Iran and Russia, Growing Apart

Rising Dissent Over the IRGC’s Militias

(L to R) Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladmir Putin, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, November 2017. Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters

Today, the latest round of UN-brokered Syria peace talks begins in Geneva, with the goal of bringing President Bashar al-Assad and various armed opposition factions to a political settlement that could put an end to half a decade of civil war in the country.

The Geneva talks come one week after another set of Syria talks, this time in Sochi. The November 22 gathering, which included some of the conflict’s key remaining players—Iran, Turkey, and Russia—was supposed to be a turning point in the issue of Syria’s future. At least that had been Tehran’s hope. Instead, the talks highlighted emerging fissures between Assad’s two main foreign backers, Iran and Russia, and even divisions within Iran between the civilian government of President Hassan Rouhani and the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

In short, the IRGC, which over the last seven years has established a strong presence in Syria through its various militias and local proxies, is anxious to preserve its gains against pushback from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. This stance might soon bring it into open conflict with Russia and other actors, including Rouhani, who might be more open to a multilateral political settlement to end the Syrian war. Specifically, the IRGC wishes not only to secure Iranian influence in postwar Syria, but also to transform its allied Syrian militias into an institutionalized military-political force in its own image, one which could become its local abettor similar to the role Hezbollah plays in Lebanon.


In Sochi, the Iranians, Russians, and Turks ostensibly agreed on one key point: that all parties should respect Syria’s territorial integrity. Other issues were discussed, including how to continue to uphold the process of de-confliction in the zones that had been agreed upon at Astana in May. Sochi was above all a summit intended as a demonstration of the ascendancy of the Iranian-Russian-Turkish partnership on Syria.

In Tehran, though, considerable doubt continues to exist about both

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