Over the past year, Russia and Iran have entered a new phase of military cooperation unprecedented in their relations since the end of World War II. As a result of Russian intervention in Syria, their armed forces are planning operations and fighting together in support of Bashar al-Assad’s government. In August, Russia began sending a wave of strategic bombers into Syria from an Iranian airbase. As intended, this caught the world’s attention. It sent a bold signal to the West that both were committed to safeguarding their interests in Syria despite the costs, and was a rare instance of the Islamic Republic authorizing action by a foreign power on its soil. This latest cooperation represents a substantial deepening of the political and defence ties between the two countries ushered in by Vladimir Putin on his return to the Russian presidency, and of links marked by an expanding arms trade over the past three decades. Jahangir Karami, head of Russia department at Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran and senior fellow at IRAS, told Shafaqna (Farsi) about Russia’s military involvement in the Middle East and misperceptions Moscow friendly relationship with Tehran has shaped the Iranian public and elites’ opinions.
In recent months, deep Russian involvements in the Middle East affairs have marginalized the Ukraine crisis and it seems some trade-offs are being done behind the scenes. How do you see the picture?
“Perhaps the presence of the Russian government in the Ukraine crisis has little to do with the crisis in Syria, although both are indicative of an active and offensive foreign policy, originating from a military policy focused on the presence in strategic and surrounding areas. These two crises are different in nature and that’s why it is not easy to relate them to each other. However, Russia, through its actions and role in Syria crisis, hopes to provide conditions for interaction, negotiation, and reaching an agreement on Ukraine crisis and also withdraw from the burden of sanctions imposed by the European Union. In addition, Russia seeks an agreement on Ukraine which restricts the possibility of expanding NATO to Ukraine and the Black Sea area. In the last four years, the Russian government has been involved in two major crises, each of which followed by serious consequences for the areas surrounding Russia and national and regional security of this country. In this regard, through an aggressive and innovative military policy, Russia has attempted to impede the international pressures on its strategic territory and sphere of influence in surrounding areas.”
Some believe that history repeats itself, that is to say, Russia is trying to sway Iran for the sake of Moscow interests and whenever the policy changes, Russia not to be at Tehran back. How much do you agree with their belief?
“It is not absolutely true, because the present-day Russian government is not similar to the Tsarist Russia or the Soviet government and has lost one-third of the Tsarist Russia’s territories after the collapse. In addition, there is a distance between Russia and Iran as vast as Central Asia and the Caucasus (seven independent countries of the former Soviet Union) and also Iran is not in the same conditions as the Qajar era. Therefore, generalization of conditions of the past two or three centuries to what is going on today is rooted in inadequate information or unreasonable motives behind the analysis of relations between Iran and Russia. Neither contemporary Iran nor post-Soviet Russia is similar to their past history.
“Today, Iran is a major regional power, as not only Russia but also China, the European Union, and other countries are seeking cooperation with Iran on issues related to stability and security in a large area from Central and South Asia to the Mediterranean. As a result, this is not essentially true and Iran and Russia, as two independent and powerful states, have relations on multiple threads, like Iran’s relations with the European Union, China, and many other countries. Although Iran and these countries have many in common, they may have conflicting interests. This is true about Russia, too. There are common, competing and conflicting interests between Iran and Russia at bilateral, regional, and international levels. The Islamic Republic of Iran works with the Russian government in the sphere of common interests. However, these common interests may include stability and security in Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Caspian region, and South Caucasus or the Middle East and Syria crisis. What forms the nature of today’s relations between Iran and Russia includes the autonomy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iran’s regional power and role in regional stability and security in the Middle East and the surroundings, and interaction of these two independent powers at the regional and international levels. However, in these relations that are not necessarily against a third party, each of them pursues their own interests.
“Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar and also Turkey, before recent events, would feel that Iran-Russia relations are against them, while these relations are aimed at maintaining stability, peace, and security in the region in dealing with terrorism, foreign interferences, and disturbing the order and security of countries in this region. Hence, today’s Iran-Russia relations should not be compared with the past periods of history. At the time, Iran was a weak country that foreign states could easily interfere in its internal affairs, while the Islamic Republic of Iran currently is so powerful that not only does not accept any interference in its internal affairs but also contributes to regional peace and security with a wide sphere of regional influence. That is why these concepts should be carefully taken into account.”
Would recent meetings between Iranian, Russian and Turkish high-level officials bring about any change to the Syrian Crisis?
“In recent months and even before the coup, we witnessed developments and changes in domestic and foreign policy of Turkey which accelerated after the coup. In addition, it can be observed that Turkish foreign policy has become more sensitive to terrorist groups. In the past, the Turkish government was not sensitive enough to terrorist groups and not only overlooked their movements but also backed them in some cases. However, this trend has changed and the Turkish government shows more sensitivity in this regard, which is due to the internal problems and losses caused by these insecurities to the economy of this country. These changes have observed more or less up to date but the most needed change has not been made yet. The Turkish government has announced that it will not be much sensitive to Assad and retreat from previous insistence on his ouster. However, we’ll have to wait and see how this is manifested in Turkey’s stances in future negotiations on Syria crisis and then in action. Turkey has declared its readiness for involvement in a military operation against the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for the first time, although part of Turkey’s motivation is for conquering part of regions occupied by the ISIS in order to prevent Kurdish groups from dominating them.”
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