ANALYSIS: In bid to regain ancient glory, has Iran struck a Faustian bargain with Russia?
In the ages long gone, Persia was the center of some of the mightiest empires on earth including the Achaemenids and Parthians, and the last of these truly gigantic empires, namely the Sassanids just preceded the advent of Islam.
The Sassanids controlled large swaths of territory from Egypt in Africa to modern day Pakistan. Nationalist Iranians today, still fondly remember the days of glory when vast armies sailed toward Europe and on a couple of occasions, it was only the nature which saved the continent from falling into the hands of Persians.
All of that changed, when a ragtag army commanded by some of the closest companions of Prophet Mohammed and motivated by nothing else but fierce religious zeal, humbled and shattered the might of the Persians. Since then, the proud Persians have never really been able to reclaim their old glory, despite flickering throughout the period following its fall.
But the desire burns and they have kept the glorious history alive and celebrate it through folklore, legends, literature and cultural extravaganzas. However, the hard fact is that Iran is not what it used to be and its legendary capital, Ctesiphon exists only in ruins.
Partnership with Russia
Nationalistic Iranians and their Ayatollahs realize that if Iran has to regain its old glory, it must make alliances. The extent of this desire can be gauged by their partnership with Russia. Russia with its history of militant atheism in alliance with an Iranian theocracy is indeed a puzzling partnership, which can only be explained by selfish geopolitical motives.
Despite laying bare their ambitions to be the leader of the Muslim world, Iran has conveniently forgotten that Russia had, not until long ago, outlawed all religions and razed mosques in its territories. The communist Russia openly denounced all religions, including Islam. Its atrocities in Chechnya are well documented as is the disastrous end and subsequent breakup of USSR, post its invasion of Afghanistan.
In a rush to attain hegemony in the region, the Iranian leaders have also disregarded the Russian invasion of Iran in the 19th century when it captured vast territories, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Caucasus from a weakened empire. Subsequently, Iran was the subject of the “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires.
The British and Russians combined to inflict yet another heavy defeat during World War II to secure oilfields and supply lines, despite the Iran having declared neutrality. Such humiliations of past have now been conveniently overlooked, and Iran has cosied up with Russia in exchange for political, material and strategic support to shore up its ambitions.
The alliance in Syria
The alliance has been most prominent in Syria, where Iran has put in vast resources in terms of men, money and materials while Russia has been providing aerial military support to the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad to crush the popular resistance.
The alliance has also unleashed an all-out propaganda war, brushing all opposition as “foreign terrorists” while enlisting the support of Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian proxies and militias, gathered from far-and-wide. Through its well-organized media, Russia has also been at the forefront of spreading this propaganda.
Through this alliance, Iran (and Syria) gets the much needed political cover at the international bodies such as the UN, along with the might of the powerful Russian air force, which has been incessantly bombing Syrian homes and towns resulting in tens of thousands of civilian casualties.
Emboldened by the differences in opposition ranks, and the indifference of the Western world, it has expanded the sphere of war in the Middle East, by supporting rebels in Yemen and fomenting tensions in countries such as Bahrain, Iraq and even Saudi Arabia.
Iraq is now firmly in hands of Iran and its role is expected to increase further post the fall of ISIS. This has been possible through years of plotting and scheming after the fall of Saddam. Russia has the aims of its own, harbouring ambitions of being a superpower again which had taken a beating following the fall and disintegration of the USSR.
However, with Faustian bargains, comes the regret. Beneath the bonhomie, Iran and Russia make for unlikely partners and have little in common. Historical relations have been less than conducive for warm relations to prosper and ideologically the nations are poles apart.
Ayatollah Khomenei once railed against the communist ideals of Russia calling it an “outdated relic”. Apart from fighting the Ottoman caliphate, although without a pact, there has been no history of both nations having similar objectives, at any point in the history.
The current bargain has not been without bumps either, with all out Russian support slipping at times, with the latter voting in favor of sanctions against Iran on more than one occasion. Moreover, Russia has been inching close to Israel, where anti-Iran sentiments are quite high.
In this backdrop, it remains to be seen how Iran and Russia cope up with each other’s divergent aims and at what cost.
Faraz Shams is an independent analyst who has written for various news websites. His area of interest includes geopolitics and energy security. He can be reached at email@example.com.