- The Newest Power Couple:Iran and Russia Band together to Support Assad
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When Russian fighter jets bound for Syria took off from Iran in August, it shocked the world’s security establishment. This unprecedented cooperation between Russia and Iran sent a clear signal to the West that both countries were committed to safeguarding [End Page 84] their interests in Syria, whatever the costs. The latest offensive in Aleppo is further testament that Iran and Russia remain dedicated to ensuring Syrian President Bashar Assad remains in power.
Right now Syria is a shared battlefield against perceived common threats—especially their mutual opposition to what they see as U.S. unilateralism.
During a November 2015 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claimed the “long-term plan of the United States is against the interests of all nations, particularly our two nations, which can be thwarted by closer cooperation.”
Such cooperation in Syria comes amid improved bilateral relations following Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in 2012. The growing military ties come after years of expanded arms sales from Moscow to Tehran, which have become integral to the security architecture of the Islamic Republic. Consequently, their recent demonstration of military power in Syria should not be wholly surprising and may well indicate that together the two countries will help shape the Middle East for some time.
A fundamental factor uniting Russia and Iran in Syria is their resistance to what they consider the United States’ regime change agenda, which, they say, the U.S. pursues either by military means or in the guise of so-called color revolutions. Russia and Iran have firmly opposed U.S. and NATO military operations in the Middle East, particularly after the Libya intervention in 2011 and the West’s backing of Syrian opposition forces. This pushback against the United States is a priority for both countries, and in pursuing this goal, they have relied on each other’s understanding of how the international order should work.
Moscow and Tehran favor a multipolar world in which they exert more influence. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has alluded to “a long period of transition to a more polycentric architecture” of global order. Iranian officials have repeatedly outlined a similar vision noting that BRICS summits—meetings of representatives from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—reflect the emergence of new power structures.
Russia and Iran are comfortable dealing with each other. Many Russians don’t see Iran’s leadership as alien or sinister, as the West often does, but rather as something familiar. “Iran is an ideological state—like the Soviet Union,” said a Russian Iran-watcher, who wished to remain anonymous. Russia understands ideological dogma, and knows how to work around it.
In Syria, Russia has been eager to preserve its last remaining military infrastructure in the Middle East and to prevent the type of state collapse that followed recent interventions by the West in the Middle East and North Africa. In this endeavor, Tehran is a useful ally for Moscow in an unstable region and an important partner on the ground for containing U.S. regional ambitions. For Iran, Russia is a critical means of shoring up its security interests and access routes to Hezbollah at a time of rising threats from regional foes, most notably Saudi Arabia.
At the Islamic Republic’s inception, a popular revolutionary slogan was “neither East, nor West,” a mantra intended to free Iranian domestic and foreign policies from superpowers. But after the hostage crisis, mutual enmity between Iran and the U.S. created opportunities for Moscow to begin drawing Iran into its orbit of influence as a check on American power.
In the 1980s, the Islamic Republic remained wary of Moscow’s expansionist ideals. [End Page 85] But after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, this threat was lowered. Moreover, the Islamic Republic turned to Moscow after Europe reduced arms sales to Iran and the U.S. cut them off entirely. Unsurprisingly, over the past two decades, Russia has replaced the United States as Iran’s leading supplier...