Allies to a point: inside the complex Russia-Iran relationship

In Syria, Tehran-backed militias helped Assad fight rebels with air cover from the Kremlin, while in Ukraine Putin flies Iranian drones at Kyiv. Best friends? Not quite. This alliance is complex.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi walk together after their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi walk together after their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow.

Allies to a point: inside the complex Russia-Iran relationship

The gunmen who killed more than 140 people at a concert hall near Moscow last month have drawn attention to the relationship between Russia and Iran.

Although the attackers were from Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), as claimed in the IS propaganda channel Aamaq, some observers have suggested that they may have been based in Iran.

The Islamic Republic has been a safe haven for terrorists in recent years, hosting the likes of al-Qaeda leader Saif al-Adel, who fled Afghanistan in the 2000s.

They live under the protection of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), but there are doubts over whether these guests would attack a key ally of their hosts.

Regardless, it demonstrates that the dynamics are deeper and more complex. Although they are allies, they are not fully aligned. While they work together, Moscow seeks to assert its seniority.

Here, Al Majalla looks at how this ‘alliance of rivals’ has been shaped and re-shaped, including by their shared experience of conflict in Syria.

From land and air

Before Russia’s military intervention in Syria, the relationship between Moscow and Tehran had not received much public attention.

The two had longstanding links and common interests with Syria’s Assad regime, but only in September 2015 did Russia deepen its involvement in the Syria conflict.

By then, Assad had lost control of 70% of Syrian territory, and Iran was already active there, having first to come to the aid of Damascus in 2011.

Although they are allies, they are not fully aligned. While they work together, Moscow seeks to assert its seniority.

It sent IRGC military advisors and called on Hezbollah to support the Assad regime in its violent crackdown on peaceful protesters, which it did.

This support from Tehran quickly grew into a wide military presence inside Syria via Hezbollah.

It was joined later by other armed groups that Iran supports, including the Afghan Fatimiyoun, which entered the fight in 2014, followed by the Pakistani Zainabiyoun, which got involved in early 2015.

Despite these Iran-sponsored deployments, rebel groups in Syria were still set to overrun the Assad regime until Russia's 2015 entry shifted the balance of power, with Russian jets laying waste to rebel areas.

Moscow's aerial dominance provided much needed air cover while Iran and its proxies expanded their ground offensives inside Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed in on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but did not commit ground troops.

The Assad regime rewarded Iran and Russia with contracts and land sales. Iran bought Syrian land while Russia signed lucrative phosphorous contracts.

Iran went on to consolidate its presence along the Lebanon border using Hezbollah, while Russia built up its presence at Syrian bases, including on the Mediterranean.

With Assad ensconced, Iran and Russia appeared to have a convenient division of labour, one that had produced mutually satisfactory benefits.

Partnership and competition

Yet Syria also revealed the nuances of this partnership, including the areas that the two might compete, and while Russia may have been in Syria to save Assad, it was not there to save Iran.

By the time of Russia's intervention, Israeli aerial sorties had been routinely targeting the Iranian and Hezbollah presence in Syria. Russia's entry did not stop them.

Moreover, with both flying in the same air space, Russia established a military communication system with the Israelis and shared intelligence on Syria with Israel.

In Syria, Moscow's aerial dominance provided much needed air cover while Iran and its proxies expanded their ground offensives.

This strengthened Israel's existing knowledge of the area, as it included details about the Iranian presence inside Syria.

Iran and Russia have also had a series disagreements over economic contracts with Syria. For instance, contracts originally promised to Iran by the Assad regime have ended up with Russian companies.

In 2018, it was Russia, not Iran, that acquired exclusive contracts to produce oil and gas in Syria.

This shows how military and economic competition between Russia and Iran is not absolute. Despite this, Moscow and Tehran have important shared interests.

Things in common

Both see the West as a political opponent, both want strategic influence in the Mediterranean, and both are happy to help the other evade international sanctions.

Russian and American soldiers exchange salutes as their patrols intersect in an oil field near the town of Al-Qahtaniyah in the Syrian province of Al-Hasakah.

Furthermore, after Russia invaded Ukraine, its military benefitted from Iranian Shahed drones supplied directly by Tehran.

Funnily enough, Vladimir Putin's recent 87.7% election win was overseen by independent international observers from… Syria and Iran.

On Israel's war in Gaza, Russia and Iran have sought to take the moral high ground, in contrast to the strong support for Israel offered by the United States.

Putin blamed the war on US Middle East policy and implied that there were parallels with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Russia and Iran have important shared interests. Both see the West as a political foe, and both want strategic influence in the Mediterranean.

He said that the US "tried to monopolise the peace process but didn't bother with looking for compromises acceptable to both sides".

Russia has used Gaza to underline its opposition to US hegemony, arguing that this was proof that a move to a multi-polar world order was justified.

Iran is more entangled, due to its backing for Hamas, yet continues to go to great lengths to stop the war from spreading or escalating to its own territory.

This is partly why Iran took part in the joint summit between the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation held in Riyadh last year, which resulted in a communique about ending the Gaza war.

Iran also backs the Houthis in Yemen and various armed groups in Syria and Iraq.

All have used the pretext of Gaza to attacks US bases. Those proxies have then often been hit by counter-attacks.

Intelligence flow

Russia still supplies Israel with intelligence on Syria, and Israel still targets Iranian assets there, most recently bombing the Iranian consulate in Damascus.

Likewise, Hezbollah is still targeted by the Israelis, with key officers killed and key sites attacked.

A United Nations peacekeepers' observation point near the Quneitra border crossing with Syria in the Israeli annexed-Golan Heights.

Since March, Israeli efforts have increased, focusing on Hezbollah infrastructure in Qalamoun near the Lebanese border.

At the same time, Russian troops have set up joint observation points with the Syrian army near the Golan Heights, an area usually dominated by Hezbollah.

Moscow hoped that Gaza would entangle the West militarily, possibly diluting US and European support for Ukraine, but that has not happened. Nor has Iran been drawn into a direct fight with Israel.

Still, Israeli military action over the past six months has weakened Iran and its associates in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria. Moscow will shed very few tears over that.

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