Joint military operations in Syria have brought Russia and Iran closer together than at any point since World War II, according to new research from ECFR. The West must plan for the likely trend that the two countries will be a force shaping the Middle East region for some time to come.
The new power couple: Russia and Iran in the Middle East argues that over the past year Moscow and Tehran have formed an effective military coalition in Syria in support of the Assad regime. This has strengthened Assad’s position, contributed to greater violence, resulted in more refugees flowing into European countries and further marginalized Europe on the diplomatic track. Iran’s decision in August to allow Russian troops to use its Shahid Nojeh Air Base for launching airstrikes on Syria underscored their firm commitment to preserving their respective strategic interests through intensified military efforts.
These deepening ties between Russia and Iran have been primarily driven by an overlapping outlook on global order, opposition towards Western policies in the Middle East and a need to preserve strategic depth in the region.
For Moscow, Tehran today represents a useful ally in a highly unstable region and an important ground partner in pushing back against US regional ambitions. The Kremlin’s policy on Iran underwent a shift in 2012 after Russia redefined its relations with the West. Moscow, disappointed by the failure of its attempted reset with the US, and by Western policies in the Mena region and post-Soviet space, turned to new partners. Iran subsequently became an important means to strengthen Russia’s positions in the Middle East and vis-à-vis the West.
For Iran, Russia represents a critical means of shoring up its regional security interests and boosting its defence architecture at a time of unprecedented threat. However, there is ongoing debate within the Iranian leadership on how best to achieve the country’s strategic security and economic objectives by hedging bets between Russia and the West.
In Syria the two countries have forged a convenient hard power partnership behind the pursuit of the regional and global interests. Despite some divisions over their respective positions, this conflict looks set to be the crucible of Moscow-Tehran cooperation for some time to come given its centrality to their respective global and regional ambitions. While there may also be openings for enhanced military coordination elsewhere, such as in countering the Islamic State in Iraq, the broader relationship is nonetheless marked by distinct interests and geopolitical restrictions that will ultimately limit their coupling.
Going forward, Europe should acknowledge that when it comes to regional security and Western led sanctions policies, the Tehran-Moscow axis are likely to align much more closely than the West does with either. Instead of pursuing policies that aim to wedge divisions between Iran and Russia, Europe should now look to engage them both, first and foremost in de-escalating violence in Syria. The recent détente with Iran gives Europe an advantage over both the US and Russia to incentivize a more constructive stance from Tehran. Europe has limited leverage, but it should use it well, with an aim of paving the way for a positive transition in the future.