BEIRUT: For the time being, there will be no divorce in the Russian-Iranian “marriage of convenience,” analysts say, after a public spat was quickly contained following Moscow’s announcement of its use of an Iranian air base to launch strikes on Syria. Earlier this week, Russia said it halted its operations from the Iranian Hamedan base having completed its objectives, adding that further use of the base will be carried out if the situation in Syria warrants it.
The Russian statement came after Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, chastised Russia for publicizing the agreement, with what he considered to be a “show-off and ungentlemanly” attitude.
While this altercation might indicate a lack of coordination between Iran and Russia, their determination to support President Bashar Assad and to keep the U.S. out of the region drowns out speculation over whether there’s evidence of an unstable relationship, according to analysts.
Sanam Vakil, associate fellow at the Chatham House, said after the Iranian revolution, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy was “pinned on independence from East and West” and historically Iran has been cautiously distrustful of Russia.
However, “Tehran recognizes the limitations of their relationship, but in the current convergence over Syria it currently pays for them to cooperate,” she added.
“Iran ... believes Moscow to be not 100 percent trustworthy or reliable. It took years to deliver promised weapons and assistance for Bushehr,” she said in reference to a power plant in southern Iran, the construction of which was completed by Russia in 1995.
Nevertheless, Vakil said that despite having different long-term strategies in Syria and divergent regional alliances, the Russian-Iranian “marriage of convenience will prevail” for the moment.
Fabrice Balanche, visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stressed that Russia and Iran understand that they need each other and their strategic alliance makes it unlikely for the world to witness a major disagreement between them.
“That would be the dream of the Syrian opposition and the U.S. government ... [But] no, the Russian-Iranian relation is not unstable ... they are just toying with the West,” he told The Daily Star.
In Syria, Balanche said, both actors know they cannot uphold the Assad regime without the other.
“Russia does not want to send troops to Syria and Iran does not have a veritable capacity to support the regime on its own, that is why you won’t have a problem between the two,” he said.
Balanche believes that Russia did not necessarily need the Iranian base because it can use facilities in Latakia to launch airstrikes in Syria, but the move “was a message about the strong link between both countries.”
Vakil speculated that Russia might have capitalized on a possible limited coordination with Iran to make it public that it is using the Hamedan base.
The strategic agreement stirred heated debates in Iran about its legality with a number of lawmakers calling it a breach of the constitution, which precludes the deployment of foreign troops on Iranian soil.
“There is much Iranian domestic sensitivity on this issue stemming from Iran’s tumultuous history with international powers,” Vakil told The Daily Star.
Dehghan’s public rebuke aimed to appease of the Iranian officials who criticized the move, Vakil said.
Unlike Vakil, Balanche believes that beyond Syria, Iran and Russia share the same interests in the Middle East, on both the short and long term, most notable of which is the price of oil.
“Fifty percent of the Russian income comes from the exportation of oil and Iran wants to increase its exportation when the sanctions are lifted. They are both angry at Saudi Arabia’s increase of its oil production,” which is dragging the oil prices down, Balanche said.
“So they want to put pressure on the kingdom.”
Therefore, Balanche concludes, having disagreements over issues such as the Russia’s publicizing of its use of Iran’s air base or even the fate of Assad become “details” in the face of their wider shared interests in the region.
When asked to elaborate on Iran and Russia’s political objectives in Syria, with Moscow appearing more prone to negotiate Assad’s fate with the west than Tehran, Balanche said the latest diplomatic developments indicate that the issue of Assad is not “important anymore.”
“Currently, only the Syrian opposition and Saudi Arabia are focusing on the fate of Assad, but this issue is no longer important for the Turkey, Europe and the U.S.,” Balanche said, given the recent diplomatic developments, the latest of which was Turkey’s statement that Assad can be part of the transitional phase.
“And soon it will not be a problem for Saudi Arabia too,” he added.
Balanche said that although the West’s position on Assad is that he is a “criminal,” politicians believe they have to be realistic since they do not want Syria to become “a new Afghanistan or a new Somalia, and so [they] have to deal with him even if he is not a good guy.”
He also believes that the West’s support of some Islamist groups in Syria will gradually decrease over time. “Their support is only a leverage to use on Assad and in the negotiations. When they will have an agreement [the West] will stop supporting these groups.”