Speculation about tensions in Russian-Iranian relations after the collapse of the nuclear deal earlier this year has been circulating for a few months now. Tehran appears to be fearing a “betrayal”, as Moscow is trying to negotiate with the United States on a variety of issues, including recently imposed economic sanctions.
In an August 22 press conference during a visit to Israel, US National Security Adviser John Bolton appeared to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin approves of the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria.
“President Putin… had said it to me three weeks before. …What he was saying was that Iranian interests in Syria were not coterminous with Russian interests in Syria and he would be content to see Iranian forces all sent back to Iran… we were talking about the complete return of both regular and irregular Iranian forces,” Bolton said.
The following day, Bolton met his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Security Council, and it turned out that after all there wasn’t such solid mutual understanding on the issue.
Following the five-hour meeting, Bolton told journalists that the issue, which had been previously discussed in Helsinki by Putin and US President Donald Trump, was brought up again but no major progress had been made. According to him, Patrushev offered the “geographic restriction of Iranian forces” in exchange for the suspension of oil sanctions on Iran; the offer was rejected outright by the Americans.
The two officials failed to sign a joint statement after the Russian delegation refused to include an admission that Russia had meddled in US elections – something Bolton had insisted on. In these and past discussions, Washington acted as if it had leverage over Moscow because it believes “the Russians are stuck [in Syria] at the moment”. The Russian leadership, on the other hand, refuses to be pressured and insists on negotiating on an equal footing with the US.
Apart from that, there are a number of other reasons why Moscow continues to reject the offers the US has made on Syria.
As Russian senator Alexei Pushkov noted after the talks in Geneva, “the US administration is trying to get from Russia such a shift in positions that would mean a full turn on Syria.” And Washington, as it asks Russia to abandon its situational ally, Iran, refuses to clarify what it would give Moscow in return.
US assurances that concessions Russia makes on its position on Iran would lead to the easing of sanctions sound unconvincing to Moscow. The Kremlin is well aware that the lifting of sanctions is the prerogative of the US Congress and not the president. This means the signing of an agreement with Trump on Syria would not guarantee any progress on sanctions.
Moreover, the Russian leadership is not ready to burn all bridges with Iran. In addition to the Syrian crisis, Moscow and Tehran collaborate on a wide variety of issues – from energy to security in the Caspian region and the situation in Afghanistan. And it is not only Iran who wants these collaborations to continue but also Russia.
Finally, Russia still does not trust the US – and for good reason.
The Russian leadership has repeatedly used Iran as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the US.
In June 1995, US Vice President Al Gore signed a secret agreement with then Russian Prime Minister Viktor S Chernomyrdin, calling for an end to all Russian sales of conventional weapons to Iran by the end of 1999. This agreement cost Russia $4bn.
In 2009, the administrations of Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama agreed on a “reset” in Russian-US relations, which required Russia to scale down its partnership with Iran. A year later, Russia stopped supplying Iran with S-300 missiles systems in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution 1929. The resolution had banned countries from supplying heavy weapons to the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme.
However, in both cases, despite Russia holding up its side of the bargain, there was never a real “reset” or warming in relations between Moscow and Washington. Russia did not gain anything from using Iran as a bargaining chip. On the contrary, it suffered economic losses from interrupted contracts and risked losing the trust of its Iranian allies.
There are also some reasons preventing Russia from accepting US demands on Syria that are not entirely in Moscow’s control. The Russian leadership is likely not lying when it calls an Iranian withdrawal from Syria “unrealistic”. Russia remains a key actor in the Syrian conflict, but its influence over its “allies” is not unlimited.
After pro-Iran forces pulled out of Syria’s border region with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights earlier this month, Washington and Tel Aviv started to believe that Russia could facilitate Iran’s complete withdrawal from Syria. Russia, however, cannot meet such a high expectation for three reasons.
First, the withdrawal of pro-Iran forces from Syria’s southern border is not so much the result of Moscow’s pressure on Tehran, as it is a consequence of the Iranian leadership’s belief that it is in their own interest to do so.
The Kremlin managed to convince the Iranian establishment that the voluntary withdrawal of their militias from the border zone would not only minimise the risk of clashes with Israel, but also allow the Syrian government to retain influence over southern Syria. But it would be difficult for Russia to argue that the complete withdrawal of regular and irregular Iranian troops from Syria would help Tehran or the Assad regime.
Second, the complete removal of pro-Iran forces from Syria is not attainable under current circumstances. The nature of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) project in Syria is not one of dominating and taking over the system, but rather integrating so as to become an indivisible part of it. Throughout the seven-year civil war in Syria, the Iranians have so strongly integrated into the structure of the country’s armed forces that their elimination would entail the dismantling of the whole system.
Third, on August 27, Iran and Syria signed a military cooperation deal, making the likelihood of Iran’s complete withdrawal from Syria even more impossible.
In light of all this, Washington can hardly count on Russia to force Iran out of Syria any time soon.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.