Viewpoints, September 2016
Ambassador Zvi Magen
There has been an increasing buzz recently surrounding Russian-Iranian cooperation, which has aroused some international perplexity.
On August 16, Russia deployed warplanes at an Iranian air base, Hamedan. The planes struck Syrian rebel and Islamic State (ISIS) targets for a few days. Until then, although Tehran had allowed the Russian Air Force (RAF) to overfly Iranian territory and send cruise missiles to strike at targets in Syria, it had not permitted Russian military forces to set foot on its soil.
The deployment of RAF heavy bombers in western Iran no doubt improved the force’s operational capability, but the major significance of the action was the demonstrative upgrading of Russian-Iranian ties. This followed a year of improved relations in the wake of the close cooperation between the two states in the Syrian war.
However, Tehran suddenly backtracked on the Russian deployment for reasons that remain unclear.
Tehran was apparently unhappy with the condescending manner in which the Kremlin publicized the RAF deployment in Iran. Subsequently there were reports that pressure had been brought to bear on both sides; on the one hand from the US, concerned by the increasingly cozy relationship between Moscow and Tehran, and on the other from Saudi Arabia, also perturbed by the close new ties and Iran’s muscle-flexing in the region. The are other possible reasons, among them a potential clash of interests on the question of Syria.
Historically, Moscow and Tehran had experienced generations of fraught relations, however following the Khomeini revolution they found a common language. The duo formed a joint coalition to prop up the crumbling regime of Bashar Assad. This partnership enabled them to further their joint strategic interests; battling the Islamic State, which posed a threat to Russia as well, and working toward creating a new order in the region amenable to both of them.
A Tupolev Tu-22M3 heavy bomber of the Russian Air Force. Credit: Alex Beltyukov / Wikimedia Commons.
However, the latter objective also leaves open possible areas of confrontation between them. In fact, each side sees the ultimate objective in a different light. Tehran aims at achieving an Iranian area of influence, while excluding other players [among them Russia].
Moscow on the other hand is active in Syria to promote its global objectives and aims at obtaining a regional foothold at the exclusion of the West. Ultimately, however, it is interested in reaching an understanding with the West. The excessive strengthening of Iran is not in the Russian interest, neither is Moscow totally convinced that Tehran is a reliable partner.
“There is an understanding between Russia and Israel, with allows the latter freedom of action against threats emanating from the Syrian arena”
As far as Israel is concerned, it should be remembered that Iran’s partner in Syria is Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, and one of their objectives is to provide a focus of tension and terror along the border with Israel.
On the other hand, there is an understanding between Russia and Israel, with allows the latter freedom of action against threats emanating from the Syrian arena. The difference between the Russian and Iranian attitudes to Israel could be a point of disagreement between the two.
It should be noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s representative recently met with the Iranian hierarchy to coordinate continued joint efforts and Putin himself is scheduled to travel to Tehran in November. Another significant Russian weapons deal is due to be signed following the strategic S-300 missiles that have already been deployed in Iran after years of delays.
Despite some real areas of discord between Russia and Iran, significant joint interests remain and it is probable that at least in the short term they will continue to cooperate in Syria and in the rest of the Middle East.
Zvi Magen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies affiliated to Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to Russia.