The Moscow-Tehran partnership is no love affair
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently paid a visit to Tehran, his first in the last eight years. He arrived to participate in the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) summit.
The visit attracted global interest as it came at a sensitive period. Russia has launched air strikes in Syria to support President Bashar Assad, one of the Islamic Republic’s key allies. It was assumed Tehran and Moscow officials talked about Syria during the visit.
Suffering the Ukraine and Crimea problems and the West’s crushing sanctions, Russia sees isolated Iran as a reliable ally. However, Tehran does not have the same feeling towards Moscow.
Putin, a veteran KGB officer, is playing a multidimensional game. On the one hand he lobbies with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, over the future of Assad and with Israel about limiting Iran’s threat against Tel Aviv. On the other hand, he tries to reassure Tehran about their alliance in Syria.
After the fall of the Saddam Hussein government in Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Syria is one of Moscow’s last bastions in the region. Russia, however, is more flexible than Iran on the issue of Assad’s future.
Compared to Tehran, Moscow follows a more realistic and long-term policy in Syria. Russia’s problem is not the fate of Assad and the so-called “axis of resistance”. The Syrian issue is also beyond being only a card against the West in the Ukraine-Crimea game.
Access to warm-water ports and safeguarding control over future energy corridors can be considered Moscow’s long-term objectives in Syria.
Tehran and Moscow can continue their close cooperation in Syria in the short term but, in the long term, Russia most likely would leave Iran halfway. While Tehran, blindly insisting on maintaining Assad, has closed all doors for dialogue with opposition groups, Russia can reach an agreement with Iran’s regional rivals and Syrian opposition as well, winning an important position of influence in the future of the strategic country.
That is exactly why Tehran does not see Moscow as a reliable partner in Syria.
Currently, however, Moscow is not in a position to dictate its will to Tehran as the Islamic Republic has the upper hand on the ground, largely thanks to its proxy militia, the National Defence Force.
Trying to ensure Iran, Putin in his November 23rd meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hailed the Islamic Republic as a “reliable and dependable” ally in the region, stressing that Moscow does not betray its friends.
However, the veteran intelligence officer is aware that Tehran’s Shia-based policy has no perspective in Syria and a country with Sunni majority will not be a second Iraq for the Islamic Republic.
Moscow is not going to sacrifice its long-term interests for Iran’s uncertain future in the Arab country and destiny will separate the two partners sooner or later.
Russia has repeatedly shown that Tehran cannot count on its support in sensitive periods. It has happened in various occasions as Moscow refused to deliver the S-300 missile system to Tehran and did not provide the expected support in the nuclear case.