Tehran may have presented Moscow with a proposal it couldn’t refuse to ignore: military involvement in Syria in exchange for a geopolitical partnership after the lifting of sanctions.
Commander of Iran's Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, prays in a religious ceremony at a mosque in the residence of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran. Photo: AP
Russia's military campaign in Syria that followed came as a surprise to most analysts since it marks a new milestone in the country’s geopolitical ambitions. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow decided to get openly involved militarily outside of its so-called Near Abroad.
It appears, however, that Russian air strikes have been planned quite a while, for at least three months ever since Qassem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most powerful generals who heads the Quds Force and is accountable directly to Ayatollah Khamenei, was reported to have come to Moscow in late July. According to media reports, Soleimani’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first step that led to the large Russian military presence in Syria.
Yet, the Iranian general’s visit to Moscow may reveal that Putin did not in fact want to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria; instead, he was probably “cornered”into sending troops there. Soleimani’s visit to Moscow was highly controversial, given that he is under an international travel ban. In addition, there are a number of Iranian officials whose visit would have been more logical since they have stronger ties with Moscow.
Treated with distrust internationally, Russia knowingly violated UN sanctions by going at such lengths to organize this controversial visit. It is likely that Tehran insisted that Soleimani, and none other, meet Putin personally and discuss Russian participation in the Syria campaign. Yet, what forced the Russian president to accept these risky terms from Iran?
According to the Syrian Ambassador to Russia, Riyadh Haddad, Moscow’s involvement in Syria has been in the works since spring, which is the time when the Iran talks were in their concluding stage. Soleimani came to Moscow on July 24, ten days after the announcement of the Iranian nuclear agreement. Russian officials, who publicly lauded the agreement and the lifting of international sanctions against Tehran, were very much skeptical about the prospects of the deal for Moscow itself.
There was a prevailing position in Russia that once the sanctions against Tehran were lifted, the country would choose to get closer to the West, essentially abandoning its long-time partner Russia. In the months leading to the signing of the Iran deal, there had been rumors of Moscow and Tehran discussing an informal agreement that would provide guarantees to the Russians that there would not be any dramatic change in Iranian foreign policy that could hurt Moscow’s interests.
Russia and Iran share a complicated history full of conflicts that are rooted in both countries’ambitions of being a regional power. Many in Moscow believe that, once the two powers are not tied together by a common opponent, Iran will inevitably start leaning to the West, potentially teaming up with the United States against Russia. The calculation in Moscow is that, if this in fact takes place, Russia may start losing its clout in the Middle East as well as globally.
Russia has clearly a lot to lose if Iran regains its political and economic role in Eurasia once there are no restricting measures in place. The Russian-Iranian marriage of convenience is likely to end once the two will start competing over European and Asian energy markets. Iran is ready to pour millions of additional barrels of oil into the market, likely exerting even greater downward pressure on the price of oil.
Russian companies that have signed numerous agreements with Iranian firms from aviation to agriculture over the past year are likely to be pushed aside by European and American companies with more sophisticated technology.
At the numerous meetings between Russian and Iranian officials, including on the sidelines of nuclear talks, earlier this year Tehran was clearly negotiating from the position of strength. Iranians likely realized the fear of losing a geopolitical partner that was creeping over Russian officials and made use of it.
According to some sources in Russia, Soleimani’s visit to Moscow was the last one in a series of meetings where Tehran proposed a deal that Moscow could not risk rejecting. The Iranian leadership might have asked Moscow to join the campaign in Syria in exchange for the continuity of the Russia-Iran alliance in the event that sanctions are lifted.
Since it was Putin who needed guarantees from Iran at a dire time for the Russian economy, he simply couldn’t say no to this proposal. While officials present Russia’s air campaign in Syria as a careful calculation, it could be just a trade-off, which is necessary to secure the country’s political and economic interests in the Middle East.
Tehran’s influence over Moscow on the issue of whether to participate in the Syria campaign also explains why Iran was so quick to grant flyover rights to Russian Syria-bound cargo planes when European countries closed its air space for them.
The question remains, however, why it took Russia over two months to launch its air campaign in Syria. The answer likely has to do with the domestic political dynamic in the United States. Russia was keeping its presence in Syria low key while the Iran nuclear deal was under fire from the Republicans in the U.S. Senate.
Yet it was not until U.S. President Barack Obama wrapped up a veto-sustaining minority in the Senate that would allow him to go ahead with the nuclear agreement in early September that Iran “authorized”Russia to launch a full-scale deployment of forces to Syria.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.