on the future of the region, there is no doubt that issues, concerns, and approaches of these states to developments and role of other actors in the region are different. Future ties between Iran and Russia in the Middle East depend on the way these differences are dealt with and achievements obtained from direct or indirect cooperation between Tehran and Moscow.
Since day one, it was clear Russia and Iran have pursued different objectives of entering the military operations in Syria. Maintaining the Islamic resistance front by supporting Assad’s regime has been considered the main goal for Iran, while Russia has sought to protect Assad in order to persuade other parties to accept its share to the future government. Therefore, military intervention for Russia has been basically a means to achieve political and diplomatic ends. This is why the Russians have proposed several plans for diplomatic settlement of the Syrian crisis as soon as the conditions were ready. In this regard, Russia has managed to take two successful major steps: first, initiating direct talks between all involved parties, and second, establishing a ceasefire between the negotiating parties. In the third step, Russia seeks to provide a plan for running the post-crisis Syria. Development of the draft of the new constitution of Syria and proposals on federalization of this country are two examples of Moscow’s attempts. It is still unknown to what extent these plans will be operational with the approval of other parties, but it is obvious if Russia cannot maintain its influence in Syria and at least in western parts of the embattled country including Damascus, Lattakia, Tartus, and the Syrian coasts in the Mediterranean Sea, this country will virtually have not obtained any benefit from its military actions in Syria. From a minimalistic perspective, the plan for the federalization of Syria may also be a good option for Iran. However, from the Iranian perspective, a practically dissolved Syria cannot be expected to be a strong link in the chain of resistance against Israel.
Additionally, although these plans may be considered by Russia a good foundation for the future of Syria, they cannot address the fundamental problem of Syria and the whole region, namely the presence of extremist groups and movements. In fact, the specific plan of the Kremlin for dealing with extremist movements includes restriction on foreign support for them in the first step and establishment of an international coalition against them. Iran is not optimistic about these moves. Tehran is not sure that the US is really looking for eradication of extremism in this region.
Another important point about Iranian-Russian cooperation in regard to the Syrian crisis is that while Russia greatly required the cooperation and support of Iran at the beginning of the coalition, this need may reduce in the future. In other words, despite the fact that the active participation of Russia in the Syrian crisis has been accomplished with the assistance and cooperation of Iran, Moscow may think about interaction with parties other than Iran in the future. In an exclusive interview with The Institute for Iran-Eurasia Studies (IRAS), Vladimir Evseev, director of the Center for Public Policy Research in Academic Secretary of the Coordinating Council of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) on forecasting, pointed out "Russia's role in Syria will boost, while Iran's may not."
Disparities in Approaches to the Middle East
In addition to issues that are related to the future of Syria, there are some other themes Iranian analysts believe to be major obstacles in the way of promoting cooperation between Iran and Russia from a strategic cooperation to the level of a strategic partnership in the Middle East. Some of these themes that are the understanding of mainly Iranian analysts about Russia's approach to the Middle East:
1. Israel; The slogan of the destruction of Israel posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran does not comply with Russian policies and the Kremlin is seriously against any Iranian threats against Israel.
2. Russia's opposition to superiority of a regional power; Considering the approach of Russia, Moscow by no means to violate the balance of power between states in the Middle East and also are against a country having comparative superiority to other countries.
3. Russia’s hesitations about Iran's optimal plan for the region; Russia looks suspiciously at the ideological approach of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the world and the region. Despite alignment with the negative aspect of Iran’s approach (opposition to US unilateralism), it is not in agreement with the positive aspect (Creating a fair system based on power equality of states in the region).
4. Difference in the approach to confront the USA in the region; Despite Russia's opposition to US military involvement in the Middle East, they have not shown any permanent and/or official opposition to it. In short, they do not seem overly concerned by this presence since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. Concomitantly, the Islamic Republic of Iran considers US military presence in the region as a real and direct threat to its national security.
5. Russia's unwillingness to join regional alliances; Despite Russia’s close ties with Iran, Moscow is not interested in being linked in an alliance with Iran in the region, which it considers an impediment to Moscow’s relations with other regional powers.
Future Outlook
While Iran and Russia may be far from achieving a strategic partnership to design a new security model in the Middle East, a couple of issues should be noted:
- The situation in West Asia and North Africa is so complex that there is no hope for Iran, Russia or any other power to be in a position of reconstructing a new order in the short term. Therefore, as long as there are common threats, common solutions to deal with these threats must be considered. Moreover, the discussion over disputed cases should be assigned to the appropriate time.
- In the case of the Syrian crisis, Russia’s plans have advanced well so far. But it still does not seem a good time to judge the success of Russia, and on the other hand the desirability of its success for Iran.
- Russia has not been a disciplinary power in the Middle East and they have not even sought balancing against the West after the collapse of Soviet Union. Russia is reluctant to alter the balance and counts Iran as an actor along with other actors in this framework. In other words, Russia’s plan for the Middle East has not been designed based on comprehensive cooperation with Iran. Indeed, the record of cooperation of the Islamic Republic of Iran with Russia as well as strategic alignment between the two states at the international level enjoys the highest potentials for continuation of the strategic partnership with Russia in the Middle East. Accordingly, it seems that in any plan for strategic cooperation between Russia and Iran in the Middle East, the following should be considered:
1. West Asia and North Africa, commonly known in the Western interpretation as The Middle East, is a region where effective and stable presence in it is not possible by using mere a state-centered and power-driven realist approach. However, having hardware or diplomatic power is an effective factor to impact the developments in the Middle East, but persuasive discourses along with social legitimacy should be noted more than any other points in the process of regional changes. The Islamic Republic of Iran possesses discursive power as well as political and cultural influence in the region and Russia is in possession of military and diplomatic power. The combination of these two powers can help to create stability in the Middle East.
2. Given the fact that neither Iran, nor Russia are willing to be under each other’s name in the Middle East, the formed pattern of division of duties between Iran and Russia in the Syrian crisis can be applied in the Middle East.
3. The Islamic Republic of Iran while having an independent foreign policy is the only state on which Russia can maintain its influence in the Middle East through cooperation or, in better terms, a division of labor with Iran.
4. While it is necessary to cooperate with the West in order to manage the Syrian crisis, the West will not allow Moscow to turn the Middle East into its sphere of influence.
5. While in the short term, having being "market oriented" in the Middle East along with trying to take advantage of all possible opportunities might be in Russia’s interest, it will not, from a long term perspective, turn Moscow into a responsible power and reliable partner in the opinion of region’s states.
NB: This article first appeared at "Russia-Iran Partnership: an Overview and Prospects for the Future", co-published by IRAS and RIAC.

Mahmoud Shoori, head of Eurasia Program at Center for Strategic Research (CSR), is the senior fellow at IRAS.

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ID: 3207
Author : Mahmoud Shoori