On January 23, Washington quickly rejected that US forces had carried out joint air attacks with Russia against Islamic State targets in Syria. However, the swift reaction in Tehran to such a potential cooperation between Russia and the United States is indicative of deep Iranian concerns about geopolitical developments concerning the future of Syria. In fact, the alarmed Iranian reaction came at the same time as the warring Syrian parties were negotiating for a political settlement in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The Iranian press has been busy in recent days speculating about the geopolitical race for influence in the Middle East and Tehran’s potential to lose out in this many-sided competition. In particular, the strengthening détente between Moscow and Ankara is fast becoming a reason for concern for the Iranians.

They evidently fear that Tehran’s grip on the regime of the Bashar Al Assad regime might be weakening in the face of closer Russian-Turkish coordination to bring about a settlement to the Syrian war. Iran’s misgivings in this context were publicly evident when it contradicted both Russian and Turkish accounts about whether the United States had been invited to the Astana talks. Iran was against US participation as it feared its position in the talks would be further weakened. 

Signs of potential cooling in relations are not only coming from Tehran but also from Moscow. “Iran becomes a major problem,” one Russian outlet said that “Iran wants Russia to choose between Iran and Turkey. Iran assumes that neither Russia nor Turkey will be able to achieve any practical results in Syria without Iran. Iran also wants Russia to choose between Iran and Washington. In a nutshell, Iran wants Russia to recognize that Teheran holds the key to the regulation of the Syrian crisis.” Despite much talk in the last two years of strategic cooperation in Syria and beyond, there is clearly still plenty of suspicion in Iranian-Russian relations.