New Iran-Russia Relationship Places Limits on Iran's Power in the Middle East
ACIS Iran Pulse Number 100 | October 31, 2019
With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, the divergence of Iran and Russia's strategic interests is coming more sharply into focus. While each seeks a post-American strategic order in the Middle East, their respective visions of that order are quite at odds, imposing new limits on Russia’s support for Iran's activities in the region.
Russia aspires to be the manager of a new Middle Eastern security architecture that will ensure a Russia-friendly Middle Eastern strategic order. While a preview of this role has been on display in Russia’s attempt to balance Israeli security concerns against Iranian tactical interests in Syria, the cornerstone of Moscow’s ambition lies in the Persian Gulf. Russia has articulated a “security concept” for the Persian Gulf that envisions a multi-lateral collective security mechanism that brings together Iran and its Arab Gulf rivals, along with other regional and international stakeholders. Moscow’s effort to rehabilitate the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among Arab leaders has been motivated by Russia's grand vision and has come at the expense of Iran’s regional strategic objectives.
Iran’s strategic imperative to carve out a sphere of influence in the Middle East fundamentally challenges the basic configuration of the region’s security architecture and therefore runs counter to Russia's multilateralist approach. Using Hezbollah in Lebanon and parallel paramilitary militias in Iraq and Syria that are all loyal to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran is making a bid for regional hegemony by extending IRGC hard power to the borders of both Saudi Arabia and Israel. With significantly inferior air compared to either Israel or Saudi Arabia, Iran seeks to create strategic depth by bringing the conflict to its enemies' borders. However, Tehran's advanced positions have alarmed Moscow as the geopolitical fall-out undermines Russia's ambition to function as the region's main powerbroker. Accordingly, Russia has sought to downplay its relationship with Iran, as the remarks earlier this year by Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov made clear when he repudiated the idea of an alliance existing between Iran and Russia in Syria.
Although Iran is engaged in a competition with Russia to secure economic benefits from participating in Syria's post-war reconstruction, the IRGC-backed militias in Syria have become the main liability for Russia-Iran relations. In Russia's post-conflict vision, Syria is a unitary state under the domination of the Syrian Arab Army, a force with whom the Russian army enjoyed an extremely close relationship in the days of the Soviet Union. Moscow cannot tolerate the consolidation of power by paramilitary forces in Syria that take their orders directly from IRGC. The tactical cooperation that previously existed during the Syrian civil war between Russia and the IRGC and its proxy militias has become a thing of the past.
Russia's new military cooperation with Turkey in northern Syria is the latest example of how Russia's larger Middle East outreach limits the growth of Iranian influence. After Turkey's Operation 'Spring of Peace' incursion into northeastern Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded an agreement with Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdoğan to conduct joint patrols in areas of northern Syria near the Turkish border. Iran opposes the Turkish presence in northern Syria and unequivocally rejected the establishment of Turkish military posts in the area. While Iran benefits from the Russian containment of Turkish forces in the Turkish-Syrian border region, Moscow's deal with Ankara augments Russia’s position in Syria and pushes Tehran’s influence to the margins.
The Putin-Erdoğan accord in northern Syria reflects a larger change in Iran-Russia relations. Russia's ambition to be the arbitrator of a new Middle East security architecture, as envisioned in its security concept for the Persian Gulf, requires a balance of power between Iran and its regional rivals. Therefore, the advance of Iran's bid for regional hegemony will be halted as Russia reaches out to Iran's Arab rivals. The U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria accelerated this process.
On the day of the United States' precipitous northern Syria withdrawal, Putin arrived triumphantly in Saudi Arabia and was accorded a Czar's welcome. The timing may be coincidental, but the optics of the juxtaposition signal something much larger. Riyadh and Moscow's shift away from their traditional antagonism and toward a systematic deepening of bilateral cooperation clears the way for the incorporation of the entire Middle East into a new framework envisioned by Russia’s security concept. No longer hampered by the region's main geopolitical fault-line formed by the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia seeks to manage the divide.
Iran remains critical partner for Moscow to advance its strategic objectives in Eurasia, as reflected in Russia's push for Iran to be admitted as a full member in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Iran's strategic position at the heart of Eurasia's southern rim makes it the natural geographic pivot for Russian efforts to develop more a Russia-oriented Eurasian commercial connectivity, as Russia both cooperates and competes with China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
With Iran's newly constructed deep-sea port at Chabahar and rail links extending into Central Asia, Iran is poised to become the hub of the International North-South Transit Corridor, an Indian Ocean-to-Europe commercial route that would provide an alternative to Beijing's BRI architecture. Russia and India have engaged Iran as partners in the INSTC project. For its part, Moscow has recently secured Iran's membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) that also includes Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus. Like Iran's EaEU membership, the INSTC contributes to Moscow's strategic imperative to preserve its influence over the South Caucasus and Caspian Sea basin through cooperation with Iran.
At the same time, Iran's highly troubled relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors form a liability for the Moscow’s wider strategic agenda in that region. While Moscow provides critical support to Tehran, Moscow's larger interests in the Middle East also define the limits of that support as Moscow works to expand its influence across the region. Despite Russia’s support for Iran's full SCO membership, Russia aspires to maintains carefully balanced strategic position when it comes to the Middle East that enables Moscow to continue to deepen its relationships with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, Iran's principal Arab rivals.
Beyond Moscow and Tehran’s diverging interests in Syria, Russia also cannot comfortably tolerate Iran’s proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen as it endangers the maritime security domain in the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea corridor, vital to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Saudi Arabia with a base in Djibouti and the UAE with a base on Eritrea's Red Sea Coast maintain a deep and active partnership with Egypt in the protection of Red Sea. Russia, which signed a 2018 comprehensive strategic partnership treaty with Egypt, arguably enjoys an even closer relation with the Sisi government, engaging in a deep military partnership with Egypt in addition to significant economic investments.
Moscow has likewise been strengthening its economic ties with Riyadh and cultivating a strategic relationship with the UAE. The expanding scope of Russia's relationships with the Arab Gulf powers were put on grand display during Putin's mid-October visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In his first visit to Riyadh in twelve years, Russia's president signed a $2.5 billion package of agreements that included landmark investments in the kingdom's petroleum industry and far-sighted cooperation in strategic sectors such as space and artificial intelligence. Putin's next day visit to Abu Dhabi was a celebration of the already close strategic cooperation between Russia and the UAE that ranges from support for General Haftar's forces in Libya to putting an Emirati astronaut into space. Heralding the "quantum leap" Emirati-Russian strategic relations, UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed referred to Moscow as his "second home."
These visits occurred exactly one month after the September 14, 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil processing plant that has been widely attributed to Iran. Putin's visits reinforced Russia’s message that Moscow seeks to act as the conciliator in the Middle East that can bridge the region's geopolitical divides to mutual benefit.
In the wake of the Abqaiq attack, Iranian-Russian relations have reached an inflection point. Iran has announced that it will be conducting naval exercises with Russia as well as China. Neither Moscow nor Beijing will sacrifice their relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Moscow will likely present the trilateral naval cooperation involving Iran as part of a new framework for the protection of maritime commerce inspired by its security concept and invite the Arab Gulf powers to join. Absent the United States, the current Saudi and Emirati security guarantor, and its European allies providing an alternative by establishing a Persian Gulf maritime commerce protection force, the Arab Gulf states and Egypt could turn even more towards Russia for solutions.
Iran's relationship with Russia in the Middle East is no longer the partnership it appeared to be at the start of Russia's Syrian intervention. Russia's widening relations in the Middle East will further undermine Iran's efforts to develop client states in the Arab world. While Iran and Russia will continue to cooperate as partners in the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea basin, Iran's relationship with Russia in the Middle East will be of a different order. Far from enabling Iran to become a hegemonic power in the Middle East, Russia seeks to bridge the divide between Iran and its Arab rivals through partnering with both sides in a Russian-managed Middle East security architecture. Having entered a new phase, the Iran-Russia relationship will place new limits on Iran's power in the Middle East.
Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a senior associate fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES), a fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University, Israel, and non-resident fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM). @michaeltanchum
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ACIS Iran Pulse No. 100 ● October 31, 2019
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