Despite the fact that Iran and Russia appear to share two key principles – preserving the Assad state and the collapse of the current U.S.-led security system – there is therefore potential for a gulf to develop between the two states. Senior U.S. diplomat and former ambassador James F. Jeffrey, distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute where he focusses on U.S. diplomatic and military strategy in the Middle East, with emphasis on Turkey, Iraq, and Iran explained to qantara.de that Russia is seeking a replacement "great powers" model centred on its alliance with Syria, while Iran wants a security system based on its hegemony. The latter would essentially look something like the current system, with Iran in place of the USA.
On the other hand, according to Jeffrey, the reluctance expressed by both Obama and Trump to aggressively defend Americaʹs own system in a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan Middle East, not to mention Israelʹs awareness of said reluctance, has led to Putinʹs interests being accommodated. Both the USA and Israel essentially agree with the Russian vision of a security order, at least in Syria, in return for Russia acting to eliminate, if not Iranʹs presence and influence in Syria, then its "power projection capabilities" (PPC), which include Iranian advisors and militias on/near Golan Heights, long-range drones, long-range missiles, rocket and air defence systems.
Iran unlikely to pull out from Syria
Iran, however, is hardly likely to accept such a scenario, which begs the question whether Russia has the capacity to force Iran out of Syria.
Over the past seven years, Iran has invested heavily in Syria. Depending on the source, Iranian aid to the Syrian government ranges from $6 billion, (according to the U.N. Envoy Staffan de Mistura) to $14-15 billion (according to Nadim Shehadi, Director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University). The Islamic Republic has high hopes of securing a large slice of Syriaʹs post-war reconstruction pie. It has also been funding thousands of Hezbollah fighters deployed in Syria, as well as the militias it maintains.
That Iran will simply give up its Syrian assets seems a long shot. Whatʹs more, Russia does not have the authority to "order" Iran to leave Syria: only Assad can do that. Understandably, the Iranians would do everything in their power to counter such a move.
Iran is risking alienation from Russia, the only close ally it currently has, while raising the possibility of a major clash with Israel and the U.S. which, led by Donald Trump, is intent on putting pressure on Iran at every opportunity. The Israelis, in turn, cannot credibly threaten what Putin most fears – effective Israeli strikes against Assadʹs limited military power – as long as Trump refuses to back Israel against Russian retaliation. So, Israel is desperately hoping for Russian "gifts" that reduce Iranian PPC without leveraging Putin.