Syria, Russia and a ’centrifugal’ Iran

Tehran, Dec 3, IRNA – When it comes to security affairs, Russia has hardly ever trusted Iran. For Moscow, Iran has a fluid state. It is a country that can potentially tilt towards the West. This is not a recent conclusion, but a historically dominant belief among the Russian political elite, particularly among security and defense analysts.

What has wanted throughout the recent years is an Iran which regulates its regional policy in balance with both itself and Western powers. Arguably, Russia and the West are not currently engaged in a zero-sum game. Rather, the Great Game is what comes to mind looking at the current regional policies of Iran and Russia. The Great Game, the strategic rivalry of the late 19th century and early 20th century paved the way for Iran's occupation by foreign powers and shocked the then sovereign of the country, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who never thought the communist Soviets and the capitalist UK and US could form a strategic alliance that would result in invasion of Iran.
From the eyes of Russians, Iran is a provocateur state. Iran is 'centrifugal'. It does not play by the rules of international relations. With such a viewpoint, Moscow has frequently demonstrated its reluctance to approach Iran. During the eight-year war against Saddam Hussein, while Iranians received modern arms such as Phoenix and Tow missiles from the United States, they did not receive any military aid from the Russians. This is a clear historical example of how inflexible Moscow's attitude towards Tehran is.
Russia's collaboration with Iran at the present state of regional affairs is tactical and dictated by the circumstances: Tehran and Moscow are facing similar threats. However, this collaboration does not mean that Russians perceive Iran as the benevolent actor in the Middle East. Rather, they view Iran as an actor that is aiming to change the balance of power in the region and define a new role for itself.
For Russians, it is easy to reach agreement with the Americans, the British or the French over Middle Affairs. Either side follows a behavioral model that draws on a utilitarian attitude and is based on strategic rationality. Looking back at its behavior towards Iran's nuclear saga, whether it was the sanctions or the process of nuclear talks, one can't see a clear distinction between Moscow and Washington.
Moscow will follow a similar approach in the Middle East affairs, particularly the Syrian dossier. It would be a mistake to think that Russia has engaged in the Syrian complex only in the past two months. Indeed, they have been present and actively involved in security affairs of the country since three years ago. Syria's air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missiles are now under the control of the Russians who are worried that Iran's increasing influence in Syria could mean Israel's exposure to surface-to-surface missiles. That is indeed a nightmare for the US and Israel. The issue has definitely been on Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda during his recent visit to Moscow.
The Vienna I and II talks showed that Russia's policy is to reshuffle political actors in Syria. With Moscow's active engagement in Syrian affairs, change in the political structure of the country would happen easier and Iran would also show more flexibility. Russians have most probably established their own communication line with senior figures of Assad's army and perhaps the Free Syrian Army, and have come to a shared understanding of regional security affairs. Clearly, the next political regime in Syria will not be similar to the current regime.
By: Ebrahim Mottaghi
(This piece, originally published in Iranian Diplomacy Persian, was an abridged and modified translation of Ebrahim Mottaghi's speech in a panel on Russia's presence in Syria and its impliclations for Iran's national security. Mottaghi teaches political science in Tehran University).