The Trump administration reportedly seeks to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in Syria. Officials have suggested that the U.S. could exploit natural tensions between the two states and persuade Russia to check Iran in the Middle East. This notion assumes that cooperation between the two countries is limited to tactical efforts in Syria and misses the deep strategic convergence between Moscow and Tehran. Iran and Russia share many fundamental and enduring common interests and strategic objectives, most notably the expulsion of the U.S. from the Middle East.
Iran and Russia are historic rivals and dissimilar regimes. Each poses a unique threat to the existing international order. Russia aims to reestablish itself as a global superpower and restore the multipolar world of the Cold War at the expense of the U.S. and Europe. Iran aims to become a regional hegemon by expelling the U.S. from the Middle East, undermining Saudi Arabia, and eliminating Israel. These aims do not diverge over the short to medium term. Iran remains far from its goal of regional hegemony – a position that would likely draw concern from Moscow. Russia is also not close to achieving parity with the U.S. and NATO. Russia and Iran will thus likely continue to partner closely until one or the other comes within striking distance of its goals – a condition unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future.
Syria – Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime against all its opponents.
Iran needs a friendly regime in Damascus to provide a secure base from which it can support Lebanese Hezbollah and conduct operations against Israel. Russia requires a regime willing and able to guarantee long-term access to its air and naval bases on the Mediterranean Sea from which to challenge the U.S. and NATO. Minor divergences between Iran and Russia in their approach to the Syrian Civil War reflect the friction normal to any coalition rather than signs of fragility. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears to view the continued rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a matter of personal honor while Russian President Vladimir Putin does not. Even if Putin agreed to abandon Assad, however, there is no reason to imagine that the partnership between Russia and Iran would collapse given their numerous other grounds for cooperation.
Iraq and Afghanistan – Iran and Russia seek to expel the U.S. from both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Russia and Iran both seek to eliminate the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tehran aims to prevent Iraq from becoming a hostile base of attack, remembering the existential struggle of the Iran-Iraq War against former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Tehran uses political parties and militias to pressure the weak government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, periodically threatening to replace him with a pro-Iranian leader who might order the U.S. out of Iraq. Meanwhile, Russian outreach in Iraq has been opportunistic. Russia formed a joint intelligence-sharing cell with Iran, Iraq, and Syria and stands ready to further increase its involvement with support from political actors aligned with Iran in Baghdad. Iran and Russia both also desire a stable buffer state in Afghanistan that excludes the U.S. and NATO. Both countries prefer to work with the same set of allies on the ground within the Northern Alliance as well as the Afghan Taliban.
Turkey – Iran and Russia desire to peel Turkey away from the U.S. and NATO.
Iran and Russia both seek to pull Turkey out of the orbit of the U.S. and NATO while ending Ankara’s support to opposition groups in Syria. Both countries also oppose Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman strategic vision to reassert Turkish economic, cultural, and military dominance over the Middle East. Russia and Iran also have major economic interests in Turkey as a transit route for natural gas pipelines and a buyer of energy resources. Moscow and Tehran have coopted Turkey into diplomatic initiatives to end the Syrian Civil War that exclude the U.S. Both countries jointly took advantage of tensions between the U.S. and Turkey over coalition support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which Turkey considers to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan has expressed a willingness to pursue membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the rival to NATO led by Russia and China.
Egypt – Iran and Russia aim to accelerate Egypt’s drift away from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Russia and Iran encourage Egypt’s movement away from the U.S. and Gulf States. Russia likely seeks new military basing on the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea in Egypt that would give it control over the Suez Canal. Iran needs new points of access to support its illicit networks throughout Africa after losing its partners in Sudan and Eritrea. Both countries likely view Cairo as an acceptable counterweight to Saudi Arabia for leadership of Sunni Arabs in the Middle East. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has voted for Russian initiatives on Syria at the UN Security Council and reportedly sent a limited number of troops to Syria on behalf of the Russia and Iran.
Caucasus – Russia and Iran back Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Russia maintains a strong alliance with Armenia that spans centuries. Moscow has sold billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Yerevan over the past two decades and has permanent military bases in Yerevan and Gyumri. Iran supports Armenia as a counterweight to Azerbaijan. Tehran fears that Baku could support a secessionist movement within its own domestic Azeri population and accuses Azerbaijan of providing Israel with a base for intelligence-gathering and military training.
Global Stage – Russia and Iran seek to weaken and divide the EU and NATO.
Russia and Iran view the EU and NATO as tools of U.S. domination in Europe. Russia pressures NATO through continuous military exercises and violations of airspace or territorial waters as well as attacks against pro-Western governments in the former Soviet Union, with Ukraine being the most notable example. Russia supports extremist political parties in Europe that seek to devolve power from the EU to national governments. Iranian rhetoric has recently begun incorporating greater criticism of the EU, including public expressions of support for Brexit.
Russia and Iran diverge on only a few key points. Russia does not seek to usurp the regional and religious influence of Saudi Arabia or destroy the state of Israel. Iran’s quest for regional hegemony also likely poses a problem for Moscow, which would prefer a regional balance among Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt as well as positive relations with Israel. Putin has done nothing to protest or contain Iranian efforts against Israel, however, even in the numerous instances when weapons Russia gave to Syria were reportedly transferred to Lebanese Hezbollah. Russia seems willing to accept increased tensions with Saudi Arabia and Israel in exchange for its partnership with Iran.
Russia and Iran also diverge on their stance towards the Kurds. Iran fears separatism among Kurds in Northern Iran amidst an increase in low-level domestic attacks over the past year. Russia by contrast views the Kurds as a source of leverage against regional and international powers including the U.S., Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Moscow has nevertheless offered no meaningful support for an independent Kurdistan – the one item that might fully draw the Kurds into the orbit of Russia. Iran and Russia seem quite capable of managing these differences to sustain their pursuit of common goals.
There is nothing unnatural, artificial, or inherently temporary about the coalition between Russia and Iran. Their relationship rests on a deep foundation of common strategic objectives and interests. The two countries are building a military coalition that can operate across the region – including a potential anti-access, area-denial zone stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. Meaningful divisions between Moscow and Tehran will only materialize under extreme conditions when either or both are on the verge of victory or collapse, forcing the other to make hard choices about its long-term regional interests. The foreseeable future offers little prospect of any such development. The inflation of minor disagreements in Syria into opportunities to split Russia from Iran misses the depth of this alignment and opens the U.S. up to strategic surprise by a rising coalition that is already rewriting the rules of the game in the Middle East.