Russia and Iran: New strategic power alliance in Syria?

nagar fayaziRussia and Iran’s unprecedented cooperation in the Syrian civil war to maintain Bashar al-Assad’s regime has captured the world’s attention. This pairing has undoubtedly had a significant impact in the Middle East region along with hindering the United States (US) hegemonic status. However, in the past Iran and Russia’s relationship was not always as robust as it is currently, in fact there was a substantial amount of mistrust and resentment between these two emerging powersi. Thus, the question that should be asked is: Why are Iran and Russia allies in Syria?

After the 1979 overthrow of the shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), "No East, No West" was a common refrain in Iranii, however since 2014 a number of common interests between Tehran and Moscow have contributed towards their strengthened alliance in Syria. First and foremost, Iran and Russia share mutual geostrategic goals in opposition towards the West, especially the US, and therefore their alliance hinders US interests in the Middle Eastiii.

The pair have closely provided military and financial aid to save Assad’s regime – a mutual ally that serves both their strategic interests within the region. As discussed in the previous blog on Iranian influence in turbulent Syria, Iran’s involvement in Syria will enhance its credibility across the region and abroad. Most importantly, Syria creates a front for Iran to supply arms to Hezbollah. For Russia, Syria has instrumental value as it is the only real ‘outpost’ in the Middle East and the collapse of the Syrian state would cause a spill-over of extremismiv.

Russia views Iran as both domestically and regionally strong and thus this makes Iran appear as a stable actor and functioning state that can advance Russian interests in Syria. This applies equally to Iran’s view of Russia. It is important to note that while Saudi- Arabia also shares these qualities, “it has [affiliated] itself with the Syrian opposition, [explicitly] calling for regime change, in ways that Russia cannot [support]v. In sum, for Iran pairing up with Russia enhances its economic power, geopolitical position along with providing “manoeuvring space during negotiations with the West”vi

The Syrian conflict has provided a pathway for an anti-western alliance and for both nations to work together to protect their respective interests. It is evident that without Iran and Russia’s cooperation and support, Assad’s regime would have not survived for this long - which exemplifies the strength and capability of both countries. Ultimately, Iran and Russia want to remain major players in Syria, however the question that now remains, especially with the trump administration is: whether the alliance is durable and can their alliance extend beyond Syria in the future?

Ms Negar Fayazi holds a BA Hons in International Relations from the University of Pretoria and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with the University of South Africa (UNISA). Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

i Borshchevskaya, A. 2017. Can Trump Break Up the Russian-Iranian Alliance? Available at: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/can-trump-break-up-the-russian-iranian-alliance. [Retrieved 10 June 2017].
ii Dettmer, J.2017. Will Iran’s alliance with Russia Last? Available at: https://www.voanews.com/a/will-iran-alliance-with-russia-last/3672455.html. [Retrieved 8 June 2017].
iii Borshchevskaya, A. 2017. Can Trump Break Up the Russian-Iranian Alliance? Available at: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/can-trump-break-up-the-russian-iranian-alliance. [Retrieved 10 June 2017].
iv The conversation. 2017. Russia and Iran’s Cooperation Hints at a New Middle East. Available at: http://theconversation.com/russia-and-irans-growing-cooperation-hints-at-a-new-middle-east-75181. [Retrieved 11 June 2017].
v Geranmayeh, E. & Liik, K. 2016. The new power couple: Russia and Iran in the Middle East. Policy brief.
vi Geranmayeh, E. & Liik, K. 2016. The new power couple: Russia and Iran in the Middle East. Policy brief.