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Russia and Iran: Uncomfortable bedfellows

Is the tactical alliance between Russia and Iran in countries such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria a shotgun marriage of convenience or a durable mutual bond? Their goal of protecting their ally Bashar Assad has put them on the same team in Syria. Both are deeply invested, with Russia establishing permanent bases from which to carpet-bomb opposition fighters, and Iran fielding around 60,000 proxy fighters — outnumbering Assad’s own forces — and pouring some $100 billion into the conflict.

But as they consider what the endgame in Syria will look like, it becomes obvious how divergent their visions are. With Russia the principal international party championing Assad, Tehran was not even consulted about negotiations concerning pauses in the fighting, heightening Iranian suspicions about Moscow’s goals.

Iran’s theological worldview clashes with Russia’s secularist fear of Islamist extremism. Meanwhile, Moscow has little sympathy for Tehran’s efforts to create a pro-Hezbollah region between Damascus and Lebanon, even bussing in Iraqi Shiites to make up the numbers. Russia’s prioritization of its ties with Israel contrasts with Tehran’s anti-Zionist posturing.

Moscow’s goal has been to do the minimum necessary to consolidate the Syrian regime’s position and exploit its commanding seat at the negotiating table. The goals of Hezbollah and Iran are more far-reaching, with greater willingness to use military force, even if at huge cost in money and lives.

Both Moscow and Tehran want Syria as a client state, but they have radically different ideas about what this state (or statelets) will look like. It is not clear that Syria could serve two such different masters. Yet the ayatollahs in Iran and the autocrats in Russia are willing to paper over the cracks in their relationship because, as Assad’s only significant allies and the reason he remains in power, they are heavily dependent on each other.

These two states are also meddling in another shared backyard: Afghanistan. US military leaders warn that Russia has “begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban,” and that Tehran and Moscow are coordinating support for Islamist insurgents.

Both have a stake in inconveniencing the Americans, reinforcing their influence and cultivating a relationship with whoever comes out on top. In Herat and Helmand, Afghan officials document Russian weapons — such as land mines, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds — smuggled to insurgents with Iranian facilitation.

Iran has also brokered Russian interference in Yemen. A grateful former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh offered to give Moscow access to naval facilities. Russia is the only major state, apart from Iran, that maintains an embassy in Sanaa, offering an excellent line of communication to Houthi occupying forces. Meanwhile, Russian media have been rabidly hostile to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) role in bringing stability.

Political marriages of convenience based on aggressive policy goals often end in brutal divorce. In 1939, two political opposites — communist Russia and fascist Germany — jointly invaded Poland. Hitler then turned against Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and vengeful Russian troops fought their way into Berlin.

Baria Alamuddin

Russian destabilizing interference in neighboring regions such as Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea is part of a long-term expansionist strategy that has deeply unnerved Baltic states and forced nations such as Norway and Sweden to rethink their defensive posture. Moscow’s meddling in distant Arab states smacks of opportunistic exploitation of instability, particularly in Yemen and Libya, where it never previously had a stake.

The Trump administration’s narrative of isolationist nationalism gave Moscow hope that it could fill America’s shoes as it disengaged from the region. Iran for decades has cultivated proxies in the Arab world. In states where Iranian dominance is already uncontested, such as Iraq and Lebanon, Russia gracefully kept its distance.

Russia and Iran are the two most aggressive purveyors of cyber-warfare. Russian President Vladimir Putin gloats at the notoriety that his attempts to sabotage US and European elections brought him, bearing fruit last week in his foreign minister’s triumphant trip to the White House.

The attack against President-elect Emmanuel Macron’s campaign on the eve of the French elections may appear gratuitous, but it underscores the lengths Putin is willing to go to in support of far-right candidates, posing one of the gravest existential threats to Western democracy in decades.

Experts express horror at the vicious persistence of Iranian global cyber-attacks against economic, infrastructural, governmental and military targets, with Saudi Arabia and the US top of the list. The aim is often to cause maximum damage and anarchy, like a class bully who attacks classmates simply because he can. Observers believe that along with Russia’s supply of military hardware to Iran, there has also been assistance for Tehran’s cyber-wars.

Will their tactical alliance last? Political marriages of convenience based on aggressive policy goals often end in brutal divorce. In 1939, two political opposites — communist Russia and fascist Germany — jointly invaded Poland. Hitler then turned against Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and vengeful Russian troops fought their way into Berlin. History is littered with examples of such relationships ending in tears.

Russia, via its role in the Astana talks, is focused on “de-escalation zones” and calming the fighting in Syria. If Moscow tries to impose cease-fires or demobilization on the plethora of Iranian proxies, it may discover that these forces bite back.

With the US amassing forces in readiness for the final onslaught against Daesh, this will further strain the relationship between Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Assad as they are forced to assert whether they are with or against the US in the battle for Raqqa.

Russia’s efforts to establish niches in the Middle East are facilitating Iran’s emergence as a supreme power in the Levant and Central Asia. US support in the 1980s for Islamist fighters against the Soviets unleashed forces that came back to bite it 100 times over. Russia in the Arab world is today committing the same mistake.

• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.