Iran and Russia’s Differing Objectives for Syria

With the new administration in place in the US, Iran is opposing its participation in Syria peace talks in capital of Kazakhstan, Astana. The Foreign Minister of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif said last week: “We have not invited them, and we are against their presence.” This shows that Iran is clearly fearful of the Trump administration. Trump has not been silent with his concerns regarding Iran.

Iran has suffered a large setback now that it has lost control in Syria to Russia, yet it is hesitant to admit this. Turkey and Russia have taken Iran’s power away and undermined it by inviting the US.

It is also becoming clear that Russia never saw Iran as a partner and prefers a good relationship with the US. Trump is going to take a strong approach to Iran and foreign policy, unlike the Obama administration which continually appeased the mullahs in Tehran.

Syria is hugely important to the Iranian regime as highlighted by Mehdi Taeb senior Iranian cleric and former IRGC intelligence chief: “If the enemy attacks us and seeks to take Syria or Khuzestan [oil-rich southwestern Iranian province], our priority would be to keep Syria, because if we keep Syria, we can take back Khuzestan. But if we lose Syria, we would lose Tehran.”

Russia has different reasons for returning to the Middle East after nearly more than four decades. Sanctions imposed by Europe and the US because of Crimea and Ukraine crippled Russia, so it is on the hunt for a foothold elsewhere as well as bargaining material. It is also looking for a Middle Eastern ally. It is looking for this via talks with the West rather than with dictator Assad. 

Iran’s approach is very different – it is investing heavily in Syria and using valuable resources on supporting and funding Shiite militias. The militias and the remaining fighters for Assad are taking orders from Iran – not Syria. Without Syria Iran has no strategy in the Middle East. 

It seems likely that Russia could end up getting concessions from the US and Washington and Moscow may come to an agreement regarding Syria – an agreement that will be far removed from the solution envisaged by Tehran.

With this in mind, the Iranian Foreign Minister’s reaction to the US’s involvement in talks makes more sense. Already Russia has engaged in secret talks with Syria, completely undermining the role of the Iranian regime. To make matters worse, the Obama administration which has conceded to the regime time and time again is being replaced by an administration that has declared to change this.