Russia's Iran Policy and its Impact on Relations with Turkey
Russia faced a legitimacy problem vis-à-vis the global public opinion due to its blatant intervention in Syria on September 30, 2015, and decision to conduct aerial operations. Russia tried to link this matter to the invitation of Assad whom the former recognized as the sole dominant force in Syria to overcome this issue of legitimacy. Russia’s partisan operations along with its unchecked assaults on the rebels, supposedly backed by Turkey, have engendered the 24 November jet crisis. Assad, Iran, and Russia have benefited from the outcome of this crisis. For instance, Russia was able to transfer all advanced weapon technologies, especially the S-400s, to Syria following this crisis.
Russia, considering Assad’s army insufficient to tackle the ongoing tussle in Syria, has encouraged Hezbollah, and particularly the Revolutionary Guards who are commanding the mercenaries fetched by Iran from Pakistan and Afghanistan, to be more active in the field. The Iranian army and Russian air force have taken advantage of the election campaign in the USA and the gap in the European Union created by Brexit to achieve success in Syria.
Russia has historically prioritized its own security interests in its relations with Iran. For instance, Tsar Peter I’s Iran policy was based on reaching the shores of the Caspian Sea and preventing the Ottoman Empire from strengthening in the Caucasus. The contemporary developments in the Middle East have brought Iran-Russia relations to yet another interesting crossroad. It is not entirely correct to imagine Russian and Iranian relations as “strategic partnership”. Skeptical politics against Russia is widespread in Iran. Some main reasons behind this cynical approach are: Russia views Islamic movements emerging from Iran as threats, and Iran sees Russia as a threat to its status with regard to the Caspian Sea. Likewise, the nature of economic, political and military relations of Iran and Russia were determined by the Russian position on the Iranian nuclear program in recent years.
Russia perceives nuclear-capable Iran as a threat because a potentially nuclear-capable Iran may affect Russia's position in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Caspian Sea basin. However, Russia is keeping Iran close through a controlled partnership to prevent a nuclear-capable Iran who is also on good terms with the USA to become a regional rival. As a matter of fact, Russia has benefited over the years by portraying Iran's nuclear developments as a threat to the West. Moreover, the Iranian nuclear program is a valuable source of income for Russia. Likewise, Russia uses Iran's nuclear ambitions as leverage in its relations with the US.
Article 94 of the Russian Foreign Policy Doctrine signed by Putin on November 30, 2016, states about Iran that, “Russia will sustain the omnidirectional progression of its relations with Iran, abiding by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 on Iran's nuclear program, and acting in accordance with the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
The US and the EU states, as well as Israel, are now dependent on Russia to communicate with Iran. Besides this Russia is a signatory of all embargoes imposed on Iran. Russia has garnered significant economic wealth due to its relations with Iran because the latter is the third biggest customer of Russian weapons after China and India. Russia has captured this market in the framework of the “25-year modernization of the army” program announced by Iran at the beginning of the 2000s.
Russia has become more influential in the Middle East using Iran whose relations with the West are far from being good. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards aim to assume an active role in Central Asia under the Russian auspicious through enhancing Iranian ties with Russia. Russia has not only achieved economic benefits due to these demands and intentions but also has tried to establish a military base in Iran. Despite Article 146 of the Iranian Constitution prohibits the establishment and deployment of foreign military bases within Iranian borders – even for peaceful purposes, Russian fighter jets used the Hamadan Airbase on August 8, 2016.
Although a very strategic alliance between Iran and Russia is being observed and debated in international public opinion, there is hardly any serious and concrete agreement ratified with regard to the economic relations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, military alliance, and other similar areas. The international public opinion has failed to discern the fragile alliance of Russia and Iran on Syria axis when analyzed in the wider framework of Russia’s Syrian policy. Russia has actually made its intentions clear by not responding positively to Iranian membership of the Eurasian Economic Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. While Russia regards Iran as a respectable ally and believes in sustaining alliance with Iran, it is also cognizant of the futility of partnership with Iran under one roof. China is already weighing Iranian membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization negatively. On the other hand, Russia sees Iran as a partner in a multipolar world. Strategic interests in the region are coinciding for the time being.
Russia is using the Kurdish leverage in both Turkey and Iran as one the most important enabling factors in the process of being active in the Middle East. The role of Russia in the establishment of the Republic of Mahabat along the Kurdish nationalist axis in Northwestern Iran in 1945-1946; the refuge of Kurdish leader Molla Mustafa Barzani in Russia for 12 years; Russian weapons assistance to Simko - the leader of the Kurdish tribal rebellion in Iran during the First World War, and various similar events have strengthened the theory that Russia can use the Iranian Kurds as a trump card in Iran-Russia relations. The normalization of Russia-Turkey relations has rekindled the fear of Kurdish uprisings in Iran. Russia continues to maintain links with both Kurdish opposition groups and PKK / PYD and use Kurdish leverage as a balancing element in the Russia-Turkey-Iran triangle.
Russia aims to gain easy concessions by playing the role of a spectator as the global community isolates Iran. The US has provided Iran an open ground in both Iraq and other regions to free Iran of Russian influence, and has allowed the embargoes to be partially lifted as a result of the Nuclear Agreement. However, this policy of the United States has led to a completely adverse situation due to Russia’s clever maneuvers in Syria. While the US is trying to distance Iran from Russia by giving concessions, Russia has made Iran a partner in its operation in Syria.
Iran thought Putin, alarmed by the threat of Pan-Turkism during the crisis period with Turkey, would allow Iran-oriented Shi’ism to spread along the Russian border. Russia planned to prevent Turkey from enhancing its clout in the Caucasus by opening spaces for Iran especially in the North Caucasus. However, the normalization of ties between Russia and Turkey has mitigated Russian concerns about Turkey and has put the Iranian Shi’ism based policy towards the Russian territory under the spotlight as a threat for Russia. Russia has used Iran as a threat against the US/ Turkish and Saudi policies in both Syria and Yemen. However, the normalization with Turkey, Trump's ascent to power in the US, and reconciliation with Saudi Arabia will instigate the policy of handing over Iran to the US once again.
Russia has strongly supported the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iran to fulfill its regional interests. Among the Russian expectations from Iran hitherto is the probable cooperation on natural gas exports in the future. Iran is second to Russia in terms of natural gas reserves in the world. Russia does not want Iran's natural gas potential to fall in the hands of Western companies. Russia's policy to control the passages of pipelines in Syria with Iranian support has been successful against the US efforts to thwart Russia from using the international gas pipelines.
Russia's foreign policy is based on the strategy of constructing a safety line in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Caspian Sea. The most robust ring of this strategy is Turkey because Turkey being a NATO member is the easiest country to cooperate with for the West. Cooperation with Turkey invalidates the need to use Iran as a security wall from the Russian perspective. Russia has put Iran on the back burner by converting the normalization with Turkey into gains in Syria. In fact, Russia has put Turkey and Iran against each other through the ceasefire deal in Syria. Russia-Turkey closure in Syria has engendered debates on the loss of Iranian influence in the region. Belated notification about the developments of Iran following the agreement due to the close relations between Putin-Erdoğan has been criticized. According to Russian experts, Turkey, due to its influence on the rebels, is the only indispensable state to realize peace in Syria. Likewise, the agreement between Turkey and Russia will facilitate the establishment of positive relationships between the US and the aforementioned countries in the Trump era. Russia is willing to leave Iran to Trump's initiative after reaching a compromise with Turkey.
Russia is cognizant of the fragility of the Turkey-Iran discord in the context of the agreement reached by these three countries. The Iranian side is trying to persuade Russia about the intractability of peace between the Iran-Russia-Assad alliance and the Turkey-FSA-Western alliance. Despite these concerns, Trump's triumph in the US election came as a relief for Russia/Turkey, and created new fears for Iran. Iran had invested heavily in Clinton’s election. The currently active ceasefire between Russia and Turkey in Syria is thought to be oriented around the Erdoğan-Trump-Putin axis instead of Iran-Russia-Turkey. From Trump’s perspective, China in the Asia-Pacific is a priority instead of the Middle East. Accordingly, Russia, who does not regard Iran as a strategic ally, is expected to be in close cooperation with the United States through Turkey during the Trump era.
Russia is not completely ignoring Iran considering the usefulness of Iran's effective land forces. The Russia-Turkey-Iran deal is being portrayed by the Trump team as Obama's failure as part of the new policy aimed at spinning this so-called failure into success through bringing Trump close to the Putin-Erdoğan duo. The plan for pressurizing Iran using the advantages of normalization between Israel and Turkey will also be substantialized. Russia will extort new concession by isolating Iran once again by getting as close to Turkey as possible. The initial indicators of this situation are the establishment of a Russian base in Iran, and the abandonment of Iranian plans to build naval and land bases in Syria. Russia wants to continue using its influence on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as leverage in relations with Turkey, Israel, and the United States.
The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM's editorial policy.