Original published by inosmi.ru; translation from Russian by J.Hawk
The Islamic Republic of Iran High National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani said that “the coalition of Iran, Russia, Iraq, and Lebanese Hezbollah was able to change the balance of power which had long existed on the Syrian front. The terrorists were forced to abandon their office and to instead retreat. Moreover, we have finally liberated Khaleb.”
Ali Shamkhani, in a discussion with the Iran and Eurasian Study Foundation (IRAS) spoke of the region’s political evolution, with particular emphasis on the situation in Iran and also on the Russia-Iran cooperation in Syria and the negotiations of the “Astana process”.
–Iran and Russia have, over the course of the last two years and especially after the lifting of sanctions on Iran, entered a wholly new phase of military-technical cooperation. In your view, has this relationship advanced past the usual “seller-buyer” relations and approach a level that one would call strategic?
–In reality the buying and selling of arms is but one aspect of the cooperation which we observe between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation in the defense realm. In our view, it has begun to acquire “strategic character” already when Russia began to seriously and effectively act on the Syrian theater as a force against terrorism. Already then we have started to form a partneship on defense which respects the interests of both countries. The strategic aspect means cooperation at the highest level, between the leaders of the two countries, and also in the realm of military affairs. It’s meetings and contacts between armed forces chiefs of staff, national security councils, and defense ministries. Moreover, we are seeing it in the area of joint military operations. Unlike some of the other countries in the region, which are merely buying US weapons, Iran is choosing what it needs. It chooses those weapons which it requires and those technologies which can be produced domestically only in limited quantities.
–As far as we know, Iran-Russia cooperation on Syria has created entirely new venues for cooperation, such as the overflight of Iran by Russian cruise missile, the use of the Shakhind Nozhe airbase. All of that greatly increased Russia’s military power in the region. Is Iran not concerned by such an unprecedented growth of Russia’s military power in the region?
–Naturally, in a situation where this growth of military power takes place by mutual agreement and with both sides’ interest being taken into consideration, there are no reasons for concern. We are worried about military operations by those countries which are threatening regional security, those countries which are providing military, material, and information support for the Islamic State and other terror groups. We are talking of countries which for the sake of support of terrorists are seeking UNSC resolutions, while hindering the political resolution of crises, as in the case of Syria and Yemen. But the Russia-Iran cooperation is developing within the framework of a joint counter-terror strategy in the region. Both parties are interested in that.
–Therefore one shouldn’t consider this military cooperation a prelude to some regional or even global coalition? Or is this cooperation limited in character, which in the future will not have significant impact on regional or global relations?
–Considering both sides capabilities, we may speak of creating an effective regional coalition whose purpose is ensuring security not only in the region but the whole world. Given the example of joint operations conducted by Iran, Russia, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanese Hezbollah, we can see a dramatic shift in the balance of power, we can see how the terrorists after many years on the offensive are now forced to retreat, we can see how Aleppo was liberated. In my view, such coalitions which began with limited objectives, will evolve. It’s because their goals were not narrow at all. Naturally, terror threat today is the most important to all countries. And although the largest and powerful terror force, ISIS, has lost much of its power and territory in the last two years, it does not mean terror threat has vanished. On the one hand, ISIS is shifting from Iraq and Syria to other regions, and on the other hand the very nature of threats is changing. It’s no longer military threat and the seizure of territory, but rather upsurges of terrorism which may occur anywhere. In such conditions, given the changing strategic balance and the nature of threats to security, I consider it necessary to preserve the coalition.
This coalition, apart from military operations, is very important from the intellectual point of view. Opposing a terror group and opposing terror ideology are very different things. With that in mind, uprooting terror ideologies demands not only eliminating this or that group but removing the soil in which the ideology thrives, the conditions which facilitate the ideas of violence, radicalism, and extremism.
–Cooperation between a major regional player, such as Iran, and a global superpower, such as Russia, irrespective of the level of cooperation or issues it addressed, may have regional and global strategic consequences. It may send Iran down a path from which it may not be able to change on its own. Is Tehran sufficiently strong to both benefit from cooperation with a superpower and not become a hostage to its policies?
–Russia-Iran cooperation on fighting terror was initially based on Russia’s desire to support the legitimate Syrian government and on shared interest in this issue. It remains this way today. Naturally, it is wholly possible that sometimes our aims may not coincide, for example, the struggle against the Zionist regime (of Israel). Here the cooperation takes a different form. But each country is independent, each country makes its own foreign policy based on own interests. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s policies since the first year of the 1979 revolution have also been based on the principles of independence and not becoming tied to any superpower’s policies. One should realize that cooperation is not a negation of own independence, there are shared goals which can be achieved only through joint efforts.
On the other hand, since the start of Russia-Iran strategic cooperation in Syria, the political balance of power has also shifted. In the past, the US and several Arab countries, together with their powerful financial lobby, tried to challenge the legitimacy of the lawful government of Syria. But right now, when the situation has become more stable and the positions of the Syrian government are stronger, we are observing the Astana process which has given us considerable progress toward a political resolution. But one must remember that the Syria crisis has to be examined from its very beginning six years ago. Our analysis will be incomplete if we fail to take into consideration the nature and origins of the Syria crisis.
–In Syria, the efforts of two countries, Iran and Russia, were largely focused on ensuring that Russia did not become Iranian air force, and Iran did not become Russia’s army. Indeed, we observed a form of cooperation in Syria that did not entail any mutual obligations. And even though this model proved its worth on the battlefield, it does not mean it will continue to exist during the political phase. With that in mind, what are your views on the future of cooperation during the political negotiations phase?
–It’s premature to answer that question. Strategic military cooperation assumes using the military potential of both sides in order to reach objectives defined by joint command structures. If there is a sense of independence which leads to the loss of need for the partner’s capabilities, then the cooperation within the coalition becomes impossible.
As I said before, this cooperation model has already proven itself also in the political realm, and the launch of Astana talks is a clear demonstration of that. We have also delineated the so-called de-escalation zones on Syria’s territory, which was also a very important step.
The most important aspect of cooperation is that we have a shared vision of the region’s future. There is also the risk that terror groups will spread. We are also facing the negative role of the US and of the coalition it created. All of that has facilitated the more or less firm alliance in the struggle against terrorism, which in turn has facilitated an exchange of valuable experience.