In the volatile Middle East region, perhaps two not unrelated events took place within a span of few weeks during September 2013 that have the potential to make some positive changes in this region after long time. First, while the threat of a military strikes by the United States against Syria was looming in the horizon, the Syrian government with the support and encouragement of Iran and Russia accepted to give up its chemical weapons. Second was the new opening in the Iran and the United States relations at the United Nations during the UN General Assembly session.

Regarding the Iran-Russia cooperation, although the two actors might not share the same interests in Syria, they found common grounds for cooperation in averting an American military attack against Syria and for its chemical weapons disarmament.  What brought Iran and Russia together on this important issue has to be analyzed from each side's perspective and their motivations.

Iran's drive to encourage Syria for chemical weapons disarmament could be summarized in four major points: First, to avert another war in the region that its ultimate aim was to contain Iran's influence. The war in Syria has turned in to a bloody civil war with the interference of outside powers. Some of these countries are openly supporting different groups that are closely aligned with the terrorists or radical forces. The prospect in Syria looked even bleaker with the threat of the U.S. military strikes that could have unleashed a set of events with the potential to spread the war far beyond the region.

Second, was to advance the plan for the establishment of Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. While Iran has a live experience of the horrors of the use of chemical weapons against its population by the Baathist regime in Iraq during the 1980's, it  fervently denounces any weapons of mass destruction and is an active supporter of the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the region. Although Iran had serious doubts about the allegations of Syrian governments' involvement in the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus on August 21, 2013, it hoped that the abandonment of these weapons by Syria could generate a momentum to encourage other countries which possess these weapons in the region to follow suit.


Third, to emphasize on the notion that there is no military solution for the turmoil in Syria and that Iran can be an effective and reliable partner in the peace talks. Right from the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Iranian officials enjoying good relations with Syrian government and some of the opposition groups insisted on a political solution for the conflict. Evidently, now there is increasing recognition in the West about Tehran's inevitable role in the peace process and that their engagement with Iran should go further and beyond the current negotiations on its nuclear file.

Fourth, the initiative would have saved the momentum for a possible thaw between Iran and the U.S.; while there were positive preliminary signals from both sides. Undoubtedly, if  military strikes were carried out by the U.S. against Syria, one of Iran’s  closest allies , that would have dramatically changed the political scenario and dashed any hope for rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. for a long time to come. In this respect, it is speculated that the idea of Syria's chemical weapons disarmament originally came from Tehran. Apparently, this discreet posture was not only intended to demonstrate Iran's clout in the region but was also to send a good will signal to Washington by providing President Obama a way to back down and to prevent the U.S. from plunging into another war in the Middle East.

There are also some considerations regarding the Russian approach toward the Syrian crisis. First, to preserve the international order that is based on the sanctity and non-interference in the sovereignty of states. Russia is also in favor of a U.N. Security Council-centered international system. It is deeply worried that the U.S. unilateral policies at the world stage could severely erode the role of the UN Security Council decision making and those of the permanent members wielding veto power.

 Second, fighting radicalism that is close to its borders and containing the potential destabilizing effects of spillover of civil war in Syria to the Caucuses republics. Militant Islamist groups are seen as a major concern by the Russians. Russia is worried that instability in the Middle East could spread to its neighboring countries and eventually to its own territory.

Third, maintaining a permanent Mediterranean Sea port at Tartus in Syria. Tartus has a military-strategic importance for the Russian Navy since it serves as the backup for Russian task forces in the Mediterranean

Fourth, is to protect the Eastern Orthodox Christian minority community in Syria. Evidently, the concern about the well being of that community resonates in the domestic public opinion in Russia where the majority of the population is followers of the same fate.

Apparently, in the Russian perspective, the optimal solution for the Syria crisis is that the scenario of Libya is not repeated. In other words, neither a pro-Western government nor any extremist Islamic groups would take control of the country.

Hence, the creative formula that saved Syria from an attack by the U.S. represented a win-win approach by Iran and Russia. In their joint initiation, there was a kind of division of labor where Iran gave its support and encouragement to the Syrian government for accepting the deal while Russia took the task of handling the issue at the United Nations Security Council and engaging the U.S. and other Western powers through diplomatic channels. Evidently, in that successful win-win diplomacy, Iran, Russia and the Syrian government (for accepting the challenges to give up its chemical weapons) came have all displayed a constructive role as far as the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction are concerned.

It is now expected that the successful disarmament of Syria's chemical weapons would have two positive outcomes. First, it would stop the spread of chemical weapons and prevent it to fall into in the hands of rebel groups; although, there are reports that indicate some of rebel groups are already in possession of chemical weapons in Syria. Second, it would encourage other countries in the region to give up their chemical weapons and that is considered as a step forward with regard to the establishment of WMDFZ in the Middle East


* Nasser Saghafi-Ameri is a former senior Iranian diplomat, and a scholar and author in the fields of foreign policy, international security, and nuclear disarmament.