Just how firm is the Russian-Iranian alliance?

Friday 27/11/2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani in Tehran, Iran, on November 23rd.

Washington - Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran on November 23rd to address the Gas Exporting Countries Fo­rum (GECF). He also met with Ira­nian Supreme Leader Ali Khame­nei and President Hassan Rohani.

Putin’s visit contributed to the widely held view that Russia and Iran are becoming more closely allied. While Moscow and Tehran have had many differences in the past, what underlies their alli­ance now is their commitment to defend the Assad regime in Syria against its many opponents — in­cluding those backed by Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar and Turkey.

Appearances, though, can be de­ceiving.

In a truly astounding Wall Street Journal article published Novem­ber 19th, Jay Solomon discussed details of the October 11th meet­ings Putin had in Sochi with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. In response to Saudi warnings that Russian intervention in Syria would be opposed by Sunnis be­cause Moscow was allying with Shia Iran, Solomon reported that Putin “surprised his royal guests by stressing Russia would seek to diminish Iran’s role inside Syria” and that the Russian president said if the Arab states supported him, he would help them in their efforts to contain Tehran.

Solomon reported a few weeks earlier that Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that “Russia’s role in Syria could serve to constrict Iran’s and Hezbollah’s operations”. In other words, the pitch that Putin is reportedly mak­ing clear to Gulf Arabs and Israelis is that Russia is their best hope for limiting, if not eliminating, Iranian influence in Syria.

The Iranians were undoubt­edly aware of this article and if they asked Putin about its verac­ity he undoubtedly would have told them that Solomon’s story is “baseless” and that what Russia was actually doing in Syria was helping Iran by blunting the im­pact of Gulf Arab and Turkish sup­port to the anti-Assad opposition as well as limiting what America and the West can do there.

It is doubtful, though, that Khamenei or Rohani would have been reassured. Indeed, this article and similar reports provide confir­mation of something Iranians have long believed: Despite Russian professions of friendship towards Tehran, Moscow is always will­ing to sell out Iranian interests in exchange for concessions from or cooperation with the United States or others, including the Gulf Arabs or even Israel.

So what is Putin actually doing? It may simply be that he is telling different things to different gov­ernments in the region so that all of them will believe that they need him to restrain their adversaries. And even if they doubt his profes­sions of friendship, they may cal­culate that it is better to work with Putin even if he is also working with their adversaries. To not do so would risk Russia supporting those adversaries even more strongly.

This strategy is consistent with how Putin has behaved in similar situations. He does not ally exclu­sively with one side against the other but gives some degree of support to each side to maximise Russian leverage over both.

This approach may actually work — at least for a while. Neither side in the dispute is happy that Putin is supporting both sides but they have little choice in the short run. Since neither side likes that Mos­cow is doing this, resentment to­wards Russia grows. And if an op­portunity arises for either or both parties to dispense with Russia’s “support”, they seize it — either through dealing directly with each other or through another interme­diary, such as the United States.

In Syria, the Gulf Arabs in par­ticular will not trust Putin’s claims that he can limit Iranian influence unless he delivers on the expecta­tions that he raised. And consid­ering that the Iranian presence in Syria is much larger than the Rus­sian one, it is highly doubtful that Putin can reduce Iranian influence in Syria. And Iran can be depended on to vigorously resist any attempt by Moscow to persuade or force Syrian President Bashar Assad to relinquish power — the one step that really would gain the grati­tude of the Gulf Arab states. In­deed, just the suspicion on the part of the Iranian leadership that Putin might try to do this is likely to poi­son the supposed alliance between Moscow and Tehran.

Yet if Putin does not persuade or cajole Assad to relinquish power, it is doubtful that the Gulf Arabs will regard him as a useful partner or refrain from actions detrimental to Russia, including support for Sunni opposition forces not just in Syria, but in Russia itself.

By attempting to persuade eve­ryone in the region that Russia is their indispensable partner, Putin may only succeed in convincing everyone that Moscow is simply playing games and cannot be re­lied upon to actually help them against their adversaries.