VOA News noted that demonstrators could be heard shouting “Death to Russia” and “the Russian embassy is a den of spies,” in mimicry of slogans that have been used against the United States by supporters of the Islamic theocracy. The report suggested that these demonstrations reflected both a change in the Iranian government’s view of Russia and widespread popular anxiety about that change. That anxiety in turn adds to questions about the durability of the Iran-Russia alliance, which some analysts have characterized not as an alliance but as a tenuous “partnership of convenience.”
Although Iran and Russia have both been backing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad virtually since the outset of the civil war aimed at ousting his government, it has frequently been suggested that the two countries’ interests in the region could begin to diverge in a way that threatened their cooperation. Russia’s partnership with Iran was already threatened by its friendly relations with Iran’s bitter enemy, Israel. And as the Syrian Civil War has dragged on, that threat has apparently intensified with Iran provoding anti-Israeli Shiite paramilitary Hezbollah a permanent base in Syria.
Leaving aside the different perceptions of this situation by Tehran and Moscow, it has also been suggested that the latter could be more willing to accept a future for Syria in which Assad is not a long-term player. This difference is arguably reflected in the different degrees of hostility with which the two countries pursue moderate Syrian rebels. Although both have been accused of focusing their efforts on those moderate rebels instead of militant groups like ISIL, Russia guaranteed safe passage to the rebels and to civilians in rebel-controlled territory following the recent conquest of Aleppo. Iran, on the other hand, stopped fleeing Syrians at its own checkpoints and demanded concessions from the rebels to secure their release.
If such differences do reflect broader tensions in the Iran-Russia partnership, it is possible that these could be exploited by other interested parties, particularly incoming US President Donald Trump. Since winning election in November, Trump has continued to advocate for improved relations with Russia, while also maintaining a hard line on such issues as the Iran nuclear agreement.
His prospective Cabinet appointees have largely maintained this same line. The Weekly Standard reports that Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has called for a thorough review of the nuclear agreement, in the interest of strengthening its enforcement mechanisms and making sure that Tehran is held accountable to its provisions to a greater extent than it was under the Obama administration. Meanwhile, UPI reports that Trump’s Secretary of Defense pick, James Mattis, underscored the importance of such a review when he referred to Iran as the worst destabilizing force in the Middle East.
Speaking more concretely during his Senate confirmation hearing, Mattis described Iran’s “malign influence” as having grown as a result of recent policies, and suggested that it would be the responsibility of the incoming presidential administration to see that the United States counters that influence, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. And of course this objective, if adopted by the administration itself, will have serious bearing on its strategy with regard to Syria, where improved relations with Russia could also play a part.
Although Mattis also expressed an interest in taking a fairly hard line on Russia, his comments to this effect are at odds with those of the president elect and in any event, they would have to be reconciled with the desire to undermine the power of a Middle Eastern government that could be significantly constrained by Russia.
The Voice of America article indicated that some Iranian officials are noticeably worried about the effects that improved relations between Moscow and Washington could have on Iran’s plans for its Russian partnership. These effects would probably not be limited to the Syrian Civil War but would also include changes in the ways in which the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is understood and enforced.
Earlier this week, the seven parties that had negotiated that agreement met in Geneva, for the last time before US President Barack Obama leaves office and Donald Trump is sworn in. There was some danger of Iran using this meeting to initiate conflict-resolution mechanisms built into the agreement, following comments by the Iranian Foreign Ministry promising “retaliation” and demanding “compensation” from the US for its reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act.
The provisions of that act remain suspended under the JCPOA, but US congressmen almost universally considered it important to keep the law in effect for the next ten years, so as to retain a credible threat of the “snap back” of economic sanctions in the event that Iran is caught cheating on the deal. The Iranians, on the other hand, had insisted that any additional sanctions activity – even unenforced activity – would be regarded as a violation of the spirit of the deal.
However, Reuters reported on Wednesday that Tehran had effectively backed down from its previous threats in the context of the meeting. This apparent change in tone may support a conclusion put forward in a previous Iran News Update article, which suggested that Iran was beginning to reorient its strategies regarding the JCPOA, so as to account for the change in prospective responses under the Trump administration as compared to the Obama administration.
Trump’s own threats to tear up or undermine the nuclear deal are one aspect of this, and they may necessitate that Tehran act differently in order to preserve that deal. Previously, the Iranians themselves had suggested a willingness to tear up the agreement, but some analysts took this to be a ploy to gain further concessions at a time when the Obama White House was paranoid about losing its foreign policy legacy. Some also viewed that ploy as successful, considering that Iran made several perceived violations, including two instances of exceeding heavy water limits, but faced no serious consequences under the deal.
But in times to come, the Iranian regime may have to treat more lightly if it wishes to preserve the agreement, which provided Iran with tens of billions of dollars in unfrozen assets, plus unspecified benefits from sanctions relief and new international business. The changing circumstances reflect not only the loss of a conciliatory opponent in the Obama administration, but also the prospective loss of a strong international backer in the Russian government.
With the US and Russia strongly at odds, it was understood that Moscow would defend its Iranian partners in disputes over the nuclear deal. But if the US and Russia begin to reconcile and engage in greater political coordination under the Trump administration, this situation could be threatened, especially at a time when Iran’s partnership with Russia is also being openly challenged at home.