Syria and Iran as the Fault-Lines in Growing East-West Divide

Iran was joined last year by Russia in directly contributing to the war effort on Assad’s behalf. Russian airstrikes are described as primarily targeting more moderate rebel groups, instead of the highly militant Islamic State. Those airstrikes have recently broken ceasefires brokered at the international level, with the US and Russia itself leading the talks. They also support ground operations that in some cases are reportedly led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its local militant proxies. 

Meanwhile, the US continues to back moderate rebel groups, although direct involvement is relatively slight. This situation led to Assad using the interview to describe the Syrian Civil War as a conflict between Russia and the West. This highlights the specter of broader war emerging out of the regional strife. 

Assad’s comments on Saudi Arabia may have been aimed at isolating the West, suggesting that Saudi commitment to the rebel faction is only incidental. However, by some accounts, the US itself was willing to compromise with the Assad regime at the very outset of the war, before such developments as Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilian populations stoked the anger of Obama administration figures such as current Secretary of State John Kerry. 

Commenting upon Jay Solomon’s book The Iran Wars, an article at The Federalist recently claimed that Kerry had initially believed Assad could be turned away from his alliance with Tehran. But at the same time that that alliance has become increasingly entrenched, so have the Syrians’ and Iranians’ mutual alliances with Moscow. Assad’s comments seem to imply the rigid nature of those alliances, embracing the Syrian Civil War as the focal point of a much more general East-West conflict. 

The same thing is arguably true of the US and Saudi Arabia, however conditional their initial commitments may have been. But in absence of independent confirmation, it is entirely possible that Assad’s commentary was intended only to discredit his leading regional opposition and to portray Western involvement as being relatively unrelated to the plight of the Syrian people. 

Of course, many critics of the Obama administration, including Jay Solomon, maintain that the White House has indeed been inadequately attentive to the plight of Syrians, as evidenced by its failure to react after Assad crossed Obama’s proclaimed red lines with the use of chemical weapons. The Federalist explains and endorses the views of such critics, asserting with Solomon that Obama’s policies in the Middle East have effectively been “held hostage” by the Iran nuclear deal, which the administration insists upon defending above all else. 

By most accounts, this situation is influenced not only by the desire to constrain the Iranian nuclear program but also by the US president’s larger interest in reorienting Iran-US relations. Defenders of the administration’s policy argue that this is a goal that is shared by a significant faction within the Iranian regime, and is therefore achievable. Such a view was outlined specifically with regard to the Syrian Civil War and US-Russian relations, in an article that appeared Friday in the Huffington Post. 

That article traced modern Iranian history in order to argue that the current Iranian government is not interested in being closely allied to either the East or the West, and can thus be persuaded to shift focus away from Russia if given enough incentive. But this point of view is widely disputed, and previous features at Iran News Update have speculated that Tehran may be consciously shifting toward the East, in the interest of reaffirming its longstanding national identity as a bulwark against US-led imperialism and Israeli power in the Middle East. 

This perspective is supported by a range of recent developments in relations among Iran, Russia, China, and others. Although Iran maintains that the comparatively slow pace of reestablishment of European economic ties is the result of ongoing US led restrictions, some analysts and lawmakers have pointed out that Iran is taking none of the steps that could begin to overcome these restrictions. 

Meanwhile, Russia’s Lukoil has become the first foreign oil company to sign a memorandum of understanding with Iran in the era of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Global Risk Insights indicated on Thursday that Iran was readily reciprocating the Russian economic diplomacy that is being led by Lukoil. And while there is certainly some possibility of divergent Iranian and Russian interests, including in the Syrian Civil War, this expanded cooperation seemingly makes it more likely that the two partners will continue to coordinate in their defense of Assad as well. 

In other words, with respect both to Iran’s regional foreign policies and to its economic and trade policies, the country’s leadership seems to have more and more incentive to shift away from what the Huffington Post characterizes as a principle of “neither East nor West.” And indeed, the nuclear negotiations that concluded last year were explicitly aimed at encouraging the Islamic Republic to open up to foreign influence and cooperation. 

Unfortunately for the Western advocates of those negotiations, hardline elements of the Iranian government continue to actively oppose such an opening with the US, while supposedly moderate factions have made no serious efforts to contradict this position. On the other hand, there appears to be considerably less hardline opposition to expanded relations with Eastern partners such as Russia and China. Bloomberg suggested as much in a report that it published Thursday regarding Iranian-Chinese economic relations. 

In keeping with the Huffington Post’s notion of “neither East nor West,” Bloomberg suggests that Iran had previously been opposed to large-scale Chinese influence in certain areas of the Iranian economy. But the article goes on to explain that this attitude has recently come to change. Contributing to this shift is the recently-introduced Iranian oil contracts, which preserve the widespread economic power of businesses wholly owned by hardline entities like the Revolutionary Guards.  

Whereas the danger of enriching such entities has become a serious point of contention for the US government as the White House pushes for further rapprochement, little has been made of it by the Chinese businesses that are already established inside Iran.