By Clément Therme, Research Fellow for Iran
The rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East is not only the result of a sustained exploitation of regional instability – largely in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – but also the consequence of a new military entente with Moscow. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Iran has been dependent on security support from Russia to protect Bashar al-Assad against a perceived – if unsubstantiated – policy on the part of the United States to bring about regime change. In terms of the nuclear and broader military files, the relationship between the two countries is clearly important for the future of the Middle East. There may also be some ideological affinities, especially shared anti-Americanism. But this is now more a contextual alliance against Sunni jihadist movements than a common political project or shared strategic agenda.
Indeed, in the relationship between the two countries what matters more is what they do not want, rather than any vision of a political project offering an alternative to Western universalism. Both – for domestic reasons as much as anything – reject Western regime-change policies and the instrumentalisation of human rights to promote geopolitical objectives. This theoretical convergence applies particularly well to the Syrian case, where Russia and Iran wish to prevent the emergence respectively of a pro-Western or pro-Saudi regime in Damascus. They present themselves as supporters of the status quo and have declared that only their opponents have an interest in the destabilisation of Syria. At this stage, their divergence on Israel is not a major factor in their partnership. It is instead driven by the new cold war between the US and Russia, as well as the cold peace between Iran and the West.
Since the failure of the Arab Spring and the targeting of their territory by the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, Western states have begun to view the reinvigorated Russian–Iranian relationship through a different lens. The Barack Obama administration has been accused by some analysts in the Arab world and Turkey of having made a paradigm shift in its policy towards Iran. Even if this conspiracy theory cannot satisfactorily explain US foreign policy in the region, one has to consider the consequences of the emergence of ISIS for US strategy in the Middle East.
Since the end of the Cold War, some Western commentators have portrayed the Russian–Iranian entente as the main threat to Western security in the region, because of their military and nuclear cooperation. Today in Mosul, the US, Russia and Iran are all supporting the Iraqi government in its fight against ISIS. Have we seen any change in the nature of the Russia–Iran partnership or has the Western perception regarding these two countries changed given the new political situation that has emerged in the Middle East since the Arab Spring?
The Obama administration’s response to the Iranian–Russian challenge to Western global hegemony has been to engage in dialogue, rather than use force, which might result in unpredictable consequences for its efforts to achieve sometimes uncertain political goals. Even if dialogue is not a guarantee for diplomatic success (as witnessed by the ‘reset’ of relations with Russia or thwarted efforts to achieve a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war), the demonisation of Iran and Russia (exemplified by the administration of George W. Bush, which included Iran in its so-called ‘axis of evil’) is certainly a guarantee for failure and the further destabilisation of the region.
During the Bush administration, the exaggerated discourse among neoconservatives regarding the Russo-Iranian ‘threat’ was ideologically driven rather than based on evidence. The more pragmatic approach of the Obama administration to identify areas of cooperation and to initiate a direct channel of discussion has to be pursued, therefore, to avoid the unpredictable consequences of American military intervention in a region with enough security challenges to contend with. Nevertheless, the downside of a less interventionist US foreign policy has been the victory of the Russo-Iranian narrative in the region and the inaccurate characterisation of democracy as a force that leads to chaos. The logical corollary of that is to identify areas of divergence as well – and to target policy responses specifically on these terms.
This is part of a series of posts for the 2016 Manama Voices blog, which provides analysis and commentary from IISS experts throughout the IISS Manama Dialogue, to be held in Bahrain on 9–11 December 2016.
For full coverage of the proceedings visit the IISS Manama Dialogue 2016 website. All participants will be encouraged to use #IISSMD2016 to share their insights on social media.