Over the last several years the world has witnessed the greatest shift in the balance of power in the Middle East, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Through its support of Shia Militia’s ranging from Iraq’s popular mobilization movements, to Lebanon’s Hezbollah Iran has upset the order, which has dominated the Middle East.
After the collapse of the centuries old Ottoman Empire in 1918, the Middle East was divided between the colonial powers of the day with France dominating its old colonies in Syria and Lebanon and Britain propping up the newly created kingdom of Iraq. In the wake of WWII this Franco British hegemon was transferred to the US who built close ties with the premier Sunni and Shia Powers, both Saudi Arabia and the Shah of Iran were reliant on US economic and more importantly military aide.
The Iranian revolution, which officially broke US and Iranian relations as well as poisoning the diplomatic well between the two countries for the better part of thirty years, ended this balance of power. Iran found itself economically and ideologically isolated while Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States benefited greatly from American military aide largesse.
US hegemon of the region continued up until the invasion of Iraq when the over reach of the invasion of Iraq. Following the extended occupation and withdrawal the US is for the first time in its history looking to extricate itself from the Middle East having concluded involvement there creates more problems than it solves.
In the place of the US hegemon Iran, newly freed from its sanctions by the nuclear deal, has sought to assert its influence over the Middle East Shia nations, while Saudi Arabia has sought to counter Iran’s growing influence. In this confrontation, Iran has found a potential partner with Russia. Though not a formal alliance Iran and Russia seen their interest align. Iran wants to expand its influence across the Shia crescent, while Russia wants to secure a strategic stake in the Middle East and further diminish US hegemon over the region.
On the surface Russia and Iran have little in common, one is a soft authoritarian regime and the other is a nominal Islamic republic. However, if you delve a little deeper you’ll see some makeable similarities between these two nations. Iran traces its origin to the Persian Empire a nation which once ruled the known world and has existed in one form or another for millennium.
The Russians also have a long history, one that is marked by Imperial expansion and contraction. Nations have very solid religious roots, in Iran this is Shia Islam and in Russia there is the Orthodox Church. Though the Patriarch of the Church doesn’t wield the same power as Iran’s supreme leader, it is still the Patriarch who inaugurates Russia’s President, just as they once crowned the Czars. Both nations through their histories have been given what they see as a raw deal by the west.
In Russia, this goes back to the landing of western troops to ‘Strangle Bolshevism in its cradle during the revolution’, and concludes with the fall of the Soviet Union when the western style liberal democratic experiment destroyed the USSR and crippled Russia economically and militarily.
In Iran distrust of the West has been helped by the 1953 CIA backed coup, US support for the Shah, and tacit western support of the Iraqi invasion to ‘strangle Islamic republicanism in its cradle.’ Iran and Russia have their historical animosities to, Imperial Russia tried to use Iran as a proxy against the British Empire during the so-called ‘Great Game’ and the Soviet Union occupied Iran for a period during WWII.
However it is easy for leaders to gloss over historical unpleasantries with one nation, if it gains them a geopolitical edge, especially if there is another nation, which can be the source of the animosity in their narrative, in both Iran and Russia’s case the United States, provides just such a target.
Though much criticized on the campaign trail and by the GOP congress the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize ties with Iran have been the right move in the geopolitical sense. Unyoking Iran’s economy by lifting sanctions while also providing a cash infusion in the form of asset unfreezing gives power to the moderate elements within the country who are more willing to allow the US to continue to have a guiding hand in the war torn region. Preventing the Ayatollahs from going nuclear is an added bonus.
Of course there are the spoilers, the Revolutionary Guard and the hardcore elements of Iran’s political and military apparatus have benefited from the sanctions both financially and in terms of influence. Which is why they’ve sought to destabilize it by briefly detaining US sailors, firing off ballistic missiles with ‘death to Israel’ written on them in Hebrew no less, and releasing footage from an Iranian drone overflying a US carrier.
Thus far, such efforts have had little impact but it’s easy to see from the current US Presidential field how a fist shaking nationalist, if elected, would capitalize on one or more of these instances to derail the treaty. The Iranian hardliners would most likely welcome this, the US after all following the debacle that was Iraq and the long drawn out conflict on the Afghan plains is not eager to occupy another Muslim nation.
To be frank the Iranian conventional military is at best a paper tiger, as was demonstrated as far back as 1988 when the US Navy executed Operation Praying Mantis and took the opposing Iranian task force apart. However as far as unconventional warfare the Iranians have shown themselves very adept at such campaigns demonstrated by their support of Iraqi insurgence and now their actions in Syria. The deterrent of another drawn out insurgency is enough for the US to hesitate to use its full might, which is where Russia comes into play.
Like Iran Russia’s ruling class is divided into hardliners and moderates, however were as Iran has fairly regular and surprisingly free elections (despite shenanigans from the hardliners), as demonstrated by the moderate elements recent victories. Russia lacks an effective opposition rather while Putin reigns supreme the moderates which are the business men. Prominent among these elements is former president and now Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.
The hardliners meanwhile are the ex-security men and military men, such as Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu. These groups try to curry favor from within the regime rather than fighting it from without. As of late, the hardliners have been in ascendency, and Putin an ex-KGB man himself, seems inclined to subscribe to their realpolitik world view which is characterized by foreign adventurism in the pursuit of making Russia a world power once more, rather than focusing on economic diversification as the moderates would prefer.
It can be argued that Putin will be more naturally inclined to form a partnership with the Iranian hardliners, since they are the ones seeking to diminish American hegemon in the Middle East. Thus far the world has been spared an outright Russian-Iranian alliance because when Iran’s hardliners’ time in power was most recently at its peak during the Presidency of Ahmadinejad Russia was still recovering from the ravages of the 1990’s and hadn’t yet begun to flex its military muscles in the Middle East.
Putin and Ahmadinejad both actively worked to build ties between their two nations. Ultimately, Putin, ever the arch realist will work with whoever will help him fulfill his goals. An alliance between Iran and Russia could massively upset the balance of power in the Middle East and send shockwaves further afield. Russia is already making noises about forming a new Oil cartel to replace the anemic OPEC.
Russia has also been nudging Iran to link itself to Russia more heavily, smoothing the way for Iran to engage in the Eurasia Economic Union, and strengthen its military ties with other Eurasian states through the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Of course if history is any judge Russia and Iranian relations my not be all rosy in the long term. Putin in his foreign policy has thus far imitated his illustrious monarchal predecessor Catherine the Great, Catherine was a strong proponent of the idea that Russia didn’t need strong allies since they could become strong enemies, rather it needed weak allies i.e. vassals.
Putin has followed this example and it has stunted the expansion to the EEU, however Putin has been notable for his regimes strong ties to China, a nation that is far stronger in every sense of the word than Iran. It is conceivable then that Russia views Iran as a useful partner in expanding its influence in the Middle East not to mention a potentially lucrative trading partner and buyer of Russian weapon systems.
The announced withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria could be part of a carrot and stick approach Iran and Russia are taking toward the Assad regime which has been refusing to toe the line they set during the recent round of peace talks. Any military withdrawal is unlikely to see a diminishment in Russian military infrastructure just striking power.
The future is hard to discern but one thing is for sure if the interest of Iran and Russia continue to coincide they could form a powerful coalition, which could drastically upset the balance of the Middle East. Future American administrations should be wary and do what they can to strengthen their own ties to their Middle Eastern Allies Israel, Egypt, and Saudi. The more the influence of Iran and Russia expand the more that of the United States is diminished and America should not be ready to cede the cross roads of the world to Moscow and Tehran.