Russian bombers flying from an Iran’s Nojeh air base struck targets across Syria on Tuesday, August 16, dramatically underscoring the two countries’ growing military ties and highlighting Russia’s strategy for greater influence in the volatile Middle East. We asked Mark N. Katz, a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, about the motives behind Russia’s deep involvement in Syria and its commitment to cooperate militarily with Iran on resolving the Syrian crisis.
As Iran and Russia had complex relationship in the past two and half decades, what features of their ties grab your attention more in that period of time?
“Moscow’s relations with Tehran during the first decade of the Islamic Republic (1979-89) were very poor. Moscow had expected that, as occurred in other developing countries, the downfall of a pro-American authoritarian regime would lead to the rise of a pro-Soviet one. But the Islamic Republic, under the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini, proved to be as anti-Soviet as it was anti-American. For its part, the new government in Tehran felt threatened by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan on Iran’s eastern border as well as Soviet support for Iraq on Iran’s western border during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
“At the end of the Cold War, though, Moscow-Tehran ties improved considerably. The end of the Iran-Iraq War as well as the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan contributed to this. There was positive cooperation between Moscow and Tehran on resolving the civil war in Tajikistan (1992-97). Moscow was also grateful for Iran’s not supporting Chechen secessionism. Moscow and Tehran both supported anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan before 9/11. Further, Russia agreed to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor, and to sell weapons to Iran. Despite these improved ties, though, it was clear in the 1990s that Yeltsin was willing to limit Russian cooperation with Iran for the sake of good relations with the United States. The Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement (the terms of which were secret, but seemed to be widely known), for example, led to the curtailment of Russian-Iranian cooperation in both the military and nuclear spheres. There was also disagreement about the delimitation of the Caspian Sea.
“The rise of Putin seemed to presage an improvement in Russian-Iranian ties. Putin canceled the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement in 2000, and Russian cooperation with Iran in the defense and other spheres seemed set to improve. There was always something, though, that seemed to get in the way of close cooperation. Putin, for example, seemed to vacillate between siding with Iran and siding with the West with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue. Russian-Iranian trade increased, but not all that much—especially compared to the increase in Chinese-Iranian trade. No progress was made on the Caspian issue. While Putin sought improved ties with Iran, he also sought improved relations with two of Iran’s regional rivals: Israel and Saudi Arabia. And when Medvedev was president, he actually canceled the sale of S-300 air defense missiles to Iran in 2010.
“Russian-Iranian relations, though, improved once again when Putin resumed the presidency in 2012 and both Moscow and Tehran took steps to ensure that the Arab Spring did not topple Bashar Assad in Syria as it had the leaders of other Arab states. But from 2011 until September 2015, Iran and its local allies bore most of the costs of defending Assad while Moscow played more of a supporting role. Moscow’s share of the cost of defending Assad increased greatly after it sent its air force to Syria and began a bombing campaign there, but it is Iran and its local allies that are fighting the ground war there. Further, despite the sharp deterioration in Russian-Western relations after Moscow seized Crimea and began supporting pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Putin has continued his efforts to improve relations with America’s allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“So while Russian-Iranian relations have steadily improved over the past quarter of a century, this has not stopped Moscow from pursuing policies that Tehran does not like. Moscow, though, appears to calculate that because Iranian-American relations have been so hostile, Tehran cannot afford to allow its ties with Moscow to deteriorate over these policy differences. From Moscow’s perspective, Iran needs Russia more than Russia needs Iran—and so Tehran will just have to put up with Russian efforts to collaborate with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and even the United States.”
The prolonged Syrian crisis has been redefining Iran-Russia ties from mere bilateralism with commonly negative approach to the West to a more decisive issue in the Middle East. So, how Iran-Russia cooperation in the region bring about a new foundation for regional order in the future?
“From Moscow’s viewpoint, Russia and Iran share two important common interests in the Middle East: both oppose the increase of American influence, and both also oppose the rise of Sunni jihadist forces. If anything, though, Moscow fears the rise of Sunni jihadists more than American influence. So while Moscow considers Shi’a Iran a strong ally against the Sunni jihadists, it also sees all other Middle Eastern actors that oppose this force as partners—including Israel, the military-backed Sisi government in Egypt, various Kurdish forces, and the Erdogan government in Turkey (especially after the failed coup attempt). Even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—which Moscow sees as supporting some Sunni jihadists—is seen as better than any likely alternative to it. Putin, then, wants to work with all actors, except the Sunni jihadists, in the region—even though many of these actors are strongly opposed to one another. As a result, it does not seem that Moscow and Tehran actually have a common vision of a foundation for regional order.”
What obstacles, if any, Russia's deep involvement in the Middle East would put in the way of Iran's regional objectives in the near future?
“The main problem for Iran is that since Russia wants to have good relations with most of the major actors in the region, it will not be a strong ally for Iran regarding those actors that Iran has adversarial relations with. Moscow, of course, claims that it can serve as a “bridge” between Iran and its regional adversaries. But Putin seems to be basing these hopes on a false analogy between Arab-Israeli relations in the latter part of the Cold War and the regional situation in the Middle East now.
“Many in Moscow regard the Soviet Union’s breaking of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967 as a mistake. This was because with the Soviet Union only having ties to the Arab states and not Israel while the U.S. had ties with both, it was the U.S. and not the USSR that was able to succeed in its diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions between the two sides. Putin now seems to believe that because Russia has ties to all parties in the Middle East but America does not have ties with Iran, Moscow is now in a similar position to launch successful diplomatic initiatives to defuse tensions between Iran and its adversaries. Moscow, though, is not in a position to persuade or cajole either Iran or its regional adversaries to make concessions to each other the way that Washington was able to do between Israel and certain Arab states in the past.”
Besides Iran and Russia, multiple states are involving in the Middle East developments. As Tehran and Moscow have distinct relationship with regional actors including Saudi Arabia and Israel, to what extent such differences would negatively influence on Iran-Russia's joint battle against terrorism in Syria?
“This is the heart of the problem. Iran on the one hand and Israel and Saudi Arabia on the other see each other as implacable enemies. Russia, though, wants to be friends with them all. Indeed, while Moscow is working closely with Iran in Syria against the anti-Assad forces, it seems to be telling both the Israelis and the Saudis that they are better off with Russia in Syria because that way Moscow can restrain Iran and its ally Hezbollah from taking actions harmful to Israeli and Saudi interests. Russia’s policy, then, seems to be one of playing off the regional actors of the Middle East against each other.”
If the US wants to strike a bargain with Russia on the Syrian crisis, what major concessions should Washington grant to Moscow in order that the latter to abandon joint operation with Iran?
“I am not sure that there is anything America can do at this point to bring this about. Indeed, there are many in the U.S. who argue that the Obama Administration has made concession after concession to Putin, but this has not led him to change his policy on Syria. Some Russian scholars I know have argued that for Putin, Syria is not a foreign policy issue but a domestic political one. Putin does not want, and cannot allow himself, to be seen as reducing support for Assad at America’s behest. That would make Putin look, and even feel, weak—and he does not want to do that. What I can see Putin as trying to do, though, is broker some sort of deal between the Assad regime (or pro-Russian elements within it) on the one hand and part of the opposition on the other that would result in a new “coalition government” that is more pro-Russian than it is pro-Iranian.”
Given recent Russia-Turkey rapprochement on the one hand, and growing contact between Iran and Turkey on the other hand, what would be the prospect of Iranian-Russian-Turkish joint efforts to solve the Syrian civil war?
“In the aftermath of the failed Turkish coup attempt, the deterioration in Turkish-Western relations, and the improvement in Turkish-Russian ones, it seems that Erdogan’s priorities vis-à-vis Syria have changed. Instead of prioritizing the downfall of Assad and seeing ISIS and other Sunni jihadists as tacit allies vis-à-vis both Assad the Syrian Kurds, Erdogan now sees weakening ISIS along with the Syrian Kurds as more important than the fate of Assad. In the short run, this change in Turkish policy may help Russian and Iranian efforts to weaken (if not entirely defeat) the anti-Assad opposition as well as thwart Saudi ambitions. But once the common ISIS opponent has been largely defeated, the Turkish vision of Syria’s future may well come to clash with Iran’s in particular. Tehran will want to see a Syrian settlement that protects the Alawites and Shi’as, while Ankara will want one that favors the Sunnis (except, of course, those who happen to be Kurdish). Moscow at this point may well try to persuade Tehran that it is important to make concessions to Ankara on Syria since securing Turkey’s anti-Western foreign policy orientation would be of such great value to Iran as well as Russia.”
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