For Moscow, the Syrian war fits into its global strategy of creating a “multipolar” world in which Russia would re-emerge as one of the key powers alongside a declining America. The Kremlin is focused on preventing “color revolutions” and regime changes such as those in Ukraine or Egypt.
Following this logic, Moscow views propping up Mr. Assad as establishing a precedent that further regime changes would no longer be tolerated—a message intended as much for the West as for opponents of President Vladimir Putin at home. Second come Moscow’s other considerations, such as the need to secure its naval facility on the Syrian coast, Russia’s only outlet in the Mediterranean Sea.
Iran, by contrast, remains a revolutionary nation seeking to transform the region and to bolster the sway of fellow Shiites all the way to Lebanon and Yemen. Iranian officials openly call for regime change in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf monarchies, let alone the elimination of the state of Israel.
Iran’s way of operating in Iraq, Lebanon—and now in Syria—is to weaken these states by building up proxy Shiite militias.
This is sound analysis, and points at divisions among America’s adversaries that don’t often get enough attention. But there is something else that the article doesn’t mention that is likely to tie Russia and Iran together: Both countries desperately want oil prices to go up.
They may not see an obvious path to that right at the moment—Syrian oil production is not significant and the violence in Syria isn’t affecting world oil prices. But both countries will be looking for ways to get the Saudis to agree to the kind of production cuts that could jack up oil prices. Who knows: perhaps they could cut a deal in Yemen (where the Saudis are struggling, but feel they must win) in return for price hikes? Or use power in Syria as a bargaining chip?
(It’s worth noting that China, which needs oil prices to stay low, will want no part of this. In that light, Colum Lynch’s recent piece in Foreign Policy on growing cracks between Beijing and Moscow makes interesting reading.)
Finally, Iran and Russia both agree that reducing American power and prestige is vital if either is to reach its objectives. As long as they can find ways to undercut the U.S. and come closer to the kind of oil price rise that would rescue their economies, Russia and Iran will have good reasons to look beyond their differences and find ways to work together.