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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Globalization

Russia and Iran: the best of friends, the worst of friends

Since 2011, conflict and political upheavals have rocked the Middle East, challenging traditional alliances and the balance of power in the region. New relationships have developed – most noticeably cooperation between Russia and Iran, particularly in Syria.

To look further into this new landscape, JMEPP spoke with Mark N. Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University, about the Russian-Iranian relationship.

Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy: Can you please speak a little about Russian-Iranian strategy in Syria?

Mark Katz: Russia and Iran both want to keep the Assad regime in power as well as limit, if not defeat, its internal opponents. Both want to prevent the Assad regime from being replaced by one that is pro-Western or Sunni jihadist. Both also want to prevent the breakup of Syria.  Beyond this, however, Moscow’s and Tehran’s goals differ somewhat.  Iran backs the Assad regime partly so that Syria will remain a platform from which Tehran can support the anti-Israeli Lebanese Shia movement, Hezbollah.  Under Putin, though, Moscow has developed rather good relations with Israel, and does not want Iran or Hezbollah to take actions which seriously harm it.  Similarly, Iran supports the Alawite Assad regime as part of its larger campaign to support Shias (or Alawites) against Saudi-backed Sunnis. Russia, though, does not want to be labeled as just an ally of the Shia, and would like to have good relations with Sunni Arab states (including Saudi Arabia)

JMEPP: Do you think Iran and Russia are reshaping alliances in the Middle East and the region’s socio-political and security landscapes?

MK: To the extent that alliances are being reshaped in the Middle East, it is not clear that this is Moscow’s and/or Tehran’s doing as much as it is the actions of other governments that are dissatisfied with America and Europe. While the Erdogan government in Turkey remains unhappy about Russian and Iranian support for the Assad regime, Erdogan’s deteriorating relations with the West has raised questions about Turkey’s continued adhesion to NATO as well as how willing it is to cooperate with Russia. Israel seems willing to tolerate the Russian military presence in Syria as it is better than their absence in terms of limiting what Iran and Hezbollah can do there, but Israel’s alliance with the United States obviously remains.

Saudi Arabia and certain other Gulf Arab states allied to the US are frustrated that the Obama administration has not done more to support the Sunni Arab opposition inside Syria. Their increased willingness to work with Moscow, though, is not the result of a desire to ally with it rather than to somehow coax Moscow to move away from supporting Iran there by holding out the prospect of more profitable relations with the GCC (a strategy, by the way, which has not worked out). The al-Sisi government in Egypt does accept the Russian logic that the Assad regime is less worse than its most likely alternative (a jihadist regime), but despite Cairo’s improved relations with Russia, it does not seem willing to see it replace America as its primary supporter. Indeed, the al-Sisi government seems to anticipate improved ties to Washington in a Trump Administration, which it sees as less likely to object to its human rights record than the Obama Administration has done. Russia, then, is definitely more important a factor in the Middle East since its intervention in Syria, but while this has forced states there to deal with it, alliance patterns really have not change.

JMEPP: Would you describe Russian-Iranian relations as a strategic alliance, or more of a pragmatic cooperation between potential rivals?

MK: The Russian-Iranian relationship is more one of pragmatic cooperation than an actual strategic alliance. There have been many differences between the two countries in the past and more recently. Still, these differences have not prevented them from cooperating strongly in Syria. If, with their help, the Assad regime completely defeated its enemies in Syria, Moscow and Tehran are more likely to vie for influence in Damascus since their larger regional goals (especially regarding Israel and the Gulf Arabs) differ. But this test of their relationship does not appear likely to materialize in the immediate future.

JMEPP: What are some of the collective threads in Russian-Iranian relations?

MK: Much Iranian commentary about Russia is quite negative. Themes that Iranian discussions harp on about include past Russian encroachments and interventions in Iran; Russia having (or attempting to have) good relations with Iran’s regional adversaries (Saddam Hussein in the past; Israel and Saudi Arabia more recently); and the Iranian suspicion that Moscow is always willing to sacrifice Iranian interests if it can reach a deal to its liking with the United States. For their part, Russians are frustrated that given that Iran being at odds with America should give Tehran a strong incentive to rely on Russia, Iran is often highly critical of Russia as well as resistant to accepting Russian advice. Moscow understands that the deep hostility of the Iranian public toward Russia limits the extent to which the Iranian government is willing and able to cooperate with the Kremlin.

JMEPP: How would you describe Russian strategy in the Mediterranean, including its strategy towards Turkey?

MK: While Russia is pursuing a revisionist policy in Europe (by promoting secession and border changes in Georgia, Ukraine, and perhaps elsewhere), Moscow is pursuing a largely status quo policy in the Mediterranean. In Syria, Moscow has intervened to protect an existing regime. Indeed, it seeks to work with all the existing regimes in the region, and portrays America and the West as the powers foolishly supporting “democratic” change that has led to chaos wherever its interventions have been attempted (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya). While Russian-Turkish relations deteriorated sharply in the wake of Turkey shooting down a Russian aircraft in the vicinity of the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015, their ties improved in mid-2016, especially in the wake of Putin’s expressions of support for Erdogan during the failed coup attempt against him—which Erdogan and his supporters accused America and the West of supporting.  The possibility of exploiting Erdogan’s differences with the West is simply too good an opportunity for Putin to forego despite his anger with him over the November 2015 shoot-down incident.

JMEPP: How do you think the Gulf Arab states should approach the regime of Bashar al-Assad?

MK: Certain Gulf Arab states saw the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Syria as an opportunity to get rid of an Iranian ally in Syria and replace him with a regime more amenable toward them. Thanks to both Iranian and Russian intervention in Syria, this plan did not come to fruition, and does not seem likely to either. It does not seem sensible to repeatedly try to do something that is unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, given that the Gulf Arabs (for the most part) see Iran as an existential threat, it is understandable why they do not want to give up on the possibility of getting rid of Assad. Perhaps they should try an alternative strategy, such as attempting to broker a deal between the Sunni opposition on the one hand and those parts of the Alawite regime that are tired of Assad and his foreign supporters. Such an effort, though, would be very difficult to implement.

JMEPP: What strategy do you think the GCC countries should employ to prevent the spread of Russian and Iranian influence beyond Syria?

MK: The GCC countries are more worried about the spread of Iranian influence than Russian influence. It is not clear than Iranian influence can spread much beyond countries (or parts of them) where there are large Shia (or Alawite) populations. The Saudis in particular have attempted the very difficult task of attempting to reverse Iranian influence in these places (especially Syria and, they believe, Yemen). A more successful strategy might be one that seeks to contain Iranian influence in these places through supporting Sunnis in neighboring states. There have also been reports of cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia against the common Iranian foe.

Regarding Russia,  the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states have up until recently been trying to improve their relations with Moscow in order to move it away from Tehran, but this has not succeeded. It is not clear that Russian influence can actually spread all that much further than it has in the region, but if it threatens to do so, then one option for the GCC is to work with states that fear Russian expansion elsewhere (including in Europe).

The GCC’s strongest potential ally in countering both Russian and Iranian influence is the United States.  The incoming Trump Administration, though, seems determined to try to improve Russian-American ties—at least until this effort is seen to be unsuccessful in Washington. By contrast, the Trump Administration is more likely to pursue a more hawkish policy toward Iran beginning on Inauguration Day.  Whether this is actually a good idea or not, the Saudis will be quite pleased.

JMEPP: How do you think the Kurdish quest for autonomy in Iraq will shape the Middle East?

MK: Whether they formally declare independence or not, the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq is clearly a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East—as are the increasingly assertive Kurds in Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Many states, including America and Russia, have been willing to work with the Kurdish Regional Government, as well as with Syrian Kurds. Ankara and Tehran, and Damascus, though, are quite opposed to the rise of Kurdish nationalism inside their own borders as well as in Syria. Their efforts to suppress the Kurds, though, may not succeed, but turn into unending quagmires instead. A more sensible approach may be to offer economic and even security cooperation to the Kurdish Regional Government in exchange for its helping them to resolve their differences with their own Kurds. The KRG, though, may be neither willing nor able to contain the growth of Kurdish nationalism in neighboring states which its own existence has helped stimulate.

JMEPP: How do you think the United States can best confront and navigate the complex political environment in Syria and Iraq and weaken the forces of radical Islam?

MK: The United States wants neither Sunni jihadists nor pro-Iranian forces to predominate in Syria and Iraq. Progress is being made toward eliminating Sunni jihadists in Iraq, but they remain in Syria since the Russian and Iranian military presence there serves to encourage Arab Sunnis to join their ranks as well as to prevent Western forces from targeting them, something which both Russia and Iran seem reluctant to undertake themselves. It may be that the best option for the US is to promote the division of Iraq into Shia Arab, Kurdish, and Sunni Arab sectors, and Syria into Alawite, Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and perhaps Druze sectors. Turkey, of course, will oppose a Kurdish sector in Syria, but earlier Ankara opposed the creation of one in Iraq but later came to accept it. None of this will be easy, but supporting such an effort, which is already quite far advanced in Iraq, has the advantage of accommodating, as opposed to fruitlessly trying to prevent, internal trends taking place in both countries.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and a non-resident fellow at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.