‘If You Aren’t Sitting At The Table, You Are Being Eaten At The Table’
On March 7, 2017, the chiefs of staff of the U.S., Russian, and Turkish militaries met in Antalya, Turkey to discuss security problems in Syria and Iraq. Conspicuous in its absence at the meeting was any Iranian representation whatsoever. According to a Russian Defense Ministry report, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces Gen. Hulusi Akar, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces Gen. Joseph Dunford were at the Antalya meeting.
Source: Russia Defense Ministry
This report reviews evidence of Russia’s recent rapprochement with the U.S. and Turkey at the expense of Iran, and the implications for Iran and the U.S.
Iranian Website Close To Foreign Ministry: “Iran’s Role In The Arena Of The Syrian Developments Is Being Eliminated”
Following the meeting in Antalya, on March 11, 2017, the Iran Diplomacy website, which is close to Iranian Foreign Ministry circles, wrote that Iran is in a state of shock. The report said:
“A Russian proverb says: ‘If you aren’t sitting at the table, you are (being eaten) at the table.’ Iran was not at the table in Antalya…
“The chiefs of general staffs of Turkey, America, and Russia held joint talks in Antalya on the Syrian matter, and Iran’s silence reinforces the rumor that very gradually Iran’s role in the arena of the Syrian developments is being eliminated, or restricted… Russia forcefully entered the Syrian arena, and it played a strategic part in the fall of Aleppo, and America agreed to this. This marks a reduction of Iran’s role in the developments in Syria. The American representative in the U.N. spoke about the need for Iran to exit Syria, while it [the U.S.] supports Turkey, which is threatening to boldly enter [Syria]…
“As far as America is concerned, Iran is Enemy No. 1…
“Ankara has sent a message to Iran about Turkey’s role in the Syrian developments in place of Iran’s role… Washington and Moscow are playing the main part in these talks… As far as Moscow and Washington are concerned, [the Turkish interest] is considered the most important regional interest… This is the shock [to Iran] we mentioned [above], and we have said that it should prepare for this… [This shock] is imminent, and we must work to limit its results and its dimensions.”
Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a former official in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), likewise wrote, in a March 4, 2017 article on the reformist website Shargh, that “Russia has [already] used Iran in the past as a tool” to attain its goals, and that “all Russia cares about is success in Syria, and it prefers to achieve this victory together with America.” He added: “When the final decision [on Syria] is reached, the roles of Russia, America and Turkey will become clearer and Iran will effectively be marginalized…”
It should be noted that four days prior to the Antalya meeting, on March 3, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov had complained about the absence of any coordination with the U.S. on Syria. Four days after the meeting, on March 11, Gen. Dunford and Joint Staff spokesman Capt. Greg Hicks set out various elements of the U.S.-Russia cooperation that had been agreed upon in the talks (see Appendix, below).
The Russian Position
For the past few months, Russia has been sending the message, in op-eds by prominent writers and others in the Russian media, that its approach to Iran is interest-driven. For example, in December 2016, Andrey Kortunov, director of the pro-Kremlin think tank Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), wrote that current Russia–Iran relations cannot be called a strategic partnership and that a one-time enemy [the U.S.] could easily become a future ally.
In February 2017, the Russian news website Pravda.ru reiterated this message, with an analysis by Dmitri Nersevov, who said that Iran is becoming a major problem, first and foremost for Russia’s interests.
In his February 14, 2017 column in the Russian daily Kommersant, Maxim Yusin wrote that Moscow considers Iran a “capricious” and “unpredictable” partner, and that this “opens a certain window of opportunity for Donald Trump’s diplomacy.”
A February 14, 2017 article in the Russian media outlet Vzglyad stated: “Tehran will be expected to compensate Moscow for the costs it will incur in providing geopolitical cover for Iran.”
On February 9, 2017, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and research director of the Valdai International Discussion Club, wrote in the Russian media outlet Gazeta.ru that “rapprochement and interaction with Iran, China, and India are not intrinsically valuable for Russia but are a tool… to influence the West.”
It should be emphasized that these statements about Iran were not made as a friendly gesture to the U.S. They reflect Russia’s position that considers Iran a bargaining chip, in exchange for which Russia expects that the U.S. will meet its needs – the lifting of the sanctions levelled following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military involvement in Ukraine.
The Situation On The Ground
The articles mentioned above are not in contrast to the situation on the ground; they correspond with it. For several months now, there have been significant conflicts of interest between Russia and Iran, which are expressed on the ground in different ways.
Russia is interested in an arrangement in Syria and sees itself as the decisive element regarding its future, while Iran sees itself in this role both in accordance with the expansionist ideology of the Islamic revolution regime, and in light of the massive losses it has suffered in Syria in recent years.
Reports on clashes on the ground between Russia and Iran were published by Syrian oppositionist sources. According to the reports, many clashes centered on imposing ceasefires in coordination with Turkey in various places in Syria such as Aleppo, Homs and the outskirts of Damascus.
Reports also indicate that Iran was displeased due to delays in implementing agreements it had signed with Syria, likely as a result of Russian reservations. These reports also match the analysis of the aforementioned high-ranking Iranian source, who said that Iran has been abandoned by Russia.
Iranian Preparations In Light Of Worsening Crisis With Russia
Despite the Iranian-Russian cooperation in recent years in various fields, Iran currently feels that Russia is abandoning it in favor of other vital interests, such as reaching understandings with the U.S. to promote the lifting of sanctions, and with Turkey as its senior regional partner.
High-ranking American-Russian coordination (ostensibly for the purpose of defeating ISIS) is taking place at a time when the Trump administration, which is known for its anti-Iranian regime stance, is organizing the Gulf states and other Arab countries into what the Arab media refers to as an “Arab NATO” against Iran.
These developments create a feeling of siege and existential threat in Tehran in light of the formulation of a wide American-Russian-Arab (and Israeli) front against the revolutionary regime.
Despite the fact that the Iranian media addresses the crisis with Russia only rarely, such as in the Iran Diplomacy report cited above, the Iranian regime has been holding intense debates to formulate a strategy to confront the current situation.
According to the reformist website Amadnews, the strategy is based on two central elements: The first element is to attempt to tie Russia to Iran with a strategic alliance, as part of which Russia will receive extensive benefits from Iran in the form of financial compensation for Western sanctions against it totaling $50 billion, and military-strategic privileges such as military bases and ports in the Persian Gulf on Iran’s southern border. The latter aspect has strategic importance vis-à-vis the U.S., and is historically significant to imperialist Russian interests.
The second element is to operate Iran’s proxies such as Hizbullah and the Palestinian factions in order to spark a war against Israel, which would occupy the Trump administration and remove the pressure it is exerting on Iran.
The Russian position evidently views Iran as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis the U.S., as an open offer to the Trump administration whose implementation depends on the American response. The Russians need the sanctions lifted, but the scope of the American returns is obviously subject to the political talks between the Trump and Putin administrations, and largely depends on the two sides’ positions of strength.
The following are the elements of the U.S.-Russia cooperation as set out by Gen. Dunford and Joint Staff spokesman Capt. Greg Hicks, as reported by Tass.com on March 11, 2017:
“Gen. Dunford earlier had said that Moscow and Washington have agreed to set up a three-star communications channel at the level of a U.S. Lieutenant General and a Russian Colonel General. Commenting on the results of the March 7 tripartite meeting in Ankara [sic] with Gen. Akar and Gen. Gerasimov, Dunford said that the discussion was aimed, inter alia, at gaining a common understanding of the situation in Syria, which he called “very dynamic.” He said: “I believe enhanced deconfliction to include more robust communications between our people is important to continue to operate safely. We’ve successfully mitigated the risk of incidents over the past several months.” The official described the single communications channel between the Combined Air Operations Center and Russian air operation center in Syria as “an unclassified fairly tenuous link to deconflict aviation, air ops and to make sure that air ops as they pertain to operations on the ground do it safely.”
“First and foremost, I was to mitigate the risk of miscalculation,” the chairman said. “In the event of a crisis I want to have an open line of communication so we can talk in real time about what is actually happening and try to address it properly. I think we all know through history that miscalculation and miscommunication can take us in the wrong direction.”
“According to Capt. Hicks, Russia and the U.S. have exchanged opinions on setting up a ‘three-star’ Syrian communication channel at the level of generals: “A working level discussion has taken place to exchange initial thoughts on how such a channel might be established to enhance deconfliction,” Hicks told TASS. The official did not elaborate on who had held the discussions and when. According to Hicks, the U.S. side expects that the armed forces of Russia and the U.S. will exchange information on Syria at a higher level than they presently do. This alternative channel of communication will allow more efficient management of “the immediate deconfliction we have been doing over the last several months.”
“The memorandum of understanding on the prevention of incidents and enhancing the safety of air missions in the Syrian airspace was signed on October 20, 2015. Its implementation is regularly discussed by Russian and US defense officials.
“Hicks said the new measures, put forward by the Pentagon, are not intended to replace the previous arrangements, and added that the U.S. and Russia have already established “a framework of understanding on what the three-star channel would be discussing.”
*Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI; A. Savyon is Director of MEMRI’s Iranian Media Project; Anna Mahjar Barducci, journalist and author, is Director of the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project.
 Ria.ru/defense_safety, March 7, 2017.
 Iran Diplomacy (Iran), March 11, 2017.
 Sharghdaily.ir/News, March 4, 2017.
 Tass.com, March 3, 2017.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6742, Director General Of Russian Government-Funded Think Tank: Current Russia–Iran Relations Cannot Be Called A Strategic Partnership, A One-Time Enemy Could Easily Become A Future Ally, January 16, 2017.
 MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6779, Pro-Kremlin Pravda.ru: ‘ Iran Is Becoming A Major Problem, First And Foremost For Russia’s Interests’, February 12, 2017.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6808, Columnist For Russian Daily ‘Kommersant’: ‘Moscow [Understands] That In Iran It Has A Really Capricious And Unpredictable Partner. That Opens A Certain Window Of Opportunity For Donald Trump’s Diplomacy’ March 1, 2017.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6813, Russian Media Outlet ‘Vzglyad’: ‘Tehran Will Be Expected To Compensate Moscow For The Costs It Will Incur In Providing Geopolitical Cover For Iran’, March 3, 2017.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6821, Renowned Russian Intellectual Fyodor Lukyanov: ‘Rapprochement And Interaction With Iran, China, And India Are Not Intrinsically Valuable for Russia But Are A Tool… To Influence The West’, March 9, 2017.
 According to a report in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, in addition to the two Russian bases in Khmeimim and Latakia, Russia has recently expanded its presence in Syria from Damascus to the eastern Rif Homs and Rif Aleppo, in order to increase its influence leading up to a potential federal solution to the crisis, which might involve a division of Syria. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 14, 2017.
 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1286, The Regional Vision Of Iran’s Islamic Regime And Its Military-Political Implementation, Part I – The Ideological Doctrine: Exporting The Revolution; Iran As ‘Umm Al-Qura’, December 7, 2016.
 Several Syrian oppositionists reported that Iran and its proxy militias are working to thwart the ceasefires that Russia is attempting to promote in various areas of fighting, and also that Russia is engaged in efforts to drive these militias from those areas as part of its understandings with Turkey. Thus, for example, reports indicated Russia and Iran disagreed on the ceasefire formulated between Russia and Turkey in East Aleppo in December, with Iran’s absence. According to one report, Iran and the Syrian regime placed additional conditions on the agreement in an attempt to thwart it. See Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 15, 2016; and MEMRI TV Clip #5866 – Chief Negotiator For Aleppo Opposition Factions Reveals Disagreements Between Russia And Iran Against Backdrop Of Evacuation Of Aleppo, December 31, 2016 to January 4, 2017. It was also reported that as part of the power struggle between Russia and Iran, Russian jets bombed Hizbullah and Iranian forces positions in the Aleppo area. Orient-news.net, December 14, 2016; Eldorar.com, November 30, 2016. An additional report indicated a disagreement on the ceasefire in Wadi Barada near Damascus, which is besieged by Hizbullah. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 30, 2017. Reports also indicate that as part of the ceasefire in East Aleppo, which was reached in coordination with Turkey, Russia deployed a Sunni Chechen police force to expel the Shi’ite militias. Almodon.com, December 31, 2016; ‘Okaz (Saudi Arabia), January 4, 2017. There are also reports that Russia is trying to expel Iranian and Hizbullah forces from other areas where ceasefires are being established, such as the opposition enclave in the Al-Waer neighborhood of Homs, and the outskirts of Damascus. Al-Hayat (London), March 13, 2017; Alarabiya.net, February 26, 2017; All4syria.info, February 28, 2017. Affirmation of Russian-Iranian tension appeared in an article in the Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the regime. Writer ‘Abd Al-Mun’im ‘Issa described the disagreement as “an unprecedented major earthquake,” adding that relations between Russia and Iran have changed due to Russia growing closer to Turkey. Al-Watan (Syria), February 7, 2017. It should be mentioned that these reports were not denied; however, officials from Russia, Iran and Syria stress the cooperation between them on various occasions and justify Iran and Hizbullah’s presence in Syria, arguing that they were invited by the regime.
 The London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat reported that Russia expressed reservations from a number of agreements that Damascus had recently signed with Iran regarding phosphate mining and the establishment of an Iranian cellular carrier in Syria, leading the Syrian regime to delay their implementation. In response, Iran halted the supply of oil products to Damascus. Al-Hayat (London), March 9, 2017.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6811, Iran Prepares Militarily And Politically Vis-à-vis Trump Administration: Strategic Alliance With Russia, Dragging Israel Into War With Hizbullah, Palestinians, March 3, 2017.