January 5, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Iran and Russia’s Delicate Partnership
Common perceptions of the causes of the instability plaguing the Middle East are driving Iran and Russia into an ever-closer strategic relationship. Nowhere is the emerging alliance on starker display than in Syria, where Iran and Russia are working together to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power. Assad is a key ally of Iran not only because his Alawite community practices a religion akin to Shi’a Islam, but also because Assad ensures a land corridor through which Iran supplies its most important protégé, Lebanese Hizballah. Assad’s rule itself is less central to Russia than it is to Iran, but Russia insists that the integrity of the Syrian state and army be preserved as a bulwark against radical Sunni extremist groups, including the so-called Islamic State.
Russia’s President Putin also seeks to block what he says are U.S. attempts to establish hegemony throughout the region and dislodge Russia’s allies, such as Assad. Putin asserts that the U.S.-led ousting of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi produced regional instability, and rejects the argument that dictatorships and Iran-inspired Shi’a marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria have fueled the Islamic State’s rise. The United States supports Russian military action in Syria that is taken against the Islamic State, but opposes Russian action against anti-Assad rebels backed by the U.S. and its regional allies. U.S. officials assert that a solution to the Syria conflict and the permanent defeat of the Islamic State require that Assad leave office as part of an internationally-agreed transition that also, as Russia seeks, preserves the Syria state structure.
Both Iran and Russia see radical Sunni extremist movements as major regional threats. Iran is the major Shi’a power in the region and supports Shi’a-led governments and movements against what it sees as efforts by the Gulf Cooperation Council states (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman) to promote Sunni domination. All of the GCC states are close U.S. allies. Russia does not have a ‘pro-Shi’a’ or ‘anti-GCC’ orientation per se, but Putin has consistently questioned why the United States is allied with Saudi Arabia, which Russia sees as the main wellspring, along with Pakistan, of Sunni jihadist groups, to include al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Terrorism against the Russian homeland and Russian interests abroad and in the ‘near abroad’ (Central Asia) has always been committed by Sunni extremist groups—not by Shi’a groups linked to Iran.
Both Russia and Iran see themselves as targets of U.S.-Saudi ‘machinations.’ Both have asserted that the recent Saudi strategy of allowing world oil prices to fall was engineered jointly with the United States expressly to weaken Russia and Iran. Many experts do not dismiss this argument, maintaining that Saudi Arabia and the United States have hoped that low oil prices would reduce Russian and Iranian capacity to assist the Assad regime.
These common perceptions enabled Iran to persuade Putin to intervene in Syria in late September. The Russian intervention has enabled Iran to pull some Islamic Revolutionary Guard–Qods Force (IRGC-QF) advisors out of Syria, and to reduce the role of Lebanese Hizballah on the frontlines. Hizballah has taken particularly heavy losses in Syria, and Iran has eagerly substituted Hizballah’s ranks in Syria with Shi’a fighters from Iraqi militias and from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Russia’s willingness to act on behalf of Assad has caused powerful Iraqi Shi’a militia commanders—all of whom work closely with IRGC-QF commander Qasem Soleimani—to argue that the Iraqi government’s campaign against the Islamic State should rely on Russia and Iran instead of the United States.
At times, the Russia-Iran relationship has benefited U.S. interests. On December 28, Russia became a central facilitator of the July 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany) by shipping out 25,000 pounds (nearly Iran’s entire stockpile) of enriched uranium. That shipment will likely enable Iran to meet all the initial JCPOA requirements for sanctions relief later in January—just before the February 26 Iranian parliamentary elections that the United States hopes will seat more moderate supporters of President Hassan Rouhani. However, Russia has also announced that the implementation of the JCPOA will enable it to complete a 2007 sale to Iran of the S-300 air defense system.
There are ample opportunities for the Russia-Iran partnership to fracture. A rift will surely emerge if Russia drops its insistence that Assad have an opportunity to remain in power at the end of any agreed-upon transition in Syria. To Russia, there are other leaders who would preserve the Syrian state structure and allow Russia to maintain military assets in Syria. Iran, on the other hand, does not trust any other Syrian figure to allow it to use the country to protect and support Hizballah as Assad does. Protecting Hizballah appears nowhere on Russia’s agenda for Syria. Russia-Iran tensions may also emerge when sanctions on Iran are lifted in early 2016; Iran will immediately put 500,000 more barrels of crude oil per day on the market, possibly depressing oil prices and harming Russia’s economy further.
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