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Why Iran welcomes US-Russian deal on Syria

Despite speculation that Russia's dealings with the United States might be at the expense of Iran, it appears that Tehran has plenty of reasons to welcome Moscow and Washington’s agreement on Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands at the conclusion of their press conference following their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland where they discussed the crisis in Syria September 9, 2016.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RTSN25I

TEHRAN, Iran — Lengthy negotiations between the United States and Russia appear to have finally paid off when they reached a deal on a cease-fire in Syria announced Sept. 10. If the truce — the cessation of all air and ground attacks by all parties for one week — is adhered to by both sides, the United States and Russia plan to subsequently establish a joint implementation center to coordinate intelligence and airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The interests of Iran, as one of the key players involved in the complex and multi-dimensional conflict in Syria, will certainly be affected by the US-Russian agreement, like those of other actors. Indeed, while Iranian officials have formally welcomed the truce, they have also warned that it should not serve as an opportunity for militants to regroup and transfer fighters and arms.

Al-Monitor spoke with Nasser Hadian, a professor of international relations at Tehran University, about the situation. He said that Iran supports the US-Russian agreement in that it serves humanitarian goals, but the path ahead remains ambiguous. “It is only a temporary cease-fire, and it is unlikely that it will lead to lasting peace or the establishment of a new government in Syria.”

Touching on how possible US-Russian military cooperation could affect Iranian interests in Syria, Hadian said, “If the agreement takes hold, Russia and the United States will form a new military alliance against IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Fighting these two groups is an Iranian goal too. So if the agreement is implemented, it will not harm Iran's interests.” He cautioned, however, “Discord might emerge in the next steps.”

Given Tehran’s growing cooperation with Moscow, it appears that Iran increasingly sees itself as Russia's strategic partner in the Middle East. Take for instance, Iran for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution allowing another country, Russia, to conduct military operations from one of its air bases. Thus, there is therefore also the question of how potential US-Russian military cooperation might impact the Iranian-Russian alliance in Syria.

Mohammad Jamshidi, a professor of international relations and an expert on US foreign policy at Tehran University, told Al-Monitor, “I see the alliance between Iran and Russia as strategic, and the various forms of military cooperation between the two countries in recent years confirms this. But the agreement between the United States and Russia is a kind of tactical coordination. The strategic goals of Russia and the United States in Syria are at odds with each other.”

Jamshidi added, “I believe that Russia did not deal with the United States at the expense of Iran's interests. Actually, the United States always seeks cease-fire agreements when pro-Syrian government forces achieve considerable victories on the battlefield. It uses these kinds of agreements as a tool to buy time in order to regroup armed groups, and Russia knows this.” 

Nonetheless, Jamshidi does not believe the US-Russian deal can be considered detrimental to either Russia or its allies, including Iran. “The interesting point is that Russia, in comparison to the United States, makes strategic use of this agreement,” he said. Russia is buying time, too, he added.

“The Russians are denying the Obama administration the time needed for taking any decisive decision in Syria,” Jamshidi said. “I mean it's obvious that the Obama administration will not have anymore time to arm the opposition groups when the cease-fire period ends.”

Elahe Koolaie, a professor of international relations at Tehran University and a Russia expert, sees the US-Russian agreement as demonstrating the Russians' ability to advance their goals. “There are different overlapping interests and threats in Syria, and all of the involved players should use the opportunity to cooperate with each other,” Koolaie told Al-Monitor. “The agreement between Russia and the United States has a good possibility of reducing Iran's security threats too.”

Iran has stood by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the civil war erupted in 2011. It has done so based on the belief that Assad’s continued rule is tied to Iran’s regional security interests. One of these interests is maintaining the so-called Axis of Resistance. To achieve this objective, Iran has also for years supported Hezbollah in Lebanon, including paying a financial and political price for doing so. Considering Syria's physical and geopolitical position in regard to Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, it has a key role in maintaining the Axis of Resistance. Hence, Iran’s prioritization of keeping Assad in power. Indeed, Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has publicly stated that keeping Assad in power is an Iranian red line in Syria.

In this vein, Tehran-based Syria expert Amin Parto told Al-Monitor, “Iran’s interests in Syria will be guaranteed only if Bashar al-Assad maintains his power. The same thing is true about Russia. So, in the short term, and as long as there is no word about political transition, the agreement is aligned with Iran’s interests, as it presents a good opportunity for pro-Syrian government forces to revitalize themselves. But in the long run, it is at odds with Iran's defined interests because opposition groups and the United States will not accept any arrangement that does not include shifting [away from] the Baathist-Alawite [political] system in Syria.”

Al-Monitor also spoke with Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, in Washington. “It is high time for Iran to look for ways to soften its support for Assad,” he said. “Iran's long-held ‘Assad or nothing’ approach is highly unlikely to win in the end in Syria if a political solution is ever to be found. The Russians know that, the Turks know that, and Iran can keep itself relevant among key external players by recognizing this inevitable fact.”

Vatanka further emphasized, “In the end, Iran owes Assad nothing. For both moral reasons and for the sake of its long-term geopolitical interests, Tehran needs to show more flexibility. The more this war drags on, the less the likelihood that Syria as one state can be kept together, which Tehran says is its number one priority.”

Mindful of Iran’s stated position on the US-Russian deal, Vatanka added, “Iran has no option but to support this latest cease-fire. Any cease-fire that halts the madness of violence in Syria — however limited — must be seized. But this cease-fire alone will not end the war but might be a step that can be built on for a broader peace effort.”

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