Moscow views cooperation with Tehran as an important condition for ensuring Russia’s national interests and strengthening stability in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. The Russian-Iranian political dialogue in 2018 reflected the two countries’ shared view on some regional and global policy issues, above all the establishment of a multi-polar world order, strengthening the United Nations’ role in international affairs, and countering new challenges and threats on Syrian and Iraqi settlement, as well as the situation in Afghanistan.
Russia has maintained constant high-level contacts with the Iranian government. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani have met 14 times since the latter’s election in 2013, and have on many occasions resolved important issues. The Russian and Iranian foreign ministers have met regularly in Moscow and Tehran, during UN General Assembly sessions, and on the sidelines of other international events, and have also communicated by phone.
Moscow proceeds from the assumption that cooperation with Iran is important for ensuring its national interests, and strengthening stability in the region and elsewhere in the world. That is why throughout the past year Russia has actively defended the Iran nuclear deal, which the US withdrawal threatens to unravel. There is a shared view in both Moscow and Tehran that the breakup of the nuclear deal risks destabilization of the region and the whole world.
President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran set forth a new, “offensive” phase in Tehran’s foreign policy. On the one hand, this reflected the growing role of hardliners among those responsible for making military and political decisions in Tehran. On the other, the US policy has resulted in the moderates in Iran, including in the presidential administration and the government, hardening the country’s foreign policy. As a result, Iran has ramped up the number of short- and medium-range missile tests, conducting seven test launches of medium-range missiles, five short-range missile launches, as well as a cruise-missile launch. This was a significant jump from just four medium-range and a single short-range missile test carried out in 2017.
Moscow and Tehran have agreed to simplify customs procedures, remove barriers complicating the free flow of goods and services, and improve communications in the banking sector. Not all of the problems in relations between Russia and Iran have been resolved as of yet, but the two countries are moving toward a strategic relationship. Many problems still persist in trade and economic relations, with a trade turnover of just US$2 billion between two major powers looking practically negligible. The most notable agreement is the decision to complete the 7,200-kilometer North-South Transport Corridor to ensure faster and cheaper shipment of goods from China and India to Europe.
According to a memorandum of understanding on an “oil for goods” program signed in 2014, Russia planned to buy 5 million tons of Iranian oil each year (about 100,000 barrels a day) and supply it to other countries. In return, Russia would provide $45 billion worth of goods to the Islamic Republic. Tehran, for its part, committed to spend half of the revenue from oil sales on Russian goods and services, such as aircraft, airfield and railway equipment, trucks and buses, pipes and construction services in Iran.
In keeping with the program, in November 2017, Russia started importing limited amounts of Iranian oil. Tehran, which was then emerging from sanctions, had no interest in selling more. With a new round of sanctions back in place, Iran may now have greater interest in implementing the terms of the 2014 plan.
In March 2018, the Russian and Iranian Agriculture Ministries reached a preliminary agreement for the supply of Russian wheat to the Iranian market. Military-technical cooperation is another promising area of mutually beneficial partnership between the two countries. A Russian military delegation visited Tehran in late December 2018 to discuss pertinent contracts in this area.
Furthermore, Russia and Iran are implementing a number of large-scale energy projects, including the construction of the Sirik thermal power station and the electrification of the Garmsar-Inche Burun Railway.
Iranian pragmatism in Syria
Iran understands that both Russia and Turkey are fair-weather partners in Syria. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has repeatedly said they don’t always see eye to eye on the future of Syria. Considering the strong opposition by conservative Iranian forces including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to any change in policy relative to the Syrian crisis, President Rouhani will not only make his voice heard but will also make visible the orientation of Iran’s policy in Syria. Iran’s military presence in Syria alongside the Russian military involvement was justified as a joint Iran-Russia war on terrorism. At the same time, Iran intensified its diplomatic endeavors to end the crisis in Syria.
The military retreat of the opposition rebel groups, especially ISIS, at the hand of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its backers including Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on the ground during 2015-2017, and the agreement by Russia, Turkey and Iran on December 28, 2016, to begin the Astana peace talks in Kazakhstan, brought new hopes for a solution to the six-year crisis in Syria.
The recent and immediate impact of Trump’s categorical pullout from Syria will likely fill the strategic gap for regional countries to get involved. There have recently been efforts by Arab countries to readmit Assad into their orbit of influence. Tehran therefore faces a choice: to complement Arab states’ efforts by seeking multilateral cooperation or to invest directly in Syria. Either way, such moves from the Iranian side for the reconstruction of the Syrian economy would buy influence through aid and investment.
Syria is an essential part of Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Tehran initially welcomed the Arab Spring revolutions and regarded them as a new opportunity for Arab countries. But later on, it quickly denounced the Syrian spring when the popular protests hit the Damascus regime. Iran never hesitated to support the Assad regime by all political, military, and economic means available. Iran considers Assad a key ally despite his secular ideology, for his regime centers on his Alawite community, which practices a version of Islam akin to Shiism. President Assad has been Iran’s closest Arab ally, hence cooperation from Syria is key to Iran’s arming and protection of Hezbollah in the region. As a matter of fact, Iran apparently fears that ISIS and other Sunni Islamic extremists will come to power if Assad falls.
Iran publicly insists that Assad’s fate should be determined by the Syrian people, but its actions appear designed to keep him in power indefinitely. Iran also seeks to ensure that Sunni extremist groups cannot easily attack Hezbollah in Lebanon from across the Syrian border. Both Iran and Syria have historically used Hezbollah as leverage against Israel to try to achieve regional and territorial aims.
US officials and reports assert that Iran is providing substantial amounts of material support to the Syrian regime, including funds, weapons, and IRGC-Quds Force advisers, and recruitment of Hezbollah and other non-Syrian Shiite militia fighters. Iran is estimated to have deployed about 1,300-1,800 IRGC-QF and IRGC ground forces, and even some regular army special forces personnel to Syria, although exact numbers might fluctuate somewhat. More than 1,000 Iranian military personnel have died in Syria, including several high-level IRGC-QF commanders. The deployment of regular army forces in Syria is significant because Iran’s regular military has historically not deployed beyond its own borders.
Tehran is publicly committed to finding ways to lessen tensions with its cash-rich Gulf Arab rivals. Iranian-Gulf Arab détente was certainly not President Trump’s intention when he pulled US troops out of Syria. The Iranians do not have the financial capacity to do much in terms of reconstruction in Syria. The Russians and the Turks too have very limited capacity to inject reconstruction funds into Syria. But keeping in view the US military withdrawal creating a power vacuum that will lead to more competition for territorial control and bloodshed is only one side of the coin. Russia and Turkey aside, at least Iran and its Gulf Arab rivals look at this moment as an opportunity to reconstruct Syria as a functional state.
In order to make peace flourish, the three self-appointed guarantors of the Syrian peace process, namely Russia, Turkey and Iran, have engaged through joint efforts by the UN to change the composition of a committee to write a new constitution for the country. The 150-strong committee’s work could pave the way for UN-supervised elections and a possible peace process that would encourage millions of refugees to return to their homeland.
The agreement on the committee’s formation was formally reached by the three countries in Geneva and the proposals passed to the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, for his endorsement and consideration by the UN Security Council. The Geneva agreement was signed by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, and Iran’s Javad Zarif, underlining how the West has lost control of the Syrian crisis to the trio of countries in the so-called Astana Group.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that Iran along with Russia and Turkey is one of the most influential external actor in Syria. It will remain so as long as the war drags on, and it will play an important role in an eventual peace process even in postwar Syria. Iran’s massive investments in Syria have brought important returns, but have also been excessively costly. Its commitment to guarantee the survival of the Assad regime has gradually escalated to a point where Iran’s withdrawal at any point in the next years would create unprecedented challenges for not only Syria but the region at large.