Gifts and Praise Can't Obscure Limits to Iran-Russia Relations

  • History of distrust also weighs on ties Putin wants to deepen
  • Iran needs Western cash and technology to rebuild economy

With their militaries fighting side by side in Syria, the leaders of Iran and Russia gathered in Tehran to lavish praise on each other and unwrap gifts.

Vladimir Putin came bearing a $5 billion loan and a replica of an ancient handwritten Koran. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, spoke approvingly of Russia’s military intervention and darkly of a U.S. plot to dominate “the whole region,” starting with Syria.

Khamenei receives a replica of an ancient handwritten Koran from Putin.
Khamenei receives a replica of an ancient handwritten Koran from Putin.
Source: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

Both want to build on ties that strengthened as Russia backed Iran during two years of tough nuclear negotiations with world powers, as a counter to Western influence in the Islamic Republic as sanctions are lifted. Yet Russia’s economic plight and Iran’s strategic ambitions in the Middle East impose limits on the relationship.

After the Arab Spring, Russia found itself with only two allies in the region that it could rely on -- Syria and Iran, according to Nikolay Kozhanov, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Losing influence in the Middle East is a great concern for Russia, especially if Iran shifts toward the West.”

That’s something that also concerns Khamenei, said Reza Haghighatnejad, an Iranian analyst based in Istanbul.

The 76-year-old ayatollah, who along with a powerful conservative faction in parliament opposes a broader rapprochement with the U.S., is seeking “to use a strategic friendship with Russia to disrupt” President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to reach out to the West following the nuclear deal, he said.

Pariah Status

Having delivered on his 2013 election pledge to end Iran’s pariah status, Rouhani, who played a minor role during Putin’s trip to Tehran, needs technology and cash to rebuild an economy sapped of oil revenue and investment. Neither is likely to be found in Russia, with its economy in recession and prices plunging for its main export, oil.

Nor can Iran depend on Moscow to uphold its interests elsewhere in the Middle East, said Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who specializes in Moscow’s relations in the region. “Russia is friendly with Israel and has made it clear it wants to be friends” with Sunni Gulf states who oppose Shiite power Iran, he said.

And in Syria, agendas may be diverging. Putin and Khamenei put forward a united front on ways to end a conflict that’s killed a quarter of a million Syrians, spurred the rise of Islamic State and fueled Europe’s refugee crisis. But on the biggest obstacle to a peace deal -- the future of President Bashar al-Assad -- statements signal growing differences.

After talks on Syria’s future in Paris in November, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was up to the Syrian people to “decide Assad’s fate,” adding that he wasn’t saying “that Assad has to go or that Assad has to stay.”

Syria’s opposition, as well as leading supporters including the U.S. and Turkey, insist Assad must go for Syria to have a chance of peace. Several countries have, though, signaled he could stay for a transitional period that they haven’t put a time period on.

Putin reassured Khamenei that “Russia doesn’t stab its allies in the back.” That hasn’t stopped speculation that he envisages a future Moscow-backed administration in Syria free of Assad and his inner circle.

Interests

Such talk is sure to upset those in Iran who remain wedded to the Syrian leader as guarantor of the nation’s interests.

“Our northern friend that has now come to Syria’s aid offering military help is pursuing its own interests,” General Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, said last month. Russia “may not share our interest in keeping Assad in power,” he said. The commander of the Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, was in Moscow last week for talks with Putin on a handful of Mideast conflicts, Iran’s Fars news agency reported.

After attending a session in October, Iranian officials will again be present when leading diplomats assemble in New York on Friday to continue talks on military strategy in Syria and how to pursue efforts for a cease-fire and negotiated power-sharing administration.

Assad is an Alawite, a sect that split off from Shiite Islam, and is a key ally in Iran’s tussle for supremacy with Middle East rival Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich kingdom that’s attempting to rally Sunni nations into a more coherent bloc.

Iran’s ruling clerics finance and arm the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement in its fight with Israel through Damascus, according to U.S. Congressional reports. Several Iranian commanders and scores of Hezbollah fighters have reportedly been killed fighting alongside Assad’s forces.

Syria’s war encapsulates the uses and limits of Iran’s ties with Russia, said Afshon Ostovar, a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia.

“Tehran is most concerned that Russia could overtake Iran as the dominant outside political influence in Damascus,” he said. “But there is enough overlap of Iranian and Russian interests that Tehran probably isn’t worried about being sold out at the negotiation table. At least not yet.”

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