Russia and Iran: Past is not necessarily prologue

In a piece on The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Samuel Ramani argues against the idea that Russian-Iranian relations have improved, or even can improve in the long-term. Purporting to take issue with an article I wrote on this blog, he claims that “deep distrust, economic competition [in oil and gas] and conflicting ideological agendas [in Syria]…make the Russia-Iran alliance quite unstable.”

He gets several things wrong. In part, this is because he mischaracterizes my argument. I didn’t discuss Russian-Iranian relations in comprehensive detail—the relationship has a long, complicated history and was not the subject of the post. Instead, I focused on the situation in Syria. My main points were:

  1. There are three key outside players with a stake in the Syrian gambit—the United States, Russia, and Iran. Each is interested in influencing how and under what terms the Syrian civil war ends, as well as the contours of the future Syria.
  2. The interests of these three players differ but, in my view, there is still room for cooperation, particularly along bilateral lines (U.S.-Russia, U.S.-Iran, Russia-Iran).
  3. A Russian-Iranian alliance is the likeliest of the three, in large part because of the low level of U.S. diplomatic tolerance for the other players.

Ramani does not seem to dispute these particular points. And I agree with Ramani that Russia and Iran have different interests in Syria, as I wrote in my previous post. But I cannot support his conclusion that these diverging interests put the two on a “collision course,” or that their ambitions are “clashing.” He ignores their close economic ties, their political alignment (namely a shared interest in keeping Bashar Assad in power and in limiting U.S. influence in the Middle East), and, most of all, he misses the simple fact that relationships can change unpredictably.

Trade buddies

Of course, no Russian or Iranian official has claimed that a formal partnership between their countries exists. But regardless, the countries have much to unite them. As neighbors, Russia-Iran economic relations are closer than those of more far-flung countries. Economic ties are further strengthened because of certain market complementarities: Russia produces many types of goods that Iran imports or will soon import, like aviation-related materials, power generation technology (including nuclear), and cars. 

Although Russia and Iran are competitors in the international oil market, both have low oil production costs and so share an interest in reasonably low prices to chase out principally North American competitors. Given Iran’s need to revitalize its oil industry, it may—like Iraq did—welcome all the big international players to compete for government bids. As in Iraq, some Russian companies may win tenders—but no one in Russia expects them to get overwhelming dominance in Iranian oil.

I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine

Mutual trade and economic cooperation do not necessarily create a political partnership—look at the history of Soviet/Russian-Finnish relations. But Russia and Iran are politically aligned in many ways. There isn’t any conflict of interest between Russia and Iran in Syria that makes the two countries destined to fall out there. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Both countries use the “spheres of influence” concept as the foundation for their foreign policy, and both are looking to reduce the influence of the United States globally (in Russia’s case) and regionally, in the Middle East (in Iran’s).
  • Both Russia and Iran see Syrian President Bashar Assad as an important partner, and want to see him govern over a united Syria in the future. When another Syrian politician (or a general) eventually emerges as the successor to Assad, he will likely be acceptable to both Russia and Iran—provided he is not Sunni or U.S.-backed.
  • The Iranian regime has demonstrated an impressive ability for nearly 40 years to maintain stability and order domestically, amid a very unfavorable external environment. Moreover, Iran has handled its leadership succession well—changes in religious and civilian leadership have not led to the destabilization in the country. This is an eternal challenge for many countries in this region, and few have as successful a record. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who does not believe that Western-style democracy is universally applicable, Iran’s successes in these regards make it an attractive partner for Russia. In his view, Iran could be an important ally in developing long-term stability in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, for example.
  • Russia’s practical interests—namely military bases and arms contracts—do not undermine Iran’s ideological interests or its desire to become a regional hegemon. Particularly as sanctions on Iran are removed, it will be looking to modernize its military. Russia may be one of the best suppliers.

Changes (that’s just the way it is)

It’s also important to keep in mind that although it’s usually safe to assume that current trends will continue, almost all eventually come to an end. A deterministic approach—insisting that relations in the past cannot be changed in the future—is risky in international affairs. Relations between countries, unlike economic processes for instance, depend a lot on personalities, on personal views, habits, and chemistry. Relying only on the verdict of history, how would one explain the German invasion of the USSR in 1941? The two countries had very good political and economic relations during the 1930s. How would you explain Henry Kissinger’s open hand to China in the 1970s if you only looked at the legacy of 1950s and 1960s?

Pressure on Washington

As Russia and Iran develop closer ties, the United States needs to identify its interests in Syria (and the broader Middle East) and formulate a long-term policy accordingly. If it fails to do so, the United States may soon face a very unfavorable development: the emergence of a pragmatic, mutually-beneficial Russian-Iranian alliance that would shake up international relations. Ramani argues that such an alliance could not be stable; I disagree. But even if we accept his argument, that doesn’t reduce the need for the United States to figure out a more comprehensive approach to the situation in the Middle East.