Winter 2019

How Russia and Iran Are Carving Up the Middle East

Dilip Hiro

The current direction of Middle Eastern geopolitics is crystal clear. The influence of the United States and its chief Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, is waning, not least because President Donald Trump’s America First is turning into America Last in the region. By contrast, the Iran-Russia duo is on a roll, with a worst-case scenario for the West in the offing.

Given the volatility of the Middle East, however, a contrary scenario could emerge that might appeal to Western nations. In what might be regarded as a best-case scenario for the West, Arab Gulf rulers would function as constitutional monarchs with a multi-party-political system in place. Although that would reconcile them with republican Iran with its fixed-term elections for president and parliament, their continued military links with Washington would clash with Tehran’s plan of creating a self-sufficient NATO-like defence alliance covering all eight littoral states of the Persian Gulf.

Currently, a series of unilateral decisions taken by a capricious Donald Trump has confused and demoralised Washington’s allies and partners in the West and the Middle East. At the last minute he cancelled striking Iran’s three missile sites in retaliation for its downing of an American military spy drone in its territorial waters in June. He failed to punish Iran after accusing it of mounting a catastrophic missile-and-drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in mid-September. The following month, without informing French and British leaders, he withdrew American commandos from northern Syria, thus giving a free hand to Turkey’s military to hit Syrian Kurds, the erstwhile partners of Washington in the battle against ISIS.

The only way of reversing this would be to elect an American leader committed to forging multilateral consensus with allies in international affairs. If the 2020 presidential poll places such a politician in the White House, it would cool the Middle Eastern ambitions of Iran and Russia, both intent on dominating a region that straddles Asia, Europe and Africa.

There is no doubt that Trump’s notoriously short attention span, combined with his tendency to make instant decisions in the complex arena of international diplomacy, have done incalculable damage to America’s credibility abroad. 

By withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal that Iran signed with six world powers, including the United States, after 20 months of arduous negotiations, Trump broke ranks with Washington’s European partners – Britain, France and Germany. 

If Trump is re-elected in 2020, the downward spiral of America’s global standing will continue, much to the delight of Russia and Iran, who share a fluvial border in the Caspian Sea, and thus threaten the future of NATO. Even if he is succeeded by a Democrat, he or she will face an uphill task of restoring Washington’s status in the international community. 

Trump’s boast that he possesses great and unmatched wisdom,” and that he is the master of the Art of the Deal, fell apart in June when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebuffed his offer of talks with a curt rejection; Iran’s Supreme Leader not considering the US President as a person deserving to exchange messages with …nor will I respond to him in the future.” 

This was a far cry from Trump’s plan for US-Iran negotiations culminating in the complete denuclearisation of Iran, certified by US officials and permanently closing Tehran’s option of embarking on a nuclear project; and an end to its inter-continental ballistic missile programme. Such an outcome would be the best that any future US government could aspire to achieve. 

For the present, however, Khamenei has demanded that Trump re-enter the 2015 accord, lift US sanctions on Iran, and have the agreement ratified by Congress as an international treaty. The Supreme Leader thus outlined the best scenario for his régime.

But getting the Senate to endorse Iran’s 2015 denuclearisation accord will be a Herculean task for any future US president, Democrat or Republican. It would require the consent of two-thirds of the Senators present. Since neither party has ever achieved such a majority on its own, a sitting president would have to resort to Machiavellian tactics to achieve what is effectively a version of the worst-case scenario for America.

Trump gloated as Western oil corporations and hotel chains pulled out of Iran in the aftermath of his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement in May 2018. But by retreating in such a way, they merely created opportunities for Russian petroleum companies. A year later Iran presented 12 oil and gas projects to Russia’s six leading hydrocarbon corporations, with President Vladimir Putin pledging to continue Russia’s oil investment in Iran to the tune of $50 billion well into the 2020s. As it is, the Iran-Russia Joint Commission for Economic and Trade Cooperation has been going since 2004. After Russia finished building a nuclear power plant near the Iranian coastal city of Bushehr in 2013, it agreed to construct two nuclear reactors at this site, with the first to be completed in 2020, followed by the other in 2023

This activity took place near Iran’s Persian Gulf coastline in the toxically-charged atmosphere that prevailed in the spring when war and peace were on a knife-edge. In June, Trump had the option of implementing the advice of his super-hawk National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to bomb Iran’s missile sites, thus starting a tit-for-tat armed confrontation with Tehran. 

This would have resulted in an all-out war, and was set to create a scenario along the following lines: a humiliating defeat inflicted on Iran by the gigantic power of the Pentagon; occupation of the country by US forces, working with a puppet régime installed by the White House; and an unflinching guerrilla resistance by Islamic Iranians that would destabilise the whole region because of the presence of US troops in all of the Arab Gulf monarchies. It would have transformed America’s much-dreaded nightmare of fighting a series of asymmetrical wars into a reality.

Unlike Bolton, however, Trump’s focus has always been the 2020 US presidential poll. He realised that starting a third war in the Middle East would sink his chances of re-election. Nonetheless, even if a Democrat succeeds Trump, he or she will have to work hard to repair the damage done to the America polity by him. 

In the wider context, leading Western nations, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been rattled by Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen – and its cordial relations with Hamas in the Palestinian territories. They rail against Iran for its interference in the Arab Middle East, overlooking the unpalatable fact that, with the exception of Syria, Tehran has made gains elsewhere as a consequence of the deeply flawed decisions taken by America, Israel, Britain and Saudi Arabia. 

Specifically, the failure of the Saudi Kingdom to roll back Iran’s extra-territorial influence stems from the missteps taken by its own rash, headstrong Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Pumped up by Trump making his first foreign state visit to Riyadh in May 2017, he led an alliance of four Arab countries to impose a land and sea blockade on Qatar to compel it to sever its diplomatic and economic ties with Iran, and close down a military base of Turkey, a leading Sunni country, on its soil. 

By so doing, he threw Qatar into the welcoming embrace of Iran, ready to fill the emirate’s shortfall in food and medicine caused by the blockade. To assert its independence, Qatar reinforced its military cooperation with Turkey whose construction companies were engaged in building new stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha. 

Moreover, by turning on the Sunni states of Qatar and Turkey, Prince Bin Salman undermined his kingdom’s overarching strategy of isolating Shia Iran by rallying the Sunni states in the Muslim world. 

But, well aware of the Shias’ minority status in Islam, Iranian leaders stress Islamic unity – a standpoint they are resolved to maintain in the future. The Islamic Republic, for instance, will continue to celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on two dates to satisfy both Sunni and Shia scholars. 

What stands out in the Persian Gulf region, is Iran’s multilateral influence in Iraq – in religious, diplomatic and commercial terms. This is a direct consequence of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The introduction of the strictly enforced one-person-one-vote political system in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq paved the way for the empowerment of the majority Shias who had been mistreated since 1638 when the Sunni Ottoman Turks incorporated Iraq into their empire. The strong links that the Shia-led governments in Baghdad have forged with Iran are here to stay no matter what the US and its Sunni allies in the region achieve during the next decade. 

The emergence of the pro-Iranian, multi-faceted Hizbollah in 1982 is related directly to the Israeli invasion and occupation of South Lebanon in 1978, which led various Shia groups to unite under the banner of Hizbollah. Now its highly-motivated 20,000-strong armed wing, armed by Iran, is widely regarded as a critical complement to the regular Lebanese army to withstand a future incursion by the powerful Israeli army. Its status as a permanent feature of the Lebanese state is unlikely to change – part of the worst-case scenario for Israel and America. 

Equally, any attempt to expel Tehran’s influence in the Palestinian territories – rooted in ties with Hamas, which won 74 of the 132 parliamentary seats in the first free and fair election in 2006 – is bound to fail. This is because the chance of a two-state solution to end Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at rock bottom, and unlikely to improve in the near future. 

What rankles Saudi Arabia most is to find Iran actively assisting the Houthi rebels in Yemen, its geographical backyard. This is the direct result of the Prince Bin Salman, as an inexperienced Saudi defense minister, intervening militarily in March 2015 to expel the Houthis from the capital of Sanaa within six months. Nearly five years on, his country is stuck in an expensive quagmire. Actively aided by Iran and Hizbollah, the Houthis have been hitting Saudi targets with missiles and drones in response to such strikes by Saudi Arabia. 

Their devastating attack on the Saudi oil facilities in September, and Trump’s failure to bomb Iran in retaliation, left Prince Bin Salman reeling. Using the visiting Iraqi and Pakistani leaders as intermediaries, he held out an olive branch to Khamanei whom he had repeatedly insulted as a modern-day Hitler. This was an inflection point. It marked the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical decline in the region. 

It was an unmistakable sign that the Riyadh-Washington alliance was fraying, with each of the parties yielding ground to the challenging duo of Iran and Russia. The interests of Tehran and Moscow converged during the long-running Syrian civil war. 

Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, Syria’s president Hafiz Assad became the first Arab leader to recognise the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the 19801988 Iran-Iraq War, Damascus supplied critical intelligence to Tehran. Since then the two states have signed treaties that cover not only assistance in the case of foreign aggression but also serious domestic threats to the respective régime’s survival. Iran’s pro-Bashar Assad involvement in Syria since the outbreak of civil strife in 2011 is thus grounded in formal treaties. All signs are that the Damascus-Tehran strategic alliance will remain intact.

Syria’s close relations with Moscow survived the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with Russia remaining its sole weapons supplier. In line with his doctrine that any group raising arms against an internationally recognised régime is a terrorist organisation, Russian President Putin backed the régime of Assad diplomatically while maintaining a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, his country’s only foothold in the Mediterranean. 

When Assad’s position became untenable in the summer of 2015, Putin rushed military hardware to bolster Syria’s depleted arsenal, and dispatched warplanes and air defense equipment to Syria while wisely refraining from committing army troops.

By late 2019, backed to the hilt by the ground forces of Iran and Hizbollah, and the air force of Russia, Assad was on the verge of gaining control of all of Syria. Under the new constitution being drafted under UN auspices, he is set to contest the presidential election in June 2021.

Iran and Russia will therefore in all likelihood see their best-case scenario turn into reality with Assad in the presidential palace until 2028.

With that, Syria will emerge as an integral part of the Iranian-Russian alliance, providing Iran with an outlet to the Mediterranean reached by an overland route through the Shia-majority Iraq. The overarching doctrine that binds Iran and Russia together is their belief in spheres of influence. By virtue of its population, uniquely strategic geographical location, and bountiful hydrocarbon and other resources, Iran is intent on establishing itself as the hegemon in the Persian Gulf region. 

The somewhat revolutionary precondition for the Saudi monarchy to succeed in thwarting Iran’s vaulting ambition will be to institute a political system that lets its citizens choose their government through the ballot. This would not be the end of Al Saud dynasty; however; just the opening of a new chapter in its history, entitled Constitutional Monarchy. 

Even if such a transition could be achieved, it is doubtful that a popularly elected, independent-minded government in Riyadh would automatically retain the military links that the Saudi kings have maintained with America, a Christian-majority country with a secular constitution. The so-called best-case scenario for Washington in fact might then prove nothing of the sort. Saudi Arabia in fact could be receptive to Iran’s project of founding a self-reliant Islamic defense alliance in the Persian Gulf region. Such a Tehran-led institution – clearly a best case scenario for Iran – would run entirely counter to US interests, and would have the ability to further bolster the Russia-Iran axis.

Dilip Hiro is the author of Iran Today, and the forthcoming Blood of the Earth: Global Battle for the Vanishing Oil, both published by Politico’s Publishing, London, or at