Get Ready, America: Russia and Iran are Getting Closer
The recent Russian and Iranian escalation in Syria took many observers by surprise. Their coordinated campaign supporting President Bashar al Assad could represent a fundamental shift in Middle East geopolitics, or simply their exploitation of a tactical opportunity. As dramatic as the Russian intervention on behalf of Iran’s closest ally is, it must be viewed in the context of a potentially larger shift in Tehran’s strategy towards Moscow.
As we have discussed previously, the Iranian-Russian alignment in Syria is not a seamless convergence of goals, yet Iranian officials have taken pains to portray themselves as equal and willing partners. Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani emphasized that Russia had “consulted” with Iran prior to beginning air strikes, later praising Moscow’s “realistic vision” on Syria. On October 27, following repeated indications Iran was willing to intensify its military contribution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced an increase in the number of Iranian advisors deployed to Syria. Tehran will hope that Iranian trained ground forces—in combination with Russian air power—will be able to reverse recent opposition gains.
The rise in Iran-Russia defense cooperation goes beyond operations in Syria, however. Iran’s Artesh Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari’s July announcement of a draft of the long delayed Caspian Sea Treaty, along with an Iranian naval flotilla visit to Astrakhan, Russia on October 21 are part of a longer and broader trajectory of increasing defense ties. (Astrakhan is the headquarters for Russia’s Caspian Flotilla, which fired cruise missiles into Syria on October 7.) This coordination extends to domestic security issues, too. The Deputy Commander of the Tehran Law Enforcement Forces (a public security force sanctioned by the United States for human rights abuses during the regime’s June 2009 crackdown on protesters) visited Moscow this summer, and several defense and security deals have been concluded in recent months. In August, two Russia companies signed an MOU to establish a satellite observation system for Iran, and Russian firms are interested in importing Iranian drone technology (technology reportedly in use against opposition forces in Syria).
Beyond defense relations, the past decade of sanctions have many in Tehran looking to avoid the recurrence of economic isolation should the nuclear deal collapse. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif argues strong economic linkages with Iran’s neighbors can prevent the re-emergence of a cohesive international coalition capable of isolating Iran’s economy from the global marketplace. Zarif clearly articulated this position is a speech on October 20:
“If we want to ensure that no country is able to strike our country with sanctions again, we must…bring about conditions of such a type that the world economy is so entangled with our economy that other countries do not have the power to sanction us.”