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The Russia-Iran Alliance: Where to?

Many analysts assert that it is only “a marriage of convenience” that aligns Russia and Iran together. To support their argument, they cite the long history of enmity, the 500-hundred-year old suspicion of Russia among the Iranian people and the different objectives and ideologies between the two countries. This reasoning remains arguable, but, ultimately, it changes little in the short-term dynamics that placed the two countries in the same trench.

Whatever it is, the Iran-Russia alliance is moving forward. Based on a thorough study of the chronology of events between the two during the last 10 years or so, the project appears to have been initiated by Moscow. The nuclear talks and Syria provided Moscow with enough favorable wind to get its Iran project to sail. Recently, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (the post President Hassan Rouhani held between 1988 and 2005), announced that Iran and Russia share a military base “where Iran conducts its advisory mission to help the Syrian army and [pro-regime] resistance forces with Russia’s assistance”. The forces of the two countries fight side by side in Syria. As far as we know, allies fight together.

The dilemma for the US could be simplified as follows: The tougher it gets on one or both countries, the closer they get. It is true that previous patterns of the three-countries-dynamics, the US, Russia and Iran, may show signs confirming the hypotheses that only when the US is closer to one of the two countries that this country depreciated its ties with other. However, it is difficult to draw patterns from times prior to Russia’s new energy to recuperate part of the USSR allure or to the degree of success it has already achieved in this regard during the last decade or so. The taste of benefits and illusion of power must have impacted Russia’s perception of itself and its future strategies to the extent that even an improvement in US-Russian relations will not lead to a depreciation of Iran’s value in the general Russian outlook.

Even the theory that Russia and Iran are destined to compete in the field of energy exports is now debunked after Rouhani’s last visit to Moscow (March 27). According to European officials “Russia will now decide how much oil and gas any field, where the Russian companies are involved, can produce, sell and at what price. It is a total and a profound shift in Iran’s traditional policies. It is also a central step for Russia’s control over global natural gas markets”. Moreover, the usual disputes about demarcation of the Caspian see is now, after Rouhani’s visit, an issue of the past. It took a lot of work from experts in the two sides to settle the thorny part concerning the limits of each countries waters in the Caspian.

Will the Russian-Iranian alliance last for a long time? Is it strategic? Do the two have reasons to differ sometimes? These are kind of irrelevant questions because there are no alliances that last forever, and in every alliance, there are different views and interests. We pointed out before the fact that Russia has already emerged from the after-shock of the collapse of the USSR. Iran has also emerged from 37 years of different levels of isolation and pressures. This, in turn, sheds doubts on previous assertions and patterns concluded from the past. It also lays before our eyes a new paradigm in the relations between the two countries, and in the posture of each in relevant regions like Central Asia and the Middle East.

One dimension of Russia’s presence in Syria must have been to respond positively to Iranian requests, as part of the generous dowry offered for “Iran’s hand”. Another was what made former President Barak Obama wonder publicly and loudly about his amazement of how Russia helped to reach the nuclear deal. Putin’s main tactics are based on multiple methods, among them to use US mistakes. And they are quite a bit.

It should not surprise anyone if we find one day that Russia was always hopeful that the relatively moderate camp in Tehran does not gain the day there. If it does, Western companies will crowd to participate in fulfilling the moderates’ reforms and projects. Furthermore, the tension caused by the hardliners help Russia sell more arms to Iran.

The ultimate objective of President Putin is to break what he sees as a US-dominated unipolar world order. Iran is placing its bets on Moscow to get what it sees as its share in the Middle East. And Russia is promising to give Iran what it wants, and proving its good wills in Syria. But what will follow is not necessarily that Moscow will give a “cart blanch” to Iran in the Middle East. This may put unbearable pressures on Russian resources. Putin is more likely to give the Arabs the choice: either you decouple with the US, or we let Iran goes after you.

Obviously, it is not going to happen in this simplified way. But we have already seen some Arab leaders going to Moscow to ask for a Russian change in policy and help to restrain Iran. For Putin, to do that now is premature. He better wait, so long as his allies achieve progress. Then again, for Russia, it may not be the suitable formula. The suitable formula will be to “intermediate” between the Arabs and the Iranians. In other words, there will be no need to choose between the two sides. Putin can win both.

Russia understands that it is a reversed domino. If you make a friend, you can use this bridge to multiply your gains by making more friend. The only problem here is that Russia’s friendship comes at the expense of the West. Putin’s project of changing the world order can be carried out through a deal with the US. But if there is no such deal, that does not mean that the project would be frozen. And in a way, that is what is already happening.

Iran is very valuable to Russia. Moscow will go the extra mile to accommodate its allies in Tehran. It simply sees that the gains in energy coordination and geostrategic benefit’s optimization are too great to pass.

What we already see is a Russian-Iranian alliance growing every day. It is a work in progress. And it is progressing fast.

April 20, 2017

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