Moscow and Tehran have common understanding of the international order as an unjust and hypocritical environment that places Iran and Russia’s civilisational identities at risk. As a countermeasure, both states are committed to fostering a more pluralistic vision of the international system by supporting alternative, integrative networks, and multilateral institutions on a regional level, writes Ghoncheh Tazmini, Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre. Therefore, as the pattern of Russian-Iranian engagement suggests, a political decoupling is not likely to take place any time soon.
With the signing of the Iranian-Syrian defence pact, several analysts have portended the winter of the Russian-Iranian ‘honeymoon’. I argue that despite tension, the Moscow-Tehran partnership is an enduring one. A unique connective tissue binds these two states in an eternal marriage of, sometimes, inconvenience. That inconvenience is widely understood to manifest in post-conflict Syria where some observers have predicted that the partnership is at its most perilous juncture.
Thus far, the argument has been that Iran overplays the durability of its partnership with Moscow. Engaged in a type of ‘wishful thinking’, Iran is often portrayed as being on a diplomatic trampoline, overplaying Russian loyalty to Tehran in order to boost its clout vis à vis the United States. Often represented as a ‘junior partner’, Iran is routinely depicted as a ‘pawn’ on Russia’s regional chessboard. Curiously, this narrative has been turned on its head. With the signing of the Tehran-Damascus military pact, Iran is now being portrayed as having the ‘upper hand’ in Syria.
According to Syrian Defence Minister, Ali Abdullah Ayoub, the defence agreement signed in July, is aimed at combatting Takfiri terrorism and countering regional and international pressure. Under the agreement, Iran will strengthen the Syrian air defence systems, whilst upgrading the training of troops and the armaments currently available to the Syrian military. According to a report in the Tehran Times, the agreement authorises the deployment of two Iranian air defence missile systems on Syrian soil.
There is speculation that Iran’s entrenchment of strategic infrastructure in Syria can threaten the Russia-Iran balance in Syria. The assumption is that the defence pact may reduce Russia’s ability to wield control over events in Syria, and to maintain a monopoly over Syrian air space. Another argument is that a security pact will lead to heightened Israeli-Iranian tension, and as a result, Russia will have more difficulty balancing Israel and Iran off against each other.
Iranian experts like Hossein Royvaran have indicated that Iran does not have any intention of creating a military base in Syria. The Iranian military, Royvaran argues, is prepared to leave as soon as Damascus signals that Iranian presence is no longer required. Furthermore, Syria and Iran have had several military agreements in place well before the Syrian civil war. From this angle, the new agreement is seen as a continuation of many years of military cooperation. The new pact only builds on existing agreements, and therefore poses no threat to Russian-Iranian relations.
The Tehran-Damascus military agreement may or may not create friction between Russia and Iran. The fact is that this is not the first time that analysts have pointed to Syria as the arena in which the Moscow-Tehran honeymoon ends. There are a plethora of reports envisaging Russian-Iranian rivalry over lucrative reconstruction-linked contracts in post-conflict Syria. Differences are also noted in contrasting visions of Syrian governance and institutional reform. While Iran has curated a network of Iran-allied militias that function alongside state structures, Moscow has pushed for an autonomous, centralised, and state-controlled security apparatus. Diverging from the Iranian approach, Russia prioritises state actors and the Syrian military and defence institutions. Iran, on other hand prefers is to see its local Syrian allies incorporated into state functions.
Thus, this is not the first time that Moscow and Tehran have experienced discord alongside instances of close collaboration. The past two decades and a half have seen a zigzag of both cooperation and contention between Moscow and Tehran. For years the two states squabbled over the construction of the Bushehr power plant, and over the delays in the delivery of SAMS. Moscow’s fraternisation with Israel or energy diplomacy with Saudi Arabia (before the price-cutting wars) are routinely singled out as evidence that the partnership is opportunistic and unstable.
Like the military pact, the tendency is to focus on asymmetrical agendas, rather than to balance the narrative by factoring in all the facets of Moscow-Tehran relations. As we have noted above, strategic imperatives and realpolitik interests may generate friction. However, divergent geostrategic and geo-economic pathways do not necessarily translate into conflict. By casting a wider analytical net, what becomes evident is that Russian-Iranian alignment is far deeper and far more extensive than many analysts have yet caught on.
The Russian-Iranian partnership is cemented by an ideational synergy. Both states share a similar geopolitical worldview that is defined by some enduring parameters. These parameters are shaped by normative values, cultural-civilisational peculiarities, and a similar discursive genealogy in relation to the West. This sui generis historical-cultural genotype informs Russian and Iranian ideological worldview, which fundamentally clashes with Atlanticist normative standards in the international system.
Russian foreign policy is geared towards gaining adherents from global sympathisers of what is manifestly an anti-hegemonic agenda. In this pursuit, Iran is a critical partner. Like their Kremlin counterparts, the Iranian revolutionary elite oppose the idea of a single state or constellation of states being able to impose its particular values and power structures as universal. Opposing liberal interventionism, both states subscribe to the principle of sovereign internationalism.
A shared understanding of the international order translates into a shared understanding of the security environment. Moscow and Tehran have common understanding of the international order as an unjust and hypocritical environment that places Iran and Russia’s civilisational identities at risk. As a countermeasure, both states are committed to fostering a more pluralistic vision of the international system by supporting alternative, integrative networks, and multilateral institutions on a regional level (the SCO or the China-Iran Deal, for example).
Thus, while occasional roadblocks may turn up, Russian-Iranian alignment is firmly anchored within a broader assemblage of shared principles. This ideational synergy is unique to Russia and Iran. In other words, neither Russia nor Iran share this degree of convergence with any other partner (Saudi Arabia or Israel in Russia’s case, or China in Iran’s case, for example).
Honeymoons are by definition short-lived, but as the pattern of Russian-Iranian engagement suggests, a political decoupling is not likely to take place any time soon.