by Mark N. Katz
The successful meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Moscow on March 28 indicates that the two leaders have similar views not just on Syria, but on several other issues. Still, areas of disagreement between them remain, even when it comes to issues on which they’re broadly cooperative.
Both Rouhani and Putin expressed support for the continuation of the Iranian nuclear accord in spite of the fact that U.S. President Donald Trump and some of his top associates have expressed disapproval of that deal. Putin and Rouhani also expressed their opposition to “unilateral sanctions”—another critical reference to American foreign policy, which has imposed just such sanctions on both of their countries. And the two leaders also expressed their disapproval of cyberattacks, mentioning by name the Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (they did not mention that it was the U.S. and Israel that reportedly launched that attack back in 2010). No mention was made, of course, about whether Russia or Iran conduct cyberattacks on other nations.
Putin and Rouhani both reiterated their commitment to providing anti-terrorist support to Afghanistan as well as to preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity. The American military drawdown from both Afghanistan and Iraq has meant that these problems are now more urgent for both Russia and Iran to either deal with themselves or face the consequences of not doing so.
Putin and Rouhani also signaled their cooperation (along with other oil producers) in limiting oil exports in order to stabilize the global energy market (i.e., to prop up petroleum prices). But while it is impressive that Moscow and Tehran are cooperating in this endeavor, each would prefer not to have to limit its own exports. Moreover, if the export cut raises oil prices high enough to encourage more American shale oil production, which will then exert downward pressure on oil prices, then it will have failed to achieve its purpose.
Putin and Rouhani also agreed on other forms of cooperation, including Russian participation in the Iranian hydrocarbon sector, Moscow increasing export credits to Iran, further Russian participation in developing nuclear power plants in Iran, Russian export of civilian aircraft and helicopters to Iran, and the easing of visa restrictions between the two countries.
Their most important area of joint Iran-Russia cooperation at present, though, is in their common effort to defend the Assad regime against its opponents in Syria. Ever since Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war with its air force beginning in September 2015, Russia and Iran together have not only saved Assad from further losses, but have helped his regime to regain lost territory. Still, there appear to be important differences between Russia and Iran on Syria. Putin’s willingness to work with Turkey, which has supported some of Assad’s opponents, does not appear to be welcome to Iran, which has long seen Turkey as a rival in the region. Indeed, Moscow may be encouraging Turkish involvement in Syria as a way of limiting Iran’s options there. It may anticipate that once the opposition to Assad has largely been defeated, there may then emerge a struggle over who has predominant influence in Syria. If Iran has to compete with Turkey in Syria, Moscow may calculate that Tehran will be unable to dispense with its Russian alliance.
But since the end of the Syrian civil war is not imminent, the necessity for Russia and Iran to cooperate in prosecuting the war serves to limit any potential competition between them for influence in Damascus at present. Their common opposition to various American policies also provides a basis for them to keep working together. The problem they face, though, is that even if the Trump administration does not intend to harm their (or, at least, Russia’s) interests, the impact of its policies may well do so. In particular, Trump’s efforts to encourage increased domestic American petroleum production will limit the oil and gas revenue that both countries rely on to support their faltering economies.
While Putin worried that former President Barack Obama would succeed in his goal of improving Iranian-American relations and thus drawing Tehran away from Moscow, Trump’s hostility toward the Islamic Republic has allayed Putin’s concerns about this. Similarly, while Tehran often fears that Moscow will make a deal with Washington at Iran’s expense (a fear which was heightened by Trump’s and Putin’s initial expressions of regard for each other), the continuation of Russian-American disagreements since Trump’s inauguration, as well as concerns in America about Russian interference in the 2016 elections limiting Trump’s ability to collaborate with Putin, have allayed Iranian fears about this possibility. But this state of affairs does not allow Putin and Rouhani to do much to halt the negative impact on them both of rising American shale oil production or America’s decreased willingness to deal with security problems impacting Moscow and Tehran in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Thus, while the Putin-Rouhani summit showed that Russian-Iranian cooperation is developing, the truth is that both face difficult security and economic problems that joint cooperation between them will do little to overcome.