For the first time in an almost year-long bombing campaign, Russian aircraft have used facilities in Iran to conduct strikes against in the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib.
Iranian-Russian military cooperation is not unprecedented. The two took part in joint naval exercises in the Caspian Sea last year and Russia launched a salvo of missiles across Iranian territory into Syria. However, this latest news underlines the budding relationship between the two.
I have previously written that the close proximity of Russian air forces and Iranian ground forces in Syria raises questions about the two powers’ relationship. Fighting wars together — even those as convoluted as Syria’s — is something allies tend to do. This particular cooperation has been controversial, though, with many commentators suggesting that the Iranian-Russian alliance in Syria is one of convenience.
Imperatives for cooperation
What they miss is that both Iran and Russia are undergoing momentous changes: transformations that predispose them to cooperation while discouraging confrontation or competition.
Iran is emerging from decades of sanctions and international isolation. Russia is retreating from the post-Cold War world it joined in 1991. It has burned its bridges with the West, by intervening in Ukraine, and found little comfort in pivoting to China, which has instead taken advantage of Russia’s weakness to secure bargain-price gas. Hence Russia seeks new strategic partners and this has been the driving force behind improved relations with Iran.
Russia has courted Iran with a series of credible, favor-winning if largely unreciprocated acts.
Despite being in the middle of prosecuting a hybrid war in Ukraine, Russia worked tirelessly to secure the Iranian nuclear deal now hailed as one of American president Barack Obama’s crowning achievements.
The deal released Iran from crippling sanctions but also warded off what was becoming a very real threat of military intervention. While the Obama Administration has notably cooled on the nuclear deal, Russia has not, for this was only the beginning.
Not only has it continued to lobby for Iranian interests at the negotiating table; it has been working methodically to soothe every contention between the two countries, from the demarcation of the Caspian Sea to the delayed sale of Russian S-300 air defense systems now “settled at the political level.”
Lastly comes Syria. Clearly Russia had its own reasons for intervening there, but these were ambiguous at best and the idea that this was partly motivated by a desire to curry favor with Tehran has not been explored. That Iran wanted this is beyond doubt and it has long been alleged that Russia intervened at Iran’s behest; to be the decisive air force that neither Iran nor Syria possesses. The stationing of Russian aircraft in Iran — which is more a matter of efficiency than anything else — is further evidence of this.
Ultimately, Russia hopes it is winning the battle for Iran’s political future and that it will become a forceful member of the anti-Western coalition Moscow has been assembling for years.
Unlike many of the informal pact’s existing members, such as China, India and other rising powers — the burgeoning malcontents of American unipolarity — Iran truly shares Russia’s anti-Western agenda as well as its willingness to enact this by force.
This might mean Iranian membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is now being seriously discussed, as well as agreements with the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia’s post-Soviet answer to the European Union.
But even if these do not come to pass, it will mean presenting an increasingly united front, spanning from Europe to Asia, with the primary aim of checking American influence in the world.
This has long been Russia’s goal and in Iran it has found a powerful and willing ally.