Just how firm is the Russian-Iranian alliance?
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.