by Mark N. Katz
On March 14, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov talked about how Russian-Iranian relations had reached a “new level,” and how Moscow has “been persistently developing friendly relations with Iran.” Moscow and Tehran have, as is well known, been working together to support the Assad regime in Syria, and Tehran is reportedly buying more arms from Russia. More fundamentally, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei both see America and the West as seeking to undermine them through support for democratization, and thus both prefer to keep Washington at a distance.
Yet despite this shared antipathy toward the U.S. and other common interests, Russian-Iranian relations have not only been troubled in the past but continue to be so now. Just in the last three months, there have been several such differences.
In December 2015, there were complaints in the Russian press about how, after Moscow’s intervention in Syria got underway, Iran began drawing down its own military presence in Syria. Tehran was seen as essentially shifting the burden of supporting Assad from its own shoulders onto Moscow’s. Further, Tehran was seen as ready, willing, and able to take advantage of the downturn in Russia-Turkey relations—following the November 2015 Turkish downing of a Russian military aircraft—to increase Iranian petroleum sales to Ankara.
The prospect of Iranian-Turkish cooperation proceeding despite Russian-Turkish hostility was reiterated when Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran in early March. They discussed expanding their economic ties at a time when Moscow has sought to punish Turkey for the shootdown by cutting back on Russian-Turkish trade. Both Iranian and Turkish leaders emphasized the importance of respect for territorial integrity—something, of course, that Ankara claims that Russian warplanes flying in its airspace have violated.
In addition, Ali Akbar Velayati (currently foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader and previously Iran’s foreign minister) declared in early February 2016 after a visit to Moscow that there are “prerequisites” for the creation of an alliance among Iran, Russia, Syria, and Hezbollah. Soon thereafter, though, a Russian foreign ministry official described Velayati’s statement as “speculative” and declared that “there are no plans of creating such an alliance.”
There appear to be two possible explanations for this episode—and neither of them bodes well for the future of Russian-Iranian cooperation. The first is that Velayati was indeed told privately in Moscow that Russia was willing to join such an alliance, but when Velayati announced this publicly, Moscow repudiated this statement. That means that Moscow either didn’t really mean it or told Tehran one thing while telling the Gulf Arab states that oppose it another. The second possible explanation is that Velayati received no such Russian promises of an alliance. And yet Velayati announced this anyway—perhaps even anticipating that Moscow would deny it—in order to frighten the Gulf Arab states and derail any assurances Moscow might be giving them that Russia could act to restrain Iran in exchange for various concessions.
Further, on March 13 (the day before the Russian presidential press secretary waxed eloquent about the “new level” in Russian-Iranian cooperation), Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh reiterated that Iran had no plans to join in the agreement to freeze oil production reached by Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Venezuela in order bolster oil prices. He noted that other oil producing countries should “leave us alone.”
And less than two hours after the Russian news agency TASS reported how Peskov had praised increased Russian-Iranian cooperation, TASS also reported how, “Iran is impeding implementation of contracts with Russia on construction of a thermal power plant in Bandar Abbas and railway electrification by setting new price conditions.”
Despite their numerous anti-Western interests, Russia and Iran are not allies. Neither is willing to give up much of anything for the sake of good relations with the other. Washington, then, cannot expect that Tehran will consider binding any agreement reached with Moscow regarding the settlement of the conflict in Syria. To reach such a settlement, Washington must also negotiate with Tehran (as well as Riyadh).
On the other hand, Iran is definitely not going to gang up with Russia against Turkey. Indeed, Tehran clearly sees Moscow’s hostility toward Ankara as an opportunity to improve Iranian-Turkish ties. At a time when the West is increasingly eager to cooperate with Turkey on the Syrian refugee crisis, Iranian actions that counter Russian efforts to weaken Turkey economically actually serve Western interests.
The Iranian nuclear accord may not have resulted in the broader Iranian-American rapprochement that some had hoped for. But Iran’s clear determination to pursue its interests even when they differ with Russia’s raises the possibility that Washington and Tehran can cooperate, even if tacitly, when Russian policies impinge on their interests.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.