Helsinki Summit Curveball: Will Putin Play Along With Iran?

The Wire/23 July 2018 
By Professor Ramin Jahanbegloo 

The future of the Islamic Republic of Iran was among the subjects discussed at the Helsinki summit between US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin. Though both Putin and Trump appeared to agree to some extent about Israel’s concerns regarding Syria, they seemed, however, to differ on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Unlike Trump, who emphasised the need “to pressure Iran throughout the Middle East”, Putin affirmed that the Iranian nuclear deal had helped ensure “the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme”. By all accounts, Trump stands today ready and eager to give Syria up to Putin, but instead suggested the Russians develop a set of red lines in Syria and possibly push Iranians to the limit for their hegemonic role in the region.

Putin is unlikely to be able to simply force Iran out of Syria. Pro-Iranian militias are active in many parts of Syria, such as Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and areas near the Lebanese border. Quite apart from that, Israel and Jordan have also given Moscow the green light to conduct operations in Daraa and Quneitra provinces, under the condition that all pro-Iranian groups, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, would be removed from those areas. As a result, Moscow has shown Tehran that it can intervene in Syria without any help from Iran.

The main reason why Syria might decide to turn away from the pro-Iranian matrix is the imposition of new US sanctions against Iran. Among other things, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is deeply worried that excessive dependency on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards would likely effect Syrian relations with the West.

In addition to this, Syrian generals in Damascus know well that with new economic troubles appearing on the horizon, Iranian authorities will certainly not be able to provide Syria any financial support, and Assad should reach out for potential investments from the Persian Gulf monarchies.

After all, Saudi Arabia and UAE’s capabilities to push Iran out of Syria entirely are limited. As for Iran, the Hezbollah-controlled areas near the Lebanese border are vital in case of an eventual confrontation with Israel. Considering all this, practical measures by the Syrian regime to turn to the Saudis or the Gulf Emirs for financial aid will depend strictly on the Russian game to minimise Iranian influence in Syria, but it will also be contingent on the future moves of the Trump administration against Iran. Iran will also have to accept the reality of its misfortune under the present US President and the fact that it has to continue dealing with economic issues and problems in banking relations and oil.

In all likelihood, Iranians will continue to suffer from many economic, social and political difficulties and disappointments over the next few months. As such, the social implosion clock is ticking against Islamic nomenclature in Iran. Adding more fuel to the fire is Iran’s terrible water mismanagement and environmental degradation, which have been the direct cause of water shortages, disappearing lakes and wetlands, polluted air, desertification and shrinking forests.

In the meantime, the Iranian government seems to be incapable of managing the uncertainties and instabilities of the Iranian economy and the devaluation of the Iranian currency, the rial, which has lost half of its value in recent months, falling to about 85,000 rials per dollar. As a result, thousands of traders in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar held a rare strike three weeks ago against the collapse of the rial on the foreign exchange market.

There is also increasing pressure on president Hassan Rouhani to resign. It is no secret to anyone that the re-imposition of US sanctions against Iran’s financial system and oil sales will strengthen the hands of Iranian hardliners once again. As legal economic and trade channels become inefficient, the non-government and paramilitary entities affiliated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basidj forces (a paramilitary volunteer militia established in 1979) will reactivate their black market groups to smuggle goods into Iran. This means the end of transparent banking which the Rouhani government has tried to impose since its election in June 2013.

Iran’s hawkish authorities, associated with the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei now have the upper hand and the political advantage to attack Rouhani’s administration and extend their dominance on the whole political system, including the judiciary and the intelligence apparatus. As a matter of fact, the deepening of the economic chaos and the political crisis in Iran, intensified by the daily “regime change” rhetoric of the Trump administration, is not only isolating Iran’s international stature on a daily basis, but is also widening the gap between Iran’s military theocrats and the post-Iran deal civil society.

With Iran’s top leadership rejecting talks with the US, Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems to be the last lifeboat for the Iranian sinking ship.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace at Jindal Global University.