The partial cease-fire in Syria’s crisis is welcome news. But it must not be allowed to obscure a dangerous new development — the emergence from the war of a Russian-Iranian military axis that could upset hopes for stability in the Middle East, and for containing Russia’s global ambitions, into the future.
The extent of Russian-Iranian cooperation was signaled last month, when Russia used an Iranian air base to bomb targets in Syria. American officials dismissed the event as unsurprising and tactical, and some Iranian officials said Russia’s access was for a “one-time antiterrorism operation.” But a spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry attached the words “for now” to his announcement that the access “is finished,” clearly leaving room for repetition.
In fact, a Russian-Iranian bond for military cooperation is rapidly forming, based on a meeting of interests between Russians competing with the West for strategic influence throughout the Middle East, and Iranian hard-liners seeking to dominate local and regional politics.
In recent decades, only America and its allies had unbridled license to use a base in one Middle Eastern country to attack targets in another. Russia has now drawn a parallel with that capability, and some Iranian commanders have hinted that joint Iranian-Russian naval exercises and Russian use of Iranian naval bases in the Persian Gulf may follow.
The United States and Russia are nowhere near a new Cold War. Still, America has every interest in discouraging Russia’s and Iran’s impulses to ally themselves in rivalry with the West. If such an alliance took the form of a military-backed common front, it would guarantee a more intractable Iran, projecting power in the Middle East even as an assertive Russia tried to restore its sway along its own rim.
Russia and Iran share a resentment that America can block their expansive ambitions. So they seek each other’s support. They have collaborated on managing Central Asia and the Caucasus since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This summer, their presidents together visited Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, signaling unity in their influence in the Caucasus.
During Syria’s civil war, they have shared intelligence and coordinated military planning, and Russia has supplied advanced surface-to-air missiles to Iran. Shortly before Russia intervened in Syria a year ago, Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who commands the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, was in Moscow. Over the past two years, American and Arab officials have told me, the Revolutionary Guards have assembled diverse Shiite fighters, from Lebanese Hezbollah members to volunteers from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, into a force of tens of thousands in Syria. They are gaining battlefield experience under Revolutionary Guards command, and can be expected to survive the civil war as a regional asset available to any new Russian-Iranian axis.
To counter them, the United States has been increasing the sales of American weapons to Iran’s regional rivals, led by Saudi Arabia. But this has backfired by giving Iran’s hard-liners another reason to strengthen their military ties with Russia.
Escalating the contest for military supremacy, however, is just one approach to strategic policy. Another is to note that far from winning in Syria, Russia and Iran are merely doubling down in a desperate effort to keep Syria’s much-hated president, Bashar al-Assad, in place. As long as that war continues with no victory near for anyone, neither Iran nor Russia gets closer to the economic lift and global inclusion that both of their populations crave.
That conundrum offers an opportunity for American policy. In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards and other hard-liners are not the only voices. President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have staked their political fortunes on reaping prosperity from a new relationship with the West, and close Russian-Iranian military cooperation could only complicate that quest. Moreover, Iran’s moderate voices are wary of closely aligning with Russia. They know its imperial aggression stripped Iran of territory in the 19th century, and threatened to do so again in the 20th century. This could be a wedge between hard-liners and moderates.
Fortunately, it is still early in the game. First, the United States must move more effectively to end Syria’s war. The cease-fire could be useful for this, but only if American diplomats insist on using the pause to open serious discussions toward a political settlement. They also must press Iran and its Arab neighbors to curb their regional rivalries, since those tensions only push Iran into Russia’s corner. Distant as those goals seem now, they might become more attainable if Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, could be persuaded that a never-ending war and growing tension with the West will keep Russia from what it really needs to do: rebuild a multidimensional economy.
Similarly, to refute the logic of embracing Moscow, Iran’s moderate politicians need to show Iranians economic results from the nuclear deal signed last year. So America should offer tangible economic gains in exchange for a firm Iranian commitment not to make its soil or ports available to Russia for military operations.
With diplomacy again at play in Syria’s civil war, it behooves America to use the economic promise of the nuclear deal to boost the position of those who see Iran’s future with the West, not the Kremlin.
This article resembles the writer’s point of view and doesn’t resemble necessarily MEO’s policy.