Relationship Crisis? Russia and Iran at a Crossroads

In light of the reports of the understandings between Israel and Russia regarding the military situation in Syria, Tehran fears that Putin is moving away from them and closer to the Riyadh-Jerusalem axis

Russia's Putin and Iran's Ruhani (Photo -

The impression in Israel after Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow in May and following several statements by senior Russian officials, is that some kind of deal was being forged between Israel and Russia in which “Iran will no longer be in Syria.” All these reports and rumors make it difficult to distinguish between truth and just noise. Of course, in order to try to understand the situation, we must look at the issue from the Russian and Iranian angles, and not just settle for what we as Israelis want to see.

According to Israeli publications, Russia will commit itself to withdraw all “non-Syrian forces” from the south of the country in exchange for an Israeli agreement for pro-Assad forces to re-take control of the region of Quneitra, Dera’a and Suwayda.

Defense Minister Lieberman visited Moscow and everything is seemingly going smoothly between Russia and Israel. However, a closer look shows that things are not so simple and there is more going on than meets the eye. Official Russia has refrained from addressing the issue at all, and has yet to describe the reported outline as a binding deal in any way.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said he had no information about a deal between Israel and Russia.

While Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did say that “the desired situation is for the forces of the Syrian Arab Republic to be stationed along the border between Israel and Syria,” but it should be noted that he addressed the issue during a press conference with the foreign minister of Mozambique and not as part of a discussion on the Middle East.

Judging from how things seem to be in Moscow, there are apparently some understandings with Israel, though not a finished deal. In any case, the important detail that the Russian media chose to emphasize in this context is that Bashar’s forces will be deployed close to the southern Syrian border, while the Iran and Shiite militias quandary is being downplayed.

Rage and Concern in Tehran

Reactions from Iran were not long in coming. First to respond to the understandings between Russia and Israel was Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Kasami, who said: “No one will force Iran to do a thing. Iran is an independent state whose policy is determined by its interests abroad. Our presence in Syria will continue as long as the terror continues, and as long as the Syrian government is interested in our assistance.”

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani also stressed that Iranian forces were in Syria at the request of the Syrian government.

Interestingly, those who openly criticize Russia are actually media affiliated with the reformists or the moderate conservatives, while journalists close to the Revolutionary Guards remain silent about Russia, which they generally sympathize with.

For example, the liberal E’temad newspaper wondered why the Russian representative demanded that Hezbollah and the Iranians should leave Syria, rather than “the Israeli army in the occupied Golan Heights.” The writers of E’temad believe that the revised Russian position was made possible by the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and also as a consequence of talks between Putin and Netanyahu on May 9.

The moderate conservative site “Tabnaq”, which is close to former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai, also linked the Russian position to the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. The website stated that “against the background of the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, and especially when Iran needs Russian support, it seems that Moscow is trying to extort concessions from Iran in Syria. These are supposed to bring Russia closer to the West, because one of the conditions the West demands from Russia is to limit Iran’s influence in Syria. ”

The newspaper “Sharq”, which was close to the late President Hashemi Rafsanjani, said that the changes in the Russian position stemmed from the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. According to writer Hadi Azari, Riyadh wants to reap political gains by getting closer to Moscow and by investing in the Russian economy. The writer sees the proof of coordination between Saudi Arabia and Russia as a Russian-Saudi agreement on the coordination of oil prices. Not coincidentally, the title of the article is “Magic of Black Gold”.

The Persian diplomat Firdon Majlasi believes that, unlike certain Iranian politicians who trust Russia, Russia is not an ally of Iran and certainly will not fight for it. In his opinion, Russia wants to remain alone in Syria without rivals, and if Iranian forces do not remain in Syria, the Americans will also have no reason to be there and that is what Russia wants.

Between Theory and Reality

It is now clear that there are indeed serious differences of opinion between Russia and Iran, and that we are not dealing with a steadfast strategic alliance. It seems that Majlesi is correct and he sees the Russian conduct clearly and is right in saying that Iran can not trust Russia.

But both sides have a mutual affinity – Russia and Iran need each other even if they do not like each other. Russia can not control the territory without an Iranian presence, and Iran can not move and maneuver its militias without Russian air cover.

The differences between the two countries are over the future of Syria. Moscow can make do with just the survival of the Assad regime, and therefore Russia apparently has no intention of waging war so that he can recapture all the lands he has lost. Russia is also conducting the process of “regulation” in Astana with Iran, and not against its will. This is another reason why it is too early to talk about a real rift between Russia and Iran.

On the other hand, Russia fears an all out confrontation between Iran and Israel and certainly does not want to get caught in the cross fire. Therefore, Russia’s strategic goal remains unchanged – maintaining good relations with both Iran and Israel. Russia was caught against its will in a new situation it had not planned for in advance.

From the outset, Russian policy was truculent in relation to the United States, since Russia can not offer anything tangible to its partners in terms of economic aid.

Russia enjoyed this position until the moment when the Americans decided to abandon the Syrian arena more or less. The new situation, in which everyone sees Russia as the address for solving the problems and crises in Syria, has indeed increased Russia’s diplomatic prestige, but on the other hand has created a state of responsibility for what is happening in Syria. Moscow, of course, has neither the intention nor the will to take on real responsibility for anything.

The Israeli Payment

Many problems emerge from this point. First of all, it should be noted that there are no real Iranian forces in Syria, but rather advisers of the Revolutionary Guards and many Shiite militias – from Lebanese Hezbollah to the Afghani “Fatemiyoun” – all of whom are under Iranian command. At the same time, it is worth remembering that Russia has no physical ability to give orders to these militias and certainly not to confront them, certainly not for the interests of Israel.

Most Russian commentators believe that Russia will not derive any real profits from the understandings with Israel, since the deployment of Assad’s forces on the Golan border is convenient for Assad himself, but not for Russia. Another and even more complicated issue is, how to separate between Assad forces and the pro-Iranian militias on the ground? After all, they work together and to distinguish between them is impossible.

For example, the Abu al-Fadhel al-Abbas Brigade militia is part of the 105th Brigade of the Assad Republican Guard. Other militias are integrated into the fourth armored division under the command of Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. Also in southern Syria are militias and other Shiite organizations that Hezbollah and Iran can operate, and Russia obviously has no ability to control them.

It is still not clear how the United States will act, since the area included in the outline also applies to the American al-Tanf military base, near the Jordan River.

Another complex and charged issue is the “payment” that Russia demanded from Israel. After all, Russia can not even agree to consider putting pressure on Iran for free, only because Netanyahu asked. The concern is that Israel actually agreed to the surrender of the rebels it has helped in recent years. This means that they will be massacred by Assad, because it is hard to imagine that any of the rebels will believe the promises of amnesty by the murderous and bloodthirsty Syrian regime.

Even if Israel made sure to describe the assistance to the rebels as humanitarian aid and “good neighborliness,” so as not to interpret it as support for one of the sides in the civil war, this would be seen as an Israeli betrayal of its allies which will have severe consequences in the short run.

This will be yet another illustration to all sides in the Arab world that Israel is not capable of defending its allies, and therefore it is not worth allying with. Something this writer hopes that the leaders of the political and military echelons in Israel are aware of this.

Crisis in Jordan

Future events in Syria will also affect Jordan, which is undergoing difficult times itself. The economic crisis and the social unrest in the Hashemite Kingdom have many reasons, one of which is the difficulty in absorbing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the overcrowded camps.

These refugees are willing to work at any job for minuscule wages, which of course causes increased tensions between Jordanians and Syrians. In the case of a new massacre by Assad, another stream of Syrian refugees into Jordan can be expected, something that deeply concerns the leaders of Jordanian, whose continued stability is a supreme strategic Israeli interest.

In the meantime, it was reported that pro-Iranian fighters returned to southern Syria after a temporary break, and joined forces with Assad for fear of Israeli air strikes. It is very possible that one of Russia’s conditions for the deal is the cessation of Israeli attacks deep inside Syria and the avoidance of harming Assad’s forces. As this case illustrates, pro-Iranian militias can solve this “problem” very easily.

On June 4, the first conflict broke out between the Russian forces and Hezbollah when a Russian unit was deployed in al-Qusayr near the Lebanese border. For the first time, Hezbollah members harshly criticized Russia for having said that the deployment of forces was carried out without coordination with Assad and without any prior notice to Hezbollah.

A senior member of the terrorist organization, who was interviewed anonymously by the Reuters news agency, said that the goal of the Russian unit’s move was to calm Israel. It is not known if the Russians remained in Al-Qusayr, but it is reasonable to assume that Russia will not risk an open conflict with Iran and Hezbollah, especially when it is clear that it will not gain real profits from it.

*(Translated from Hebrew)


Alex Grinberg is a Middle East Researcher, specializing in Iranian religious thought and works as geo-political analyst in a risk assessment company. 

 [Find this article interesting? You can find more in depth articles on Israel and the Middle East]

Related articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.