What Putin’s visit to Iran means for Middle East?

Russia;s relationship with Iran should be seen in the light of ending of the P5+1 nuclear deal that effectively put an end to Iran’s geo-political isolation

Yasmeen Aftab Ali

By Yasmeen Aftab Ali

A very important development has escaped the notice of local media in light of ongoing happenings. This was Putin’s first visit to Iran bearing gifts in eight years.

Let’s briefly take a look at the historical involvement of both Russia and Syria to analyse the importance of this meeting. In my op-ed of October 19, 2015, I wrote, “Russia’s relationship with Syria goes back to 1946 before Syria gained independence via a secret agreement pledging Russian support both diplomatically and militarily to help the Syrian Army. In 2012, Russia stood by Syria against western interests and those of Arabian countries. In 2013, there were allegations of use of chemical weapons against the populace by Assad’s government. Russia’s interests are not restricted only to her naval base at Syria’s port Tartus, the interests are multidimensional.”

“Russia has worked to build relations with Syria to effectively stop western influence (read US influence) in the region. Russia also doesn’t trust US intentions in the region. It believes humanitarian concerns are often used as an excuse for pursuing America’s own political and economic interests.

“Further, economics also drives Russian policy regarding

Syria. Russia is the biggest military hardware supplier to Syria crossing billions in US dollars. ‘Moscow also signed a $550 million deal with Syria for combat training jets.’ (CNN, August 30, 2013)

In another op-ed of mine published September 3, 2013, I wrote, “Many American strategists feel support to Syrian rebels and a subsequent downfall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will result in a rollback on the influence Iran yields with Syria and inflicting a major casualty upon Iran. Syria has been Iran’s sole consistent ally since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“It is in American strategic interest,” says Michael Rubin, “not to allow Iran to prevail in Syria. The chief impediment to peace and stability in the Middle East is Iran, and it’s long past time the United States begins to realise that there will be no breakthrough on any issue of concern to US national security until the Islamic Republic no longer exists. It should be the policy of the United States to hasten that day.” (Published 23 June, 2013) A friend, in a lengthy private email commenting on the tense situation in Syria, wrote, ‘The west has delayed Syrian “spring” long enough.’

“However, there are the religious-geographic dynamics that cannot be overlooked. Hezbollah and Iran in hands with the Alawites of Syria have been aiming at reviving the Greater Iran, keeping in view their own schismatic ideology, the effects of which reflect in the current proxy war in Pakistan. The geographic link formed is Hezbollah on one end, Syria and Iraq forming the centre, with Iran at the other end converge to solidify a unified religious school of thought. Is the Middle East or South Asia ready for the revival of a Greater Iran? Is the world ready for it?

Now let’s see Putin’s visit in this light and ongoing developments on the Syrian front.

Russian relationship with Iran needs to be seen in the light of ending of the P5+1 nuclear deal that effectively put an end to Iran’s geo-political isolation. This effectively allows Iran to work on both economic and diplomatic levels with Europe as well as on a limited scale with the US.

The hot potato that Syria has become, Russia needed to move and move fast. Hence, Putin’s visit. However, before even meeting with the Ayatollah, Russia lifted the ban on uranium export to Iran. USA Today reports Russia has already started delivering an advanced version S-300 air-defence system that had been ‘on hold for many years’.

The lifting of sanctions allows the two nations to work together on multiple levels, “notably their joint efforts to preserve the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in his civil war by providing military support and diplomatic pressure on his behalf.” (USA Today,November 23, 2015). Although Putin was there also for a meeting of the Gas-Exporting Countries Forum. As stated by The Washington Institute, “If Moscow does help Europe on Syria-related issues, it may find itself at further odds with Tehran. Alternatively — or perhaps simultaneously — Russia may decide to finally deliver sophisticated weapons to Iran in order to remind its leaders that the partnership carries benefits currently unattainable from Europe or the United States.”

Iran, meanwhile, says it has arrested an IS linked terror cell in Kermanshah, a day before Putin was supposed to arrive in Tehran. A brilliant stroke of diplomacy by Tehran.

Now look at the USA. Politics unfortunately cannot be sealed off issue-wise in different boxes. US’ stance on Ukraine, Syria and Iran are all linked to one another. Whatever it chooses to do in one arena will lead to a counter-action by Russia and both action and reaction will affect other policy areas.

Keep in mind that Tehran and Moscow have supported and backed Bashar al-Assad through the years of civil war in Syria. A stance diametrically opposed to that taken by the US. In my last week’s op-ed, I had made an observation: “One likely outcome of the Paris attack will be a shift in paradigm: the west more than ever will focus on beating down the ISIS with the removal of Bashar-al-Assad relegated to the subtext.” With the downing of the Russian plane over Syria, not to speak of Paris attacks, Moscow is focusing on forging a broader coalition against the Islamic State.

Though Putin has issued a statement that Russia will not go to war with Turkey over the downed jet, it was followed by Moscow with economic sanctions on Turkey. “It all started with French President Francois Hollande, after the Paris attacks, having the temerity to advance the idea of France working together with Russia in the same coalition against ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip “no excuse” Erdogan thought NATO and Russia by this time would be at each other’s – Cold War 2.0 – nuclear throats, while Washington had brushed off Hollande’s idea with a cascade of platitudes and distortions. And in less than 17 seconds, Prime Minister Ahmet “I ordered it myself” Davutoglu had authorised Turkey to shoot down a Russian Su-24, only a few hours before Hollande met with President Obama. So everything seemed to be falling into place. No chance of a new détente between the Atlantic powers and NATO. On the contrary, Erdogan was sure he had sabotaged for good the Hollande-Putin face-to-face meeting in Moscow.” (RT, November 26, 2015)

The question that arises here is: Will US compromise on its strategy in Syria? Will Russia be willing to sacrifice its strategy at the expense of alienating Iran? The need of the hour, I think, is for all stakeholders to come to the table and seek a middle ground to deal with a crisis that threatens a further spillover. Will US offer a carrot to Moscow? Like lifting the economic sanctions implemented on Russia after Moscow decided to annex Crimea? Will that make Putin step back from Assad? I have a strong feeling it will not. So what will sell?

Or will it lead to break up of Syria?

The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: yasmeenali62@gmail.com and tweets at @yasmeen_9.

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