Nov 15,2017 – JORDAN TIMES –
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Tehran was a show of solidarity with Iran at a time the country is facing pressure from Saudi Arabia and its allies, in the region, and from the US, on the international plane.
It is hardly surprising that Russia and Iran should make common cause; they have key shared interests.
First and foremost, both are encircled by US military bases, as well as gripped by US politico-economic constraints. Therefore, they need to both defend their domestic fronts and project power outside their frontiers to protect regional and international interests.
During Putin’s visit to Tehran, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told him that they should make an effort to stabilise Syria, “isolate” the US, and expand trade ties.
Moscow and Tehran have formed a strategic partnership in the struggle for Syria, with Russia providing the Syrian army with air cover and Iran deploying ground forces in battles against Daesh and other insurgent factions.
This effort has enabled the Syrian government to regain most of the territory lost to rebels and radical fundamentalists between 2012 and 2015.
The government now controls all Syria’s main cities and can claim to hold 65 per cent of its territory.
Russia and Iran have benefited in a number of ways by cooperating in the Syrian war. Russia has regained its position as the main ally of Syria, lost with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, while Iran retains Syria as a major ally in a region where Tehran is shunned by all Arab governments but that in Baghdad.
Moscow and Tehran have made clear their intention of backing Damascus until it recoups occupied Syrian territory: Idlib province in the northwest held by Al Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, Raqqa and areas in the northeast controlled by US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and enclaves along the border seized by Turkey.
There seems to be no urgency over tackling Jabhat. Instead, Iran has announced that its forces would join the Syrian army in an offensive against the SDF in Raqqa.
While Russia and Iran have collaborated with Turkey in establishing ceasefire, or de-escalation, zones in four areas, neither Moscow nor Tehran trusts Ankara and may have to exert pressure on Turkey to pull its troops back across the frontier.
Russia has been a main actor in the search for a political settlement for Syria and remains committed to retaining President Bashar Assad until the country is stabilised.
Although Iran has not played a role in this process, Tehran can be counted upon to support Russian efforts. Therefore, it behoves Russia and Iran to maintain their partnership as long as Syria faces military and political challenges.
Both have long-term interests in Syria. Russia has established permanent bases on the coast, a naval facility in Tartous and an airbase near Latakia. It also has a strong politico-military presence.
Iran has dispatched military advisers and recruits to fight alongside Syrian forces, but does not seem to expect permanent outposts in Syria and keeps a low profile.
Russia and Iran have offered to help Syria reconstruct war devastation and damage, and will gain the good will of government and citizens if they follow through.
In particular, Syria needs funds and materials to rebuild infrastructure — water, electricity and roads. Reconstruction aid will cement already strong ties with Syria.
Khamenei is eager to “isolate” the US because of President Donald Trump’s decision to try to undermine the 2015 deal providing for dismantling its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions reached between Iran and six world powers.
So far, Trump has “decertified” the deal, leaving Congress to decide whether to reimpose sanctions, a policy opposed by the five other signatories of the nuclear deal (UK, France, China, Germany and Russia).
Russia opposes “any unilateral change” to the nuclear deal and is unlikely to change its stance.
Whether Russia decides to bust US sanctions on Iran if Congress decides to reimpose them could depend on the reaction of the other signatories of the deal, as well as on countries like India that have major interests in expanding economic ties with Iran.
Since Russia is also suffering from US-inspired sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine and is charged with meddling in the US presidential election that propelled Trump into office, Khamenei could expect Putin to agree to his call to “isolate” the US.
Putin, however, seems to be taking a wait-and-see attitude towards Trump and the investigation into the allegations.
If the investigations come up with proof of tampering and Trump turns against Putin, he could very well agree to join Iran in a campaign to shun the US.
Other countries alarmed by Trump’s volatility and dangerous posturing could join.
It is likely that an assertive Putin will agree to expand trade relations in order to defy US sanctions imposed on both countries.
Russia’s state oil company Rosneft and the National Iranian Oil Company signed a plan to construct joint gas and oil projects worth $30 billion.
Putin announced that the rail link connecting Russia to India through Iran and Azerbaijan is complete and operational. He also said that Moscow is eager to export gas to northern Iran via Azerbaijan.
These three countries seek to build a railway to connect Asia to Europe.
Finally, on the oil front, Russia and Iran need to cooperate with each other as well as with Saudi Arabia to limit oil exports in order to maintain and raise the current price of oil.
Oil is one of the ties that bind these three countries in spite of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.