One of the dimensions of the current US-Iran escalations that should be monitored is how Russia will react.
President Vladimir Putin sent his Special Envoy Alexandre Laventieve to meet with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani February 4. Following Iran’s official reporting on the visit, it was noticeable that the media went out of its way to emphasize that the visit was “only” related to the Syrian crisis. But it is naïve to assume that President Putin will not raise with the Iran’s leadership the recent escalation with the US.
Simultaneously, several reports indicated that Tehran is considering a substantial arms’ deal with Russia. As a preparation for talks on that issue, representatives of Russia’s Federation Council’s Committee on Defense and Security will start their six-day visit to Iran to discuss the provision of weaponry sales to Tehran as well as the situation in Syria, the Committee’s chairman Viktor Ozerov told Russia’s media.
An Iranian commentator, Shoeib Bahman, confirmed Tehran’s intentions regarding the arms deal. “Currently, both countries are poised to expand partnership in this area, with Iran ready to purchase other kinds of weapons (from Russia) for its Navy and Air Force. The military and technical cooperation between Tehran and Moscow is not only limited to the supply of the S-300 missile system,” Bahman said.
the two countries have held talks to discuss the supply of Russian fighter jets and light armament to Iran. The topic is expected to be further discussed during the upcoming inter-parliamentary meeting in Iran. Russia is ready to send its technicians to help the Iranians integrate Russian arms within their air force, navy and air defense systems.
While the Russian-Iranian military ties, which are already multifaceted, are poised to become even deeper, Western navies held a series of drills off the coast of Iran last week, in a show of force in light of increased Iranian harassment of foreign military vessels. The exercises were led by the United Kingdom and included ships from the US, France and Australia. The navies practiced fighting off enemy aerial incursions and mine clearing, as well as live fire drills. However, the drills were planned before the recent escalation between the US and Iran. Iran is expected to block the strait of Hormuz in case of a major crisis. Iran has the military capabilities to block the strait through which almost one fourth of world oil supplies pass. This fact emboldens the Iranians who believe they have Hormuz, hence the world economy, as a hostage.
Based on Russia’s policy during the Iran nuclear deal talks, the most probable message carried by Leventieve to Shamkhani, was a call for restrain and calm. During the nuclear talks, Russia always interfered in critical moments to keep the negotiations going and to help find middle grounds. President Obama expressed once his astonishment of Russia’s help and even thanked Moscow for that. But Russia was not helping Obama, it was helping its overall Middle East strategy, which is based on helping Iran in anticipation for using its regional role to achieve more breakthroughs into the US strong holds on the western shores of the Gulf.
There are many similarities between Russia and Iran. They both agree in multiple issues related to the Middle East. They cooperate in Syria, they oppose US regional influence, and they believe that the current world order has become an old structure, inadequate as much as it excludes rising powers, like both Russia and Iran, and denies them their fair share in their regions. Both decided to move to impose their own views of their interests on their periphery, Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, and Russia in Ukraine, ex-Soviet republics and the Middle East.
Russia said that it is fighting ISIL in Syria. But Moscow was interested more in keeping Assad in power. Its record in fighting ISIL is dismal. And while there are violent Jihadists in Syria, there are none in Ukraine, where Moscow’s argument in justifying its intervention is different. The motives of Russian military intervention in Ukraine and Syria are based on gradual efforts to dismantle the existing global order through a calculated use of force, all the while assert Russian interests.
This strategy of expanding national interests while expressing willingness to cooperate in devising a new world order that accommodates Moscow’s view of itself as a world power, is mirrored, though on a smaller scale so far, by the Iranians in the Middle East. Last December President Putin expressed this view in clear terms. “We aren’t seeking a confrontation with anyone. We aren’t seeking enemies, we need friends. But we will not allow our own interests to be neglected either. We understand the measure of our responsibility and are genuinely prepared to take part in solving global and regional problems where our participation is relevant, demanded and needed”.
Here, it is clear that the nature of Russia’s strategy is actually “dual”. On the one hand, there is Russia’s interests, which is a vague term defined only by Moscow and could be modified according to circumstances. On the other hand, President Putin expresses his willingness to cooperate in constructing a new order at the condition of accommodating Russia’s interests, whatever they are.
We have noticed, for example, that the announced Russian strategy in the Middle East which was made public in December 2016 was way more assertive that the previous one made public in 2013. Obviously, this was a reflection of a weaker US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.
The current escalation between the US and Iran is based on very legitimate claims against Tehran’s regional subversions. Nonetheless, it gives the Russians an opportunity to settle Iran’s hesitation between the east and the west once and for all, and prepare for the next phase which is to use whatever tools it has to maximize and expand its role. Iran is used to indirectly pressure the Arabs to decouple with the US, something that President Obama unintentionally facilitated, and to use Turkey to pressure the Europeans and NATO to re-caliber their security and energy policies.
We will soon see how President Putin will try to pour cold water on the US-Iran escalation, the same way he did during the crisis of the chemical weapons in Syria or the many crises the nuclear talks encountered. However, it is wrong to assume that Russia will decouple with Iran at this fluid moment or at any other moment in the near future. Most of what Moscow achieved lately in the Middle East is attached in a way or another to Iran. Syria, Iraq and using Iranian regional intervention as a tool to push US-Arab ties into severe stress-test or as a negotiating chip with the Arabs are integral parts of President Putin’s strategy in the region.
Should Russia then be denied any role in the Middle East? Of course not. But there must be first an agreement on the basic requirements for that region to regain stability and end the production-lines which fabricate new terrorists every day. Prominent among those requirements is that Iran pulls out its Revolutionary Guard’s units, militias and Hezbollah from both Iraq and Syria.
The reason is simple, so long as there is Iranian intervention, the region will produce resistance shaped by the nature of the conflict itself. Iran represents itself to the region as a Shia power wanting to control its periphery for national security reasons. As such, a Sunni resistance will always emerge. This distorted form of both, the hegemonic power and those who resist it, stems from the way the conflict is represented to the minds. Sunni resistance to Iranian Shia control usually brings about radical and terrorist organization, as much as Iran uses religion to mobilize the populations of other country and get them to drop their national flags and raise religious flags.
Russia can greatly help stabilize the Middle East if it only gets Iran to drop its regional ambitions. But this may contradict Moscow’s drive to completely move Tehran towards Russia. Iran explains it regional expansion as a necessity to enhance their national interests, whatever they are, again. And in this, they repeat what Moscow says in other places.
The Russian-Iranian marriage is now a project in an advance phase. The US can test the two sides by simply asking Moscow to get Tehran out of the Arab World. If they say that they cannot do that as Iran is determined to keep its presence in other countries, Moscow then should be asked if it can contribute to confronting Iran’s expansion. For this is the only healthy ground to work with Russia in the Middle East to regain stability and reduce the threat of terrorism.