In an exclusive interview with Russia’s international broadcaster RT on May 31, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad tried to downplay Iran’s controversial military presence in Syria. “We don’t have Iranian troops [there]. We never had…we have Iranian officers who work with the Syrian army for assistance, but they don’t have troops [on the ground],” he said.
The remarks appeared to be a response to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who had stressed twice during the preceding week that “all non-Syrian forces” must withdraw from Syria’s southern border with Israel.
Lavrov’s demand came shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasised during a May 17 meeting with al-Assad in the Black Sea resort of Sochi that all “foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic”. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Iranian and Hezbollah fighters have already started preparations to leave the Deraa and Quneitra regions in southern Syria.
While Russia has consistently backed the Iran nuclear deal along with its European signatories, the mounting international pressure on Tehran over its regional activities has created a realpolitik opportunity for Moscow to warm up to Tel Aviv and ultimately win Washington.
The key question is, to what extent will Putin be willing to sacrifice Iran for this purpose?
Moscow and Tehran developed close relations since the multilateral nuclear deal was concluded between the Islamic Republic and world powers in July 2015.
Both sides have supported the Assad regime in the course of Syria’s seven-year civil war and sought, along with Turkey, to find a political solution to the conflict independent of the “Geneva process” supported by the West.
In an effort to consolidate bilateral ties and coordinate a unified policy on Syria and Yemen, Putin flew to Tehran in early November 2017 and met Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.
A few months later, on February 26, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution pressuring Iran over its violation of a UN arms embargo on Yemen and provision of weapons to the Houthi rebels there. And, most recently, Russian energy minister Alexander Novak announced in April that Moscow was considering the use of national currencies in trade with Iran, instead of the US dollar or the euro.
Persuaded by these and similar developments, many politicians and pundits alike have gone as far as to claim that Iran and Russia have moved beyond a tactical convergence of interests and entered a new phase of “strategic partnership” and “evolving alliance”.
If history is any guide, however, such over-optimistic perceptions of Russian-Iranian “alliance” are wishful thinking.
Russia as a self-perceived superpower views itself on a par with the United States, not the Islamic Republic, and is basically indignant at the West’s persistent refusal to treat it as such. Along these lines, the Kremlin has historically used Tehran as a counterweight or source of leverage to balance its relations with Western powers, particularly Washington.
Today is no exception and Iran is likely to fall victim to the Russian desire for big power recognition and respect as soon as a strategic opportunity presents itself to Moscow.
On January 8, 1995, Russia’s state contractor Atomstroyexport signed a contract with Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to construct a 1000-megawatt light-water reactor at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, scheduled to be operational in 2001.
Yet, Moscow dragged its feet on this to accommodate US demands for increasing pressure on Tehran, as Anton Khlopkov, a member of the advisory board for the Russian Security Council confirms. The commissioning started only a decade later, in September 2011, and the Iranians only managed to take operational control of the Bushehr power plant in September 2013. The costly delay also enabled Russia’s nuclear industry to stay afloat at a time of scarce funding, and Iran had to foot the bill.
A similar politically motivated delay at Iran’s expense took place with respect to the delivery of Russian S-300 air defence missile systems.
Tehran signed an 800-million-dollar contract with Moscow in 2007 for the purchase of the advanced surface-to-air missiles to protect its nuclear sites against the growing threat of Israeli and American air strikes.
While Iran had already been slapped with three rounds of punitive United Nations Security Council resolutions (1696, 1737 and 1747) at the time of signature, the Kremlin flagged up international sanctions to justify postponing the delivery, once again using Tehran as a bargaining chip to secure its strategic interests with Washington. Moreover, UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme did not include the sales or transfer of conventional defensive weapons at the time.
The air defence systems were ultimately dispatched to Iran in 2016, almost a decade after the purchase had originally been made.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, while Moscow was acting as Tehran’s main purveyor of nuclear and conventional equipment during those years, it did not hesitate to vote in favour of all six resolutions passed at the UN Security Council against Iran, from UNSCR 1696 in July 2006 to UNSCR 1929 in June 2010.
A similar pattern of behaviour seems to be emerging again today, as Russia is joining other Western powers to ratchet up pressure on the Islamic Republic over its activities in the Middle East. Simultaneously, it has thrown its weight behind the nuclear deal, which the Trump administration recently abandoned, to maintain leverage with both Tehran and Washington.
The recent history clearly demonstrates that Russian-Iranian ties have been a dependent variable of Russian-American relations, and like it did in the past, the Kremlin will take advantage of Iran to further its bargaining position vis-a-vis the US. And to this end, Israel’s vast influence and lobbying power in Washington can serve as a useful catalyst.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.