Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet personally with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday, when the Russian leader visits Iran’s capital of Tehran. The official purpose for the diplomatic visit is to address “issues in bilateral relations, including atomic energy, oil and gas and military-technical cooperation”, according to Putin aid Yury Ushakov, who confirmed that Putin would also meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during his visit. It is Putin’s first trip to Iran since 2007. After this trip, he plans to return to Russia to host the King of Jordan and, separately, the President of France as part of Russian efforts to take leadership of the international coalition against ISIS.
A leading purpose in the visit is to firm up the terms of the Russian/Iranian alliance toward determining the outcome in the civil war in Syria. Russia and Iran have taken a commanding position in that war since the P5+1 diplomats declared agreement on the basic terms of the Joint Coordinated Plan of Action (JCPOA). Russian then immediately received Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s head of its unconventional warfare unit Quds Force, in spite of international travel bans that the JCPOA promised to keep in place. It was at this meeting that top Russian leaders agreed to join Iran’s effort in Syria, and committed to the plan that led to the deployment of significant Russian air and naval forces to defend Syrian President Bashar Assad. This has been accompanied by a redoubled effort by Iran to bring its extensive network of Shi’a militias under a unified command, and the deployment of Iranian regulars in Syria as well.
The recent attacks in Paris brought the war to a new phase, with Russia greatly increasing its air raids in force and size and considering the deployment of a substantial ground force in Syria. Though Putin had been calling for an international coalition against ISIS since his speech at the United Nations, he is now taking practical steps to ensure that any Western responses to ISIS occur within the umbrella of Russian leadership. Iranian parliamentarian Esmail Kosari told the Trend news agency that, in spite of statements by US Secretary of State John F. Kerry, there is no danger of a US/Russian “ceasefire” that would allow the two superpowers to fight side by side in Syria and Iraq. The two superpowers have been making chess moves with their air assets, with the Russians deploying top air superiority craft in Syria in spite of its declared enemy having no air force, the United States subsequently deploying F-15C air superiority fighters to Turkey, followed by Russia deploying S-300 advanced anti-aircraft missiles quite capable of taking down F-15Cs. Russia has agreed to sell a substantial number of these same advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal, in order to help safeguard Iranian nuclear facilities against Western or Israeli air strikes.
Russia and Iran clearly intend to constrain opponents of ISIS into playing within the frame of supporting Assad’s continuity in Syria, or at least a successor government that is chosen by Russia and Iran. Should the French government wish to follow through on their President’s promises to wage war on ISIS, they will nearly have to do it in coordination with the Russian military that controls the airspace in Syria. However, Russia is likely to offer that coordination only on grounds of cooperation with its overarching regional agenda. Just as Assad himself says that ‘there can be no intelligence cooperation without political cooperation,’ so too strikes on ISIS will happen within the larger political context determined by Russia. As Russia is reliant on Iran for targeting intelligence to a large degree, however, Iran’s unconventional warfare arm gives that nation an outsized influence on the Russian position. That may wane over time if Russia’s ground deployment begins to allow it to generate its own targeting packages independently, but for now it is a consideration Russia cannot avoid.
The danger is that by constraining ISIS opponents into supporting Assad — or even appearing to support him — Sunnis who oppose Assad’s brutality will be driven into the arms of ISIS. The same is true in the war’s other front in Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shi’a militia have committed significant war crimes against Sunni Iraqis while fighting ISIS militants. The leaders of those forces proclaim their readiness to overthrow the Iraqi government should Khamenei give the word, yet American forces have no alternative but to use them because of the weakness of the Iraqi government. Lacking a new approach that can assure just treatment for Sunnis, entry into the war on these terms will likely strengthen ISIS’s recruiting base and reach abroad. That seems to be a price Russia and Iran are willing to pay in exchange for regional hegemony.