The rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East is not only the result of a sustained exploitation of regional instability – largely in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – but also the consequence of a new military entente with Moscow. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Iran has been dependent on security support from Russia to protect Bashar al-Assad against a perceived – if unsubstantiated – policy on the part of the United States to bring about regime change. In terms of the nuclear and broader military files, the relationship between the two countries is clearly important for the future of the Middle East. There may also be some ideological affinities, especially shared anti-Americanism. But this is now more a contextual alliance against Sunni jihadist movements than a common political project or shared strategic agenda.
Indeed, in the relationship between the two countries what matters more is what they do not want, rather than any vision of a political project offering an alternative to Western universalism. Both – for domestic reasons as much as anything – reject Western regime-change policies and the instrumentalisation of human rights to promote geopolitical objectives. This theoretical convergence applies particularly well to the Syrian case, where Russia and Iran wish to prevent the emergence respectively of a pro-Western or pro-Saudi regime in Damascus. They present themselves as supporters of the status quo and have declared that only their opponents have an interest in the destabilisation of Syria. At this stage, their divergence on Israel is not a major factor in their partnership. It is instead driven by the new cold war between the US and Russia, as well as the cold peace between Iran and the West.
Since the failure of the Arab Spring and the targeting of their territory by the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, Western states have begun to view the reinvigorated Russian–Iranian relationship through a different lens. The Barack Obama administration has been accused by some analysts in the Arab world and Turkey of having made a paradigm shift in its policy towards Iran. Even if this conspiracy theory cannot satisfactorily explain US foreign policy in the region, one has to consider the consequences of the emergence of ISIS for US strategy in the Middle East.