Russia-Iran: keep your friends close and your potential enemies closer (HAFEZ)

D.R. HAFEZ – 6th November 2015

As the Syrian conflict unfurls and western media outlets lament the seemingly genius politics of Russia and to a lesser extent Iran, their relationship deserves to be observed more closely. Indeed, far from being a master coup, the Iranian and Russian interventions in Syria may be the start of a new rivalry in the region. If one entertains such a possibility, how can Europe use this to better its own interests with regards to both partners ?

Oi, Ali Hosseini, move over

There is no questioning that Iran and Russia are both heavily involved in the pro-regime effort to quell both Daesh and more importantly any semblance of legitimate resistance to the Al-Assad regime. Indeed, the Russian leadership is keen to maintain its strategic interests in the region and in the country. For this and other reasons (distraction from internal problems back home, showcasing of new weapons, opening up of new markets) Russia has stepped up the visibility of its aid to the Syrian regime. Likewise, Iran has been very heavily involved in the military support of Al-Assad’s troups – Afghan militias have been sent to Syria, al-Quods forces operate on the ground and “military advisors” accompany key Syrian offensives.

The media backlash has been different with regards to both countries – indeed, until the very recent praise of Putin’s geopolitical acuity, Russia was regarded as the main backer of the Syrian regime on the international and UN scene and hence factor of delay for any peace-process. As has been noted previously on this blog, Iran by contrast fared slightly better – its early engagement against Daesh in Iraq won it praise from the international community. Both countries now find themselves more closely associated in the (western) public mindset, which could potentially be detrimental to Teheran’s overall image. More crucially, it is now quite clear that the Syrian regime is weak – the high level support given by Putin to his Syrian counterpart during a recent visit to Moscow attests to that effect; consequently, even if the ruling family remains in place, there can be no doubt that a considerable amount of political positioning will take place behind the scenes – in that context, both Iran and Russia have reason to back several horses whilst maintaining their full support to the Al-Assad clan on the surface. Since Russia mainly has a Sunni minority within its borders and is intent on developing good relations with Sunni Arab partners, do not be surprised if it publically advocates for a new balance of power favoring the Sunni majority within Syria earlier than Iran. Iran on the other hand will probably try to strike a deal with the non-Sunni minorities in order to preserve its interests, most importantly the Hezbollah back-office – in that light, Palestinian refugee communities, Shiites, perhaps even Christian minorities might be wooed by a “nationalist” Iran.

Too much oil kills prices

Quite apart from differing strategic interests within Syria, one must not forget that both Russia’s and Iran’s main (potential) export are fossil fuels (gas and oil products). As the French expert on the Caucasus Jean Radvanyi in his excellent book titled Caucase: le grand jeu des influences explains, tensions around the Caspian Sea are already mounting, as both Teheran and Moscow seek to establish their spheres of influence and counter external actors such as the US. Though it is certainly true that both Russia and Iran are also in competition with the Gulf States and that the price setting is a very complex business relying on estimations of global demand and national reserves, the increasing consumption of these fuels by the Asian market has already led to a direct competition between the two countries.

Europe would do well to observe and finely analyse these tensions as a way to bring Iran in from the cold and thus put increased pressure on the Kremlin. For those doubters voicing the argument that Russia will simply turn away from Europe and favour China, let us not forget that such a move requires huge infrastructural investments and will place Russia in a vulnerable position price-wise with its Asian clients. Whilst there is no doubt that the Asian market will in the long term be the greatest client of both Russia and Iran, in the short and even medium term Europe can use the embryonic rivalry between the two countries to its advantage.

Tread softly around soldiers Bibi and Recep Tayyip

Israel and Turkey – in the case of Russia, key allies in the region for a number of reasons – historic economic and geopolitical. Whilst it is not the intention of this article to delve into the history of Iran and Israel and point out the excellent bilateral relations pre-1979, the relations between Turkey and Iran deserve a little more investigation: yes the rivalry undoubted exists, as does the distrust, but the simple geographical proximity of these potential middle-east powerhouses means that both Ankara and Teheran have enormous economic potential interests – one need only look at Erdogan’s visit to Iran on the 7th of April this year to be convinced. In any case, both Russia and Iran must tread carefully when it comes to their respective relations with Turkey and Israel – on the surface, Russia has a distinct advantage, especially with regards to Tel-Aviv, and certainly the Sunni Gulf states will do anything in their power to increase the animosity between Israel and Iran.

Suffice to say therefore that Russia can potentially improve its geopolitical influence in the region by a careful campaign of seduction with Turkey and Israel. This would in turn place it in a strong position to become a major go-between in the region and with Iran. Though Teheran is no doubt grateful for Russian backing at the present time, it remains to be seen whether it will readily accept that Moscow becomes the arbitrator on its behalf in the region. Indeed, such a scenario would put Iran in a position of weakness (including economically) with regards to its northern partner, a condition that is unlikely to be accepted by the fiercely nationalist Iranian authorities.

I now dub thee worthy of our company

As stated on numerous occasions, Europe’s strength is its economic potential – yet apart from the trade deals that no-doubt would be welcome in Iran, Europe can also smear a veneer of legitimacy on countries and regimes that the US is incapable of, precisely because of its pluri-national composition. Were Europe to make itself known to Iran, it would most probably find a warm reception from the other side – true, the savvy Iranian politicians would not go out of their way to please a new-found partner, as such a policy would not serve its best interests. However, inclusion of Iran, at the request of Europe, in international conferences for example on Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan would certainly help woo Teheran to a European tune.

Needless to say that it is better to have some relations with a country than none at all if one wishes to have any semblance of leverage – additionally, Europe would appear more proactive on these issues (Syria, Iraq) rather than hopelessly passive as is the case today. Secondly, outstretching a hand to Iran might also have a beneficial effect on Russia – Europe would show that it is not a slave to US foreign policy (as Russian media outlets have claimed with regards to the Ukrainian crisis) and the pressure would be on the Kremlin to be more accommodating for fear of appearing unreasonable – the last thing President Putin wishes to be seen as at the moment.

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