Russia and Iran converge in the Middle East as Soleimani stands at the nexus of resistance axis

While Iran works at the local level to cultivate this expanded network, Russia uses its foreign policy tools to their benefitץ

AN IMAGE of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN IMAGE of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In July 2015, two months before Russia would commit air power in defense of Syria’s besieged President Bashar Assad, the most prominent figure in the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) allegedly embarked on a commercial aircraft, to a capital that has played an increasingly prominent role in managing the deadly conflicts and geopolitical affairs of the Middle East.
Sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and prohibited from international travel, Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani flouted international law and departed for Moscow. The delegation of high-level Russian officials designated to meet with Soleimani included Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and probably also President Vladimir Putin. The trip strengthened the perception that Russia was prepared to work more forcefully at both the operational and strategic level with Tehran and the Middle East’s Resistance Axis to reach complementary outcomes. Russia and Iran share a number of converging regional interests, creating an opportunity for an alternative regional security architecture that would be detrimental to US interests and bolster the perception of Russia as a great power.
The July 2015 trip was not a routine diplomatic courtesy. Soleimani is a skilled general and force multiplier for Iranian and Axis strength wherever he operates, bringing with him a deft ability to organize and coordinate new branches of a vast non-state network aimed at enhancing Iranian influence from Pakistan to Yemen. The Moscow meeting, we can speculate, aimed to increase intelligence-sharing and coordinate military operations necessary to reach a shared desired end: the protection of the government in Damascus and the defeat of rebel opposition, and Russia’s reemergence as a major power broker in the Middle East capable of balancing the US, and ultimately dislodging or diminishing American power projection in the region. Russia could then act as the new guarantor of so-called stability in the region and mediator of regional disputes. With a favorable tilt towards the Resistance Axis, this outcome would be more beneficial for the Axis than a re-engaged and assertive US. 
Soleimani tours battlefields across Iraq and Syria, tasking Hezbollah and other battlefield commanders with advice-train-assist missions for Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), particularly those loyal to the IRGC, including Katai’b Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organization. Additionally, Iran and Hezbollah are deepening contact with the Houthi rebels of Yemen and fostering new links to pro-Iran Palestinian factions like the al-Mujahidin Brigades and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. With the confidence of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Soleimani is positioned at the center of a vast network of state and non-state military forces.
Shi’ite violent extremist organizations that rallied in opposition to the rebel campaign that once threatened Damascus and Baghdad show no signs of demobilizing now that the capitals are secure. They are melding into state institutions. This phenomenon, witnessed in Lebanon with Hezbollah, is taking place in Iraq, where “in the case of the Revolutionary Guards model, the PMU would become part of the Iraqi state institutions, but separate from Iraq’s military, and ultimately more powerful.” In other words, the Hezbollah model is being implemented in Iraq.
While Russia has not taken the leading role in establishing this leviathan-like structure of violent Iran-backed networks spreading across the region, Moscow sees it as an opportunity for their reemergence as a major power broker in the Middle East.
Moscow leverages this assemblage of anti-US and anti-Zionist state and violent non-state actors (VNSAs) to promote their converging interests. The US National Defense Strategy issued by Defense Secretary James Mattis describes Iran as “competing with its neighbors, asserting an arc of influence and instability while vying for regional hegemony.” Russia actively seeks to shape the strategic landscape to their benefit at the expense of the United States through their support of this “arc of influence.”
Soleimani’s trip signals Moscow’s growing ties to the Resistance. In the years since the meeting, the Axis has stabilized Syria, developed hundreds of new VNSAs and reactivated old ones. Shi’ite militias from Pakistan (Zeynabioun Brigade) and Afghanistan (Fatemiyoun Division) operate alongside IRGC commanders in the Middle East, safeguarding their new positions and seeking to overwhelm America, Israel and the Gulf. Qassem Soleimani is at the matrix of these proxies, assisting and training both militarily and ideologically their cohort.
Understanding Soleimani’s significance as a sanctioned man capable of crossing multiple national borders to organize a war effort that Russia supports and benefits from makes him an important figure to understand in the context of strengthening Russian-Axis ties. The network he cultivates at the local level will prove a grave threat to the United States and traditional US partners in the Middle East should defense policy ignore their outgrowth, capabilities, and aims.
While Iran works at the local level to cultivate this expanded network, Russia uses its foreign policy tools to their benefit, including arms sales, military force, credit lines, economic aid packages, and political and diplomatic cover. Moscow’s direct involvement has changed the geopolitical alignment in the region. Russia’s forming of a military coalition with Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq has shielded Iran as it builds a more robust Axis in alliance with Russia. 
The writer is an MA student in Statecraft and National Security Affairs with a focus on US defense and counter-terrorism policy at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC.