Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
The level of geopolitical, economic, and military cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran has steadily risen over the past several years. A convergence of interests in Syria and the broader Middle East, common opposition to Western sanctions, a mutual desire for economic development, and most recently the necessity for containing the spread of the Islamic State have driven the two Eurasian powers together. This has not always been the case. Russia and Persia have spent far more of their history in competition than in cooperation, with only recent mutual concerns uniting them. This dynamic seems often missed by Western analysts, and is worth examining in some depth.
The Former Yugoslavia
A relatively recent case of Russo-Iranian competition can be found in the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia. During these conflicts, Russia stood loyal to Serbia, with whom religious and historical ties run deep. Iran supported the Bosnian Muslims, for religious as well as strategic reasons. Though not overtly antagonistic, Moscow and Tehran stood on differing sides of the conflict.
Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, Russia was slow to recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia. The West’s apparent support for Yugoslavia’s dissolution played into the hands of both the Yeltsin and Milosevic governments. Moscow and Belgrade began speaking in pan-Slavic terms, of creating a united front against aggression from both NATO and Islamist forces. Hundreds of Russian volunteers joined the fight in Bosnia, a gesture that is being repaid in kind by Serbian volunteers participating in eastern Ukraine.
In Bosnia meanwhile, Iran sent large amounts of money and military supplies to the Muslim Bosniaks. Iranian Intelligence agents and commandos from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) developed a near-permanent presence on the ground in rural Bosnia. In addition, Iran’s ally Hezbollah sent its fighters from Lebanon both to protect the Muslim population and to counter the spread of Jihadist forces in the Balkans.
Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer stationed in Sarajevo during the war, later commented that “In Sarajevo, the Bosnian Muslim government is a client of the Iranians . . . if it’s a choice between the CIA and the Iranians, they’ll take the Iranians any day.” Bosnian soldiers from Muslim Army Brigades were reportedly sent to Iran for training. Iran established the Persian-Bosnian College near Sarajevo and Bosnia hosts the largest Iranian embassy in Europe. Though Bosnian Muslims are typically in the Sunni sect, there is a sizeable pro-Iranian, pro-Shi’ite faction within the religious establishment.
In the Arab world, both Moscow and Tehran benefit from Shi’ite or secular regimes. For Russia, Assad’s government has been a long-term ally because hosts Russia’s naval base at Tartus, is opposed to radical Whabbism, and has extensive economic relations with Moscow. In Moscow’s point of view, the secular state of Syria is a model to be emulated in the region.
Combine this with the presence of Chechen Jihadists fighting on the ‘rebel’ side of the war and it is clear when Russia made Syria a priority. The appeal such an organization would have outside the Caucasus in unclear, but it would certainly put Russia’s Muslim population of over 10 million into a difficult position.
For Iran, Syria has been a loyal ally against Saddam Hussein, served as a supply route to Hezbollah, has protected the Shi’ite shrines of Sayyida Zeinab (a granddaughter of Muhammad) and the Mosques of Ammar bin Yasir and Uwais al-Qarani, which are of deep religious and cultural value to Shi’ites. Also, the ruling (Alawite - sub-sect of Shia Islam) al-Assad family has shared religious solidarity with the Iranians.
All of these factors have brought Syria into the Iranian led “Axis of Resistance” against Israeli and American dominance in the region. From Hezbollah in Lebanon, through Syria, into Kurdish and Shi’ite communities of Iraq, into Iran, and into Shi’ite tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Tehran has built a sphere of influence in the Eurasian heartland. This alliance, south of the historical Russian Empire, provides Iran with a significant position over much of the world’s petroleum reserves.
The Anti-ISIS Coalition
The issues surrounding the Islamic State are worthy of further consideration. Islamic extremism is no stranger to the North Caucasus, but the unprecedented military success of ISIS risks opening old wounds in the region. Chechen fighters (which number as many as 2,000) hold key leadership positions in the Islamic State. The group has gone so far as to establish a school for Russian-speaking children in the occupied city of Rakka, Syria. ISIS has made personal threats against Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with promises to drive Russian forces from the Caucasus. In response to the security threat Moscow has sent several jet aircraft to Baghdad to assist their defense but has taken little other overt action.
However, Iran has taken a much more active approach, with at least 5,000 soldiers already deployed to Iraq. The Revolutionary Guards have been training and equipping an approximate 20,000 Shi’ite militiamen in the country to further reinforce existing units. Hezbollah meanwhile is expanding their operations into Iraq, with Iran reportedly creating an official Iraqi branch of the Shi’ite paramilitary.
The Nuclear Question
Further complicating the dynamic are nuclear issues. Just two weeks before a nuclear-talks deadline between Iran and Western countries, Moscow signed a deal to build 8 new nuclear plants in Iran. Chief of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, described the developments as “the turning point in the relations between our countries...these friendly actions, taken by Russia will be well-remembered.” He further added that Russia and Iran “have become even closer to each other.” The project will be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and will fully comply with the non-proliferation regime.
Andrew E. Kramer of the New York Times argues that “the agreement shows that Russia is pressing ahead with its own vision for ensuring that Iran does not build nuclear weapons, by supplying civilian power technology that will operate under international monitoring.” This independent course could further place Russia as a regional dealmaker looked to by various regional powers.
Moves and Countermoves
Cooperation between Russia and Iran is highly likely to increase for the foreseeable future due to shared political, military, and economic concerns. Mutual interest in containing ISIS, countering Western sanctions, and developing the Caspian Sea region will continue to incentivize collaboration between the two powers. As the regional security environment continues to deteriorate, Moscow and Tehran will increasingly present themselves as pillars of stability and appeal to the region’s embattled Christians and Shi’ites. Nuclear issues will continue to plague the Middle East and Eurasia, but it is likely that a lasting agreement between Russia, Iran, and the P5+1 could help stabilize the regional environment over the long-term.