Publications of experts CACDS - Southern Caucasus

Benyamin Poghosyan: "The perspectives of Russia-Iran relations in the context of the recent US-Iran escalation"


The recent US - Iran escalation is the hot topic for the Middle East pundits. Many policy briefs have already been published discussing the motives behind US and Iran actions, the implications of these developments in the US Presidential campaign and Iranian Parliamentary elections. Many experts are seeking to assess the future of the US - Iran relations and Iran's influences in the region. Meanwhile, US - Iran tensions which have fallen short of the full blown war will have an impact also on Russia - Iran relations and in particular on their uneasy partnership in Syria.

Russia views Iran as a key anti-American actor in the Middle East who has the ability and desire to counter US influenza in the region. Given Russia's strategic goal of supporting the world order transformation from a uni-polar to a multi-polar system, Iran's tough anti-Americanism is useful for Russia. Iran is helpful in decreasing the hegemonic role of the US in the Middle East. Through the establishment of the “axis of resistance” Iran fosters the creation of a multi-polar system in the Middle East. In this context, the flashpoint is Syria where currently Russia and Iran have more influence than the US. Thus, the US - Iran tensions and Iran's asymmetric fight against US influenza in Syria and Iraq is fully in line with the Russian Middle East strategy.

Meanwhile, the fight against US interests in the Middle East is not the end for Russia. The strategic goal is the elevation of Russia into the great power status and recognition of that status by the US. The same logic is also behind Russia - Turkish growing partnership. By cultivating Turkey's anti-American sentiments pulling Ankara away from Washington Russia makes another move toward a multi-polar Middle East where the US has no omnipotent power. Thus, if the US is ready to recognize Russia as an equal player in the Middle East, Moscow would most likely be willing to negotiate a new deal for the Middle East, which could be detrimental to Iranian interests.

Given the growing US pressure the strategic goal of Iran is the survival regime. Iranian society is in the midst of growing resentment against authorities due to several reasons - the key to which is economic decline. Since late 2017, Iranian authorities have been facing almost non-stop protest movements, which are being oppressed by the use of force. However, this creates a vicious circle - protests - tough response - more protests with no visible solutions ahead. In this context, Iran views its partnership with Russia as one of the tools to balance the US. Tehran sex to use Russian might to reduce US influenza in Syria. Iran views Russia also as a source of relatively modern weapons that may increase the cost to the US if Washington decides to launch a direct military invasion for the regime change.

Thus, interestingly, both Moscow and Tehran view their partnership as one of the tools to achieve their respectable goals in the region. Tehran, meanwhile, is fully aware of the US-Russia deal Moscow most likely is ready to sacrifice Iran's strategic interests while the Kremlin understands that Russia is viewed in Tehran mainly as a tool to counter American influenza.

In this strategic context, recent US - Iran escalation and de-escalation should be perceived positively in Moscow. The current situation makes any future Iran - US negotiations less likely. Most likely Tehran will continue to fight American influenza in Iraq and the Iraqi parliament's non-binding decision requiring withdrawal of US forces from the country is the victory for Tehran. Growing American problems in Iraq will make Russia stronger in the region, and Americans will have fewer resources to concentrate on Syria and other places. Meanwhile, Russia is not interested in a direct military clash between the US and Iran as most likely it will result in chaos in Iran which will destabilize the South Caucasus, Afghanistan and Central Asia creating numerous problems for Russia. The US - Iran war will put Russia in a difficult situation. If Moscow remains neutral it will ruin Russia's position as one of the key players in the region. Meanwhile, support for Iran will destroy any chance for Russia - the US great bargain, which is the only path for Russia to internationally acclaim its great power status.

Moscow will make every effort to keep US - Iran relations strained meanwhile seeking to avoid full blown war. Thus, the Iranian decision to inform the Iraqi government regarding the January 8 missile strike against US bases should be welcomed in Moscow. It elevates Iran - US contradictions at the unprecedented level, meanwhile providing the US a reasonable argument not to strike back.

Meanwhile, the surprise visit to Syria of the Russian President Vladimir Putin on January 7 may be interpreted as the Russian move to solidify its position as a number one player on the Syrian chess board. Russia has a history of using its involvement in Syria as an opportunity to serve as a mediator between different powers involved in the Syrian conundrum including Iran and Israel. Currently Moscow may be the only working channel for Iranians to reach out to Israel and Moscow is ready to meet this goal and get additional leverage over Tehran. Meanwhile, given growing domestic unrest and economic problems in Iran as well as growing problems with the US, Iran may be forced to reduce its involvement in Syria. The Russian President's visit to Syria was a clear message that Moscow is ready to take more responsibilities. Given the tacit Russia - Iran competition in Syria regarding the level of influenza over the President Assad and the involvement in the reconstruction process, the side effect of the US - Iran tensions may be Russian efforts to get an upper hand in Syria.

The tragedy of Ukraine's international airlines plane shot down by the Iranian missile may well serve Russian interests in its tacit competition with Iran. Moscow will welcome growing international pressure on Tehran over the handling of tragedy and initial efforts to deny responsibility. Simultaneously, Moscow may use this tragedy to underscore its unique role and capacities to implicitly defend the Iranian government within an international audience, thus solidifying its leverages over Tehran.

Thus, the recent US - Iran escalation and both sides decision to avoid the full scale war will be good for Russia. Moscow may well use the current situation to obtain concessions from Iran to Syria and at the same time strengthen its role as a key Iranian partner to counter US pressure on Tehran.

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies