November 11, 2015 | Internationale Politik

Tehran-Moscow Axis: Tactical or Strategic?

Co-authored by Flemming Splidsboel Hansen

Ali Larijani wore black as a sign of mourning the Ashoura days of Shiite passion, as he addressed the participants at the October 2015 Valdai International Discussion Club plenary session the main topic of which was “war and peace”. However, the mere fact that the Iranian parliamentary speaker was invited to share a panel with Russian president Vladimir Putin surely must have cheered up the mood in Tehran. So must Putin’s statements, which depicted the Islamic Republic as an indispensable partner in the search for a solution to the war in Syria and in the fight against Islamic State. But is this Tehran-Moscow axis a tactical marriage of convenience, or does it instead herald the emergence of a strategic alliance?

On the surface, the two states have several converging policy objectives, which bring them closer to each other: The immediate objective of preventing the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’th regime in Damascus, the defeat and annihilation of what remains of United States backed opposition groups in Syria, as well as the total humiliation of the United States and its allies in an attempt to roll back the post-Cold War American world order.

To this end, Moscow and Tehran have seemingly devised a division of labor and a burden sharing arrangement, which may potentially help them achieve these shared objectives:

Since September 30, 2015, Russia has been conducting air operations in Syria, both to destroy opposition forces and to provide air support to the Syrian army, and it has intensified its arms deliveries to Damascus. The Islamic Republic on the other hand, is providing the boots on the ground, supplementing what remains of the Syrian army with Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and even distant Pakistan.

This arrangement minimizes the risk of Russian and Iranian losses. This is essential for especially Russia, which still struggles with the painful “Afghanistan syndrome” and which suffered a devastating blow on October 31st when an Islamic State affiliate succeeded in bringing a bomb onto a Russian airliner departing from the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 224 holidaymakers and crew members. But the Iranian authorities are also keen to avoid casualties which may influence public opinion and so are only happy to leave the path of martyrdom and heavenly rewards to the more willing, and more politically expendable, Shiite militias and irregular forces.

The list of converging policy objectives may come to a sudden end, however, as the two sides get to discuss in greater details the relative degree of order and stability in the Ba’thist Syria which they are aiming to secure. 

Iran may be hoping to see the perpetuation of a low intensity conflict in Syria, where it may conveniently use the threat of the Islamic State as a bogyman in its relations with the United States and the Europeans and therefore also as a way to legitimize its continued military presence. Russia on the other hand, is more likely to favor a future Syrian regime which is weak enough to be dependent on Moscow for continued support but also strong enough to be able to effectively exercise its power throughout the entire territory of its state. An estimated 7,000 Russian citizens have reportedly joined the ranks of the Islamic State, from where they may turn their gaze on the volatile regions of the Northern Caucasus or Central Asia. Putin should therefore be expected to aim for nothing less than the total elimination of all pockets of Islamic State resistance in Syria. If not the aim before, the successful downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai desert on 31 October 2015 clearly will have made it more difficult to accept, however tacitly, any Islamic State presence anywhere.

This difference in perspective most likely also translates into different views on the possible duration of the two states’ respective engagement in Syria. If, as we argued, Tehran may actually welcome a continued low-intensity conflict, it will worry less about when the conflict ends and how it may eventually exit in a coherent way which will allow it to claim success. Moscow, on the other hand, is restricted much more by time and the Russian public is unlikely to accept a military involvement which is counted in years and billions of Dollars. Moreover, the apparent lack of an exit strategy notwithstanding, the Kremlin surely must be thinking long and hard about how to leave Syria gracefully in case the United States and its allies refuse to accept Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria. Russia will only be able to provide military life support to Assad as long as the Russian public patience lasts, but it will find it difficult to leave him alone to be toppled by Islamic State or one of the numerous opposition groups hoping for his imminent downfall.

A related point of contention is that of the fate of Bashar al-Assad himself. While Moscow may be ready to replace Bashar al-Assad with another leader to save the regime subservient to Moscow, Tehran and in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) considers preservation of Bashar al-Assad as the only guarantee for regime survival in Syria.

Even more critically, however, the Russian-Iranian relationship is still complicated by a fundamental mutual distrust between the two parties.

By asserting itself in the Syrian theatre of war Russia demonstrates to the Iranians its superior military capabilities, insists that to sidestep it would be a bad decision and tries to keep Iran within is sphere of influence. However, .Russia  may also sell out Iranian interests in Syria, if it manages to extract concessions from the United States on issues related – or even unrelated – to Syria. Such course of Russian action would be consistent with previous Russian policy of using the Islamic Republic as a bargaining chip in its dealings with the United States. Putin’s claim at the Valdai Club that Moscow had been “deceived by the United States,” with regard to Iran’s nuclear program was a crude attempt at covering his government’s support to imposition of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran, while simultaneously extracting money and political concessions from Tehran in return for not allowing even harsher resolutions against Iran.

The political leadership of the Islamic Republic political leadership on its side is only too aware of Putin’s cynical scheme. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and removal of the international sanctions regime have made Tehran less dependent on Russia, and seem to provide Tehran with greater maneuverability between Washington and Moscow. Iran’s use of the United States air support in the Spring 2015 seizure of the Iraqi city of Tikrit, and Moscow’s fear of more instances of military cooperation between Iran and the United States may have been one of the motives behind Russia’s military engagement in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad too has an interest in gaining greater independence. By using the Russian benefactor, the Assad regime hopes to reduce its total dependence on the benevolence of Tehran, which may cause some tension between Tehran and Moscow, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Putin both competing for the position of master of Damascus and the architect of the future order of Syria.

The official speeches in both Tehran and Moscow may celebrate the close ties between the two states and their joint efforts to save the “legitimate” ruler of Syria and to restore what they see as a lost international order, but behind the curtain problems abound and the tactical cooperation which we witness now will grow into a strategic axis with great difficulties only.

Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Flemming Splidsboel Hansen is Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies in Copenhagen