After Iran’s nuclear deal, crucial strategic developments in Syria by Tehran and Moscow will likely usher in critical geopolitical changes in the Middle East.
Since the uprising in Syria erupted, and until the nuclear deal was reached between six world powers (known as P5+1: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) and the Islamic Republic, Iranian and Russian leaders utilized different means of control to achieve their shared strategic interests in Syria.
Russia employed political and diplomatic means, such as using its leverage in the United Nations Security Council and applying its veto power to buttress Assad’s position.
Rowhani’s team believes that improved ties between Iran and the West, can make the West choose Iran as an alternative to Russia.Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Iran, on the other hand, was present on the ground in different territories of Syria. Commanders of the Quds force, a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that operates in foreign countries, began leading the combat in Syria, infiltrating local defense, intelligence, and military establishments. Tehran’s deep military involvement reached a level that even Syrian politicians began to question. With so much outside influence, how independent is Damascus from the Islamic Republic, politically speaking?
But after the nuclear deal, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Moscow have stepped up their coordination and enhanced their military build-up in Syria. IRGC leaders have not been hesitant in drawing attention to this development.
Despite all of these strategic maneuvers, the mainstream media has paid minimal attention to whether there is a unanimous agreement in Iran’s domestic political spectrum with regards to how the Iranian-Russian strategic and tactical coordination is unfolding, and whether the country’s leaders agree on how their control in Syria is being projected on the international stage. If there are disagreements, how will that affect Iran’s ties with Russia, and Iran’s role in Syria?
Ideology Vs national interests
When it comes to Iran’s domestic politics, and how Iranian President Hassan Rowhani’s camp (the moderates and realists) as well as the reformists differ from the hardliners, the major discrepancy lies in the means, tactics and policies used to achieve the objectives, rather than the objectives themselves.
The major political objective of both Rowhani and Ayatollah Khamenei’s camps is ensuring the survival of the political establishment in the Islamic Republic, as well as ratcheting up Iran’s geopolitical, economic, ideological and strategic power.
But contrary to the hardliners, Rowhani’s camp put economic and national interests on the very top of the list; ahead of ideological interests. They argue that prioritizing ideological interests has isolated and alienated Iran, ultimately endangering the leaders' hold on power. As a result, putting economic interests ahead of ideological interests (such as sealing a temporary nuclear deal), will further strengthen the Islamic Republic.
Therefore, from the perspective of President Rowhani and his technocrat team, the Islamic Republic should not alienate itself from the West (particularly when it comes to trade) by projecting that Tehran is getting closer to Moscow militarily, politically, ideologically, and economically. Rowhani’s camp prefers to grow closer to the West for economic reasons, conceal its intensified ties with Russia, reduce reliance on Russia, and keep the balance between Russia and the West.
In addition, Rowhani’s team believes that improved ties between Iran and the West, can make the West choose Iran as an alternative to Russia. It will make European countries and former Soviet governments in Central Asia and Caucasus buy oil and gas from Tehran as well as export petroleum through Iran’s territories and to the Islamic Republic.
Hassan Rowhani’s camp is cognizant of the fact that President Vladimir Putin, who views the U.S. as an adversary, is indeed in need of Iran and would desire to have more formidable ties with Tehran at these crucial moments in order to counterbalance U.S. power in the region. As a result, Rowhani views this issue as an opportunity where they can apply political opportunism by playing Russia against the West and the West against Russia in order to gain the most, economically and geopolitically.
On the other hand, the hardliners, who prioritize ideological and revolutionary values, view closer ties and coordination with Russia as more crucial in order to tip the balance of power against the United States and its allies in the region.
That is why, when Iran steps up strategic or tactical coordination with Russia and when Tehran buys advanced missiles from Moscow, Iranian officials from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps are among the first to boast about Iran-Russia military and geopolitical ties while Rowhani’s team is more likely to underscore the significance on the international stage in order not distance the West from Iran.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, Iran’s critical foreign policies are not informed by the foreign ministry or the office of the President, but by the Office of the Supreme Leader, senior cadre of IRGC and Quds force. The president sets the international tone for the Supreme Leader’s objectives to be achieved. As long as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is alive, the moderate camp will be less capable of moving Iran more towards the West, and less towards Russia. But they can play a crucial role in preventing the deterioration of ties between the West and Tehran.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: Dr.Rafizadeh@post.harvard.edu, or on Twitter: @MajidRafizadeh