Putin’s pivot to Iran is a strategic decision

M.K. Bhadrakumar November 24, 2015 9:38 AM (UTC+8)
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The Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran on Monday assumes the nature of a landmark event in the politics and history of the Middle East. While the world community, especially the western powers, viewed the visit through the prism of an expected “strategic adjustment” in Russia’s stance – to borrow the words of US President Barack Obama – regarding the future of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Putin’s mind was working on the larger canvas of a pivot to Iran that elevates the largely-transactional relationship so far to a partnership impacting the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Iran President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to attending the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, GECF, summit meeting in Tehran Monday
Iran President Hassan Rouhani (R) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to attending the Gas Exporting Countries Forum summit meeting in Tehran Monday

But first, the salients emerging out of Putin’s all-important two-hour meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as regards Syria:

  • Both Russia and Iran insist on an inclusive settlement in Syria in which the Syrian people should elect their future leadership through democratic elections.
  • The two countries disapprove of the prescriptive approach by the US and its allies regarding a Syrian settlement.
  • The two countries estimate that the US and its allies aim at realizing their ‘regime change’ agenda in Syria through diplomatic means after having failed to achieve the objective through military means during the four-year war.

Putin and Khamenei understand that a sustained attempt is being made by the US and European and Arab allies, “seeking to peel Russia away from its alliance with Iran,” as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported last week, quoting senior diplomats in Washington.

The WSJ report explained the rationale on the following lines: “The efforts, which have unfolded quietly through meetings involving Russian President Vladimir Putin and Middle Eastern leaders, are meant to coax support from Moscow for a limit on Mr. Assad’s time in power… Iran is seen as a brake on those efforts because of its more staunchly pro-Assad position, which it wants the Kremlin to support… (However) Mr. Putin has held discussions in recent weeks with leaders from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, and has indicated Moscow would seek to limit Iran’s influence inside Syria as part of any negotiated settlement to the conflict.”

Putin and Khamenei utilized the meeting on Monday to hammer home that they cherish the mutual trust between their two countries and intend to preserve it no matter what it takes. Khamenei hit out at the US’ perceived hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, and underlined that Iran and Russia have a congruence of interests in countering the US’ regional strategies. Putin, on his part, went out of the way to describe Iran as a “trustworthy and reliable ally in the region and the world”, which Russia will never betray.

Clearly, a Russian-Iranian rift over Assad’s fate is not on the cards. On the fundamental principle that a future government in Syria ought to be elected by the people of that country through free democratic choice, Moscow and Tehran are unwilling to compromise. Obama’s diplomatic strategy on Syria is in shambles. Putin even took a dig at Obama that America should not fear the prospect of democratic elections in Syria.

Looking ahead, the US stance that Russia’s participation in an international coalition against the Islamic State is linked to its “strategic adjustment” over Assad’s fate is likely to become untenable. Obama expected Putin to dump Assad. But Putin has made it clear that it is not for Russia to dictate the terms of a settlement in Syria. On the other hand, Obama will be on shaky ground if he continues to caricature the war against the IS in Clausewitzean terms as ‘politics by other means’.

However, the most extraordinary thing about Putin’s visit to Tehran is that it takes the veil off a strategic decision taken by the Kremlin to elevate Russia-Iran relationship to a qualitatively new level. Putin had deputed one of his most trusted aides to Tehran last week to choreograph the new trajectory for the bilateral relationship with Iran, which is suffused with solid strategic content of a kind that the West cannot hope to match. Interestingly, Putin’s choice fell on Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to undertake this mission, a Kremlin politician whom Washington loves to hate and is on the State Department’s ‘black list’ for visa.

Put differently, Russia intends to outstrip the western countries scrambling for a share of the Iranian pie by offering to Tehran a vastly superior relationship that is attuned to its sense of destiny as an emerging power. The ideas that Rogozin projected to the Iranian interlocutors whom he met in Tehran last week included proposals regarding space and satellite cooperation – remote sensing satellites and space navigation systems, GLONASS system and satellite-assisted navigation and mapping – defence production, co-production of Sukhoi Superjets in Iran, establishment of a free trade zone in Iran by the Eurasian Economic Union and so on.

Significantly, in the immediate run-up to Putin’s visit to Tehran, reports began appearing that Russia has started the delivery of the S-300 missile system to Iran. The Russian reports mentioned that the deal involves “about 300” units of the missile system, which of course will go a long way to strengthen Iran’s air defense even as the nuclear deal signed in July is advancing to the tricky implementation stage.

Suffice it to say, the Kremlin appears to have reached the conclusion after careful consideration – and an off-and-on dalliance with Saudi Arabia – that Iran is key to stabilizing the Middle East and is a pivotal regional power for Russia. It should not be overlooked that the Russian official media have openly discussed a possible Saudi and/or Qatari hand in the crash of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 in the Sinai on October 31.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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