Think Tank
‘Strategic Mavericks’: Russia and Iran in a Post-COVID Middle East

The two countries have come a long way in recent years to iron out many differences or at least use them for constructive discussions at the diplomatic and top level. It is important to make the right use of the accumulated experience in cooperation, writes Valdai Club expert Maxim Suchkov.

Iran is living through a series of extremely unfortunate events this year, including the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, an architect of Iran’s foreign policy, a military confrontation with the United States, a tragic mistake that led to the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet, high COVID-19 mortality rates, and an economic downturn. Iran was also among the first to be swept by a second powerful wave of the pandemic. Iran’s troubles are offering its adversaries a chance to try to put the brakes on its geopolitical activities in the region.  

During the last few years, Moscow has maintained a tactical alliance with Tehran in the Syrian conflict. For a number of reasons, it is seeking to optimise its Middle East activities, and in this sense it is of importance for both states at this point to review international challenges presenting a potential threat to their interests and find a modus vivendi that is favourable to stability in bilateral relations even though their interests and foreign policy goals are not always identical.

Crippled economies and growing unemployment, particularly youth joblessness, are weighing heavily on governments that are assuming additional social obligations, coping with mounting protests and revising budget priorities. In this setting, some have toned down external activities, while others see the circumstances as offering an opportunity. For some, COVID-19 has proved to be an additional complication in the context of armed conflicts (Syria, Yemen, Libya); for others, a new trigger for disaffection and protest (Lebanon), and for yet others, a multiplier of sanctions costs (Iran, Syria) and the cause of falling oil prices (Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and others). All of this is part of a new reality that cannot be overlooked in the process of foreign policy decision-making.

For Syria, which is the focus of Russian-Iranian relations at the moment, the main problems are the same as they have been for the last few years: parliamentary elections, transition (or not) of power, the Constitutional Committee, foreign (meaning US and Turkish) military presence, and reforms. It is not often that differences between Moscow and Tehran on these and other matters are mentioned outside the expert community. But the important thing for politicians is to keep these differences from spilling over to neighbouring regions or problem areas, let alone allow them to ruin the spirit of cooperation that both countries have worked hard to create in recent years.

Reforming the Syrian security system is possibly one of the most difficult items on the bilateral agenda, but it is certainly one of key importance. Moscow and Tehran will have to find points of contact on this problem, if they want to assure Syria’s internal stability. Similarly, they will have to develop a common approach to the likelihood of an “engagement with Assad” by the United States. So far, the Americans have only toyed with the idea of this scenario, discussed possible Russian and Iranian reactions at the expert level, and assessed Damascus’ potential response to their “new course.” Although today the thought of this seems too daring, it cannot be ruled out that Damascus will not be prepared to consider it. If in this matter Russia and Iran follow different paths, the gap between their positions on postwar settlement in Syria will grow wider.

The three key outside factors that define Iran’s position in the Middle East and the quality of Russian-Iranian relations in the coming years are as follows: (1) the outcome of the US presidential election; (2) the consequences of the US sanctions; and (3) developments in the neighbouring countries that are of key importance for Iranian interests.

President Trump’s putative second term will likely mean another four years of “maximum pressure” designed to make Tehran accept a new deal that would be more favourable for the United States. Trump expects Iran to waive not only its nuclear ambitions but also its claim to being the dominant power in the region, something that is unacceptable for America and its allies. America’s plans for relations with Iran over the next few years include more active opposition to Iranian interests in Iraq and Lebanon and acts of sabotage on Iranian territory proper, like those of the last few weeks.  

If the US presidential victory falls to Biden, these relations may follow a different trajectory. First, Biden’s Democrats are keen on returning to JCPOA; it is unclear, however, whether Washington would make do with the same agreement or suggest a new version for discussion. Second, the former vice president’s team is working on scenarios for a “regional dialogue” involving a number of key countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Americans proceed from the assumption that the oil crisis and COVID-19 have been major shocks for both regional antagonists and could prod them towards substantive contacts predicated on de-escalating confrontation. Besides, the Americans believe this dialogue could be of interest to the Saudis as a chance to contain Tehran’s “provocative push,” and for the Iranians, as a precondition to lifting the sanctions. For Moscow, both scenarios (Trump’s and Biden’s) have their advantages and disadvantages. Whatever the outcome of the election in November, one must be prepared for both scenarios and their variations.

We must also be prepared for fresh sanctions. Iran and Russia are inside a contracting circle of restrictions. Both countries have accumulated certain sanctions evasion experience. Iran seems to have more of this than Russia, but Russia is richer in resources and international opportunities. It makes sense to encourage an exchange of sanction-response practices, where this is possible and meets shared interests. After all, Syria is not all there is to it.

Importantly, Russian-Iranian cooperation in combating the sanctions will most likely be enough for survival in a sanctions environment. But resources of a different order of magnitude will be needed for development. In this sense, trilateral cooperation with China might become the optimal (in the current situation), if not ideal, solution for both Moscow and Tehran.

Finally, the developments in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria (and to some extent also in Yemen) will largely determine the pace of Iranian policies in the region. The new Government in Iraq is demonstrating a willingness to cooperate with the US and is gradually limiting the activities of pro-Iranian forces on their territory. True, they are trying to be as cautious as they can, while balancing precariously between US, Iranian and Saudi interests. Lebanon’s future will, based on the evidence, be determined to a greater extent by protests and the state of the economy than “pure geopolitics,” but the resultant picture, at least for the moment, is not a simple one as far as Iran is concerned. In Syria, apart from the above points, confrontation between Iranian forces and Israel could gain importance. Finally, the security vacuum, vestiges of the US presence, and relations between the Taliban and the government will keep Iran on tenterhooks and worried about security on their border with Afghanistan.  

Russia and Iran may have different visions of and approaches to these four problems, but both countries share fundamental concern with maintaining stability and integrity of those states.

Historical memory is still an important psychological component of decision-making in Russian-Iranian relations. Both countries have come a long way in recent years to iron out many differences or at least use them for constructive discussions at the diplomatic and top level. It is important to make the right use of the accumulated experience in cooperation. Both Russia and Iran are strategic mavericks, with each country used to being self-reliant in implementing its foreign policy. But it is clear that being partners in the foreseeable future can benefit both of them more than they would gain by fearing to espouse new cooperation options, swayed by the inertia of historical suspicion.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Old World System Is Shattered, Russia and Iran Must Work to Build a New One
Fyodor Lukyanov
Over the year since the last Russian-Iranian dialogue, the context of the world order has changed significantly, and this pushes Russia and Iran to cooperate on specific issues, Fyodor Lukyanov, Research director of the Valdai Discussion Club, said in an interview to on the results of the Russian-Iranian dialogue, which was held in Tehran on April 9. According to him, the two countries need to act jointly to construct the new world system, which is inevitably to arise, since the old one is shattered completely.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.