Russia Benefits from Iran Crisis

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Russia benefits from Iran crisis

Telepolis – Christian Wipperfürth 

https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Russland-profitiert-von-Irankrise-4430184.html?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with Vladimir Putin in February in Moscow. Picture: Kremlin/CC BY-SA-4.0

American pressure on Tehran benefits the Kremlin. A war is very unlikely. Moscow is courted from all sides

Russia is the only country with sustainable to excellent relations with all actors in the Near and Middle East. Presidents, sheikhs and ministers in Moscow are almost ready to take over the reins. Washington, on the other hand, is internationally isolated with its Iran policy and has manoeuvred itself into a dead end. If a country could be able to mediate in crises, it would be Russia. It enjoys respect, despite all differences of interest [1], is regarded as predictable, capable of action and fundamentally willing to cooperate, whether in Israel, Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Moscow is sometimes referred to in Western media as Tehran’s “ally”. This is incorrect. The two countries maintain close contacts, but it is doubtful whether they can even be regarded as “friends”. They show little consideration for each other in the event of differences and sometimes fence out harsh conflicts. They do not resent this. This is how Realpolitik works.

To what extent does Russia benefit from US pressure on Tehran? In order to explain this further, we must first shed some light on the manifold Russian-Iranian relations. Let us first turn to those areas where their interests largely coincide.

Moscow and Tehran see the terror in the Caucasus, the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia [2]) or the situation in Afghanistan as similar. These are all very important issues for Russia.

In Russia’s view Iran has also played a constructive role in Central Asia for almost 30 years. Let’s take a brief example: shortly after the end of the Soviet Union a civil war broke out in the now independent Tajikistan. Moscow was occupied with its own problems, but finally decided to force the parties to the conflict to negotiate a compromise under the threat of violence at the negotiating table. Incidentally, it was one of the few cases of a successful peacebuilding mission in the world, but one that is hardly noticed in the West. Iran’s support played a central and perhaps indispensable role in the successful mediation process. The Kremlin is still aware of this.

According to various estimates, the Tajik civil war cost between two and ten percent of the population their lives. Converted to Germany this would be 1.6 to eight million deaths …


Russia and Iran are partners in important issues, but have very different ideas about the future of Syria.

Russian Syria Policy

The differences of opinion may surprise, because both Moscow and Tehran wanted to prevent a “regime change” in Damascus. Partly because they feared that they themselves would become the target of such a plan, and partly because they wanted to put the West in its place. In addition, they both intended to expand their influence, which brings us to the differences.

Russia’s stance has remained unchanged since 2011: It is in favour of an internal Syrian and international negotiated solution and a compromise, taking into account, of course, its own interests. These are as follows:

  • The great powers should refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other states. Except perhaps in their own sphere of interest?
  • If intervention should be necessary in individual cases, the UN Security Council (in which Russia has a right of veto) would have to decide on this and not a president in Washington.
  • Moscow is in favour of a negotiated solution so that other states can save face and not hold a grudge against Russia. Saudi Arabia or Turkey, for example, are just as important partners for the Kremlin as Iran.
  • Moscow also flirted with a naval base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast.

On the one hand, the Kremlin holds its protective hand over the Syrian leadership and, for example, prevented an overthrow sanctioned by the UN Security Council as in Libya in 2011. Russia, however, continues to show unequivocal reservations about the Syrian leadership and sees President Assad as partly responsible for the escalation of the bloodshed.

The agile French diplomat Talleyrand once commented on a blood crime ordered by Napoleon: “It was worse than a crime, it was a stupidity. This corresponds to the Kremlin’s view. He considers Assad ultimately incompetent. For this reason, too, Moscow was prepared at the beginning of the civil war to urge Assad to resign for a compromise and negotiated solution. It failed [3] because of Western disinterest. What would Talleyrand have meant?

When the Islamist-dominated opposition was about to win in autumn 2015 Russia decided to take direct military action. Even after that President Putin was unwilling for almost two years to even talk to President Assad on the phone, let alone receive him. Moscow responded to Western accusations of supporting a dictator with the appropriate reply that Assad had for many years communicated primarily with the Elysee Palace in Paris and not with the Kremlin.

When the Russian President finally visited Syria in December 2017, Assad was prevented from walking alongside Putin by physical intervention by a Russian officer. The Syrian president was forced to stay behind his guest from Moscow. He first turned to Russian soldiers and left his host standing. There should not be too many examples of such humiliation of a head of state on the soil of his own country.

Why did the Kremlin decide to break the diplomatic protocol so drastically? It was an outburst of helpless anger, not pride:

The Syrian leadership was on the defensive for about four years until autumn 2015. It therefore expressed its fundamental willingness to find a negotiated solution, in which an advancing opposition and many of its foreign supporters had little interest. Moreover, it is very questionable whether Assad’s concession was really meant seriously or not tactically.

The Russian intervention put Damascus on the offensive from the end of 2015, so that now parts of the opposition showed willingness to compromise, apart from the extremist Islamists. Now the Syrian leadership played for time and victory.

President Putin then announced a partial withdrawal of Russian troops in order to exert pressure on Assad for a negotiated solution. As a result, Assad made only tactical concessions, not substantial ones. Russia withdrew its military presence in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartu and Putin repeated his announcement. Ultimately unsuccessfully, Assad set on time and victory. This would not have been possible without the backing of Tehran.

Moscow is not in a position to withdraw its troops, although the war has been won, foreign deployments are unpopular and the real incomes of the Russian population are currently ten percent lower than in 2014. Russian soldiers must remain present in order to maintain the prospects of a negotiated solution. Otherwise the victims would have been in vain.

Iranian interests in Syria

According to Iranian imagination, the religious minority of the Alawites should continue to occupy the control points of power in Syria. On the one hand the Alawites belong to the Shiite direction of Islam, on the other hand they meet with reluctance from millions of the predominantly Sunni Syrians. Syria under Alawite leadership would thus be ideologically based on Tehran and would also be dependent on it in terms of power politics, because its internal support would be based on weak legs.

Tehran therefore does not want a negotiated and compromise solution, because it would lead to an end of the military presence and thus of Iranian influence. This is one of the reasons why Iran wants Syria to be controlled so that it can put pressure on neighbouring Israel. Tehran wants to distinguish itself in the Islamic world as a pioneer for the liberation of holy places and thus gain prestige.

Russia, on the other hand, does not want Israel’s security to be endangered. Bilateral relations have never been as close and good as they are now. Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, travels to Russia more often than to the USA. Israel is as important a partner as Iran. Increasing Russian-Iranian controversies

The Syrian conflict has many facets: it is a civil war, a proxy war between Washington and Moscow and, for example, a struggle between regional powers for influence (Turkey and Saudi Arabia). And Moscow and Tehran have been struggling with each other for about a year and a half.

At the end of 2017, the Kremlin proposed a draft of a new Syrian constitution. He stressed the secular character of Syria and guaranteed minority rights. Tehran had other priorities, and so the Syrian leadership was able to reject the Russian discussion proposal. Moscow has a long memory of such humiliations.

Russia stepped up its efforts to train followers in Syria and began training and arming the “Fifth Corps” of Syrian Armed Forces. Iran tied the “Fourth Division” of the Syrian army to itself. It is led by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. In 2018, there were repeated reports that pro-Russian and pro-Iranian units were in conflict in Syria, even using weapons in some cases. On January 19, 2019, the clashes escalated into battles in which up to 200 soldiers are said to have died. The Russian opposition newspaper “Novaya Gazeta” claims that even Russian and Iranian soldiers were involved in the fighting. Reports in another Russian newspaper, Kommersant, point in a similar direction.

Pressure from the US is increasing Moscow’s importance for Iran. Russia’s seat on the Security Council and its global political ambitions have made it an indispensable protective power. This also increases the chances that Russian ideas will prevail in Syria. Tehran must accommodate Moscow. The US sanctions could also result in advantageous conditions for Russian companies doing business with Iran. The Kremlin also has these aspects in mind.

Increasing Russian-Iranian controversies

The Syrian conflict has many facets: it is a civil war, a proxy war between Washington and Moscow and, for example, a struggle between regional powers for influence (Turkey and Saudi Arabia). And Moscow and Tehran have been struggling with each other for about a year and a half.

At the end of 2017, the Kremlin proposed a draft of a new Syrian constitution. He stressed the secular character of Syria and guaranteed minority rights. Tehran had other priorities, and so the Syrian leadership was able to reject the Russian discussion proposal. Moscow has a long memory of such humiliations.

Russia stepped up its efforts to train followers in Syria and began training and arming the “Fifth Corps” of Syrian Armed Forces. Iran tied the “Fourth Division” of the Syrian army to itself. It is led by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. In 2018, there were repeated reports that pro-Russian and pro-Iranian units were in conflict in Syria, even using weapons in some cases. On January 19, 2019, the clashes escalated into battles in which up to 200 soldiers are said to have died. The Russian opposition newspaper “Novaya Gazeta” claims that even Russian and Iranian soldiers were involved in the fighting. Reports in another Russian newspaper, Kommersant, point in a similar direction.

Pressure from the US is increasing Moscow’s importance for Iran. Russia’s seat on the Security Council and its global political ambitions have made it an indispensable protective power. This also increases the chances that Russian ideas will prevail in Syria. Tehran must accommodate Moscow. The US sanctions could also result in advantageous conditions for Russian companies doing business with Iran. The Kremlin also has these aspects in mind. The European countries and the Iran crisis

Germany, France and Great Britain have also negotiated and signed the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. China, Russia and the USA were the other partners. Sanctions were lifted and the Iranian economy grew by about 17% in 2016 and 2017. In 2018 Washington withdrew from the agreement, which was criticized by all other signatories, and imposed sanctions, which were significantly tightened this May. The International Atomic Energy Agency has found no violations of the agreement by Iran. Washington, however, accuses Tehran of undermining security in the region and of continuing to seek the construction of nuclear weapons.

The European countries made quarter-hearted and ineffective attempts to limit the effects of the US sanctions, which were contrary to international law. And it will remain that way.

In 2003 there was a danger that American forces would advance into Iran after their invasion of Iraq. The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Great Britain then travelled together – against the will of the USA – to Iran to defuse the crisis. Their visit was the prelude to negotiations culminating in the nuclear agreement. A similar initiative would also be possible and necessary now, but it is not to be expected [4].

The U.S. has been playing high poker, but a bad hand.

The US president threatened Iran with “annihilation” via “Twitter”. On May 20, he relativized his statement with the words: “Iran would make a big mistake if they did anything” without elaborating on his words. The USA aims at two things:

1.According to forecasts, Iran’s economic output will shrink by a total of about ten percent in 2018 and 2019. Russia and China will find sufficient means to prevent Iran from collapsing. They will not allow Iran to be sanctioned to death. Talks on this seem to be underway. Moscow and Beijing continue to fear that they themselves could become the target of a Western “regime orchestra”. They are determined and strong enough together to prevent a US success in Iran. The pressure on the Iranian economy also increases the chances for Russian companies to make good deals. Because many people no longer have to worry about American punitive measures because they are already sanctioned.

2.The USA wants to force Iran to submit to foreign policy. American pressure on Iran is accommodating Russia’s interests. A surrender is not to be expected. Tehran even rejects talks with Washington outright and demands a return to the nuclear agreement from the USA, i.e. adherence to the treaty.

The invasion of Iraq cost American taxpayers a total of up to 3,000 billion US dollars. The USA is internationally isolated and the Iranian armed forces are far stronger than the Iraqi ones. Selective air strikes remain possible, but what would happen to the thousands of US soldiers in Iraq and Syria in this case? They would be at the mercy of the far stronger pro-Iranian forces there.

The USA played high poker, but it was a bad hand. Russia has become indispensable for America in order to get out of the situation with a tidy face.

The Iranian and Chinese foreign ministers met in Moscow on 8 and 13 May respectively. Shortly afterwards, President Putin inspected novel nuclear missiles, just before the visit of the American Secretary of State Pompeo on the 14th of the month. This was no coincidence: when US Secretary of State Powell travelled to Moscow in May 2003, Russian forces simultaneously simulated attacks on US targets in the Indian Ocean. Russia tends to show demonstratively strength to emphasize its own importance and determination.

The USA is coming towards Russia. Since December 2018, the Deputy Foreign Ministers have been discussing the fight against terrorism again after a long interruption. Pompeo declared his willingness to reopen further communication channels. There are encouraging signs of Russian-American cooperation in Afghanistan. This time, however, unlike 2001, under more Russian leadership.

The US needs Russia to find ways out of self-inflicted impasses. On 15 May, President Putin called on Iran not to abandon the nuclear agreement. But at the same time he declared: “Russia cannot save everything that does not depend solely on us.

But couldn’t the Russian Foreign Minister invite his colleagues from China, Germany, France and Great Britain to travel together to Tehran? Such an initiative would once again underline the inability of the European powers to act. After all, it would be interesting to find out what excuses Foreign Minister Maas, for example, could come up with. But the European countries have demonstrated time and time again that efforts are hardly worthwhile. That is why Moscow has given Pompeo suggestions on areas in which Russia can envisage cooperation. Russia will charge a price for this.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Nice article with pleasant but casuistic harmony: the theme of “sunni v. shia” is once again proffered removing all credibility of the writer. This perspective focuses on the irrationality of the Iranians, wherein the truth is different. The world is about money, territory and control. Religion, or any other moral obfuscations to this truth is a sideshow – sort of like saying that the Civil War (in the US) had something to do with freeing slaves – it didn’t. The other hallmark of falsehood here is the continued references to “extremists Islamists” = it is to be remembered that those would not exist except by virtue of intelligence agencies that fabricated them. Try again.

  2. Ironic, that Putin’s and thereby Russia’s close ties to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey undermine Russia’s pretense of being a moral arbiter for everything going on in the ME. On the other hand, Iran has been steadfast and principled in its support for Syria; and in its unwillingness to cave to Israeli demands (supported by Putin) to leave Syria and thereby prolong Syria’s painful war against the terrorists.

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