Russia and Iran–What Gives?


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Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The Russians are being played. Their long-time allies, the Iranians, have a grand vision of being made the dominant power in the Middle East. They’ve held this dream for some time. In fact, the hope of an Iranian (or, Persian, in ancient parlance) empire has existed for over a millennia. To be fair, the Persians did possess an empire that dominated the region for some time. Over the course of history, however, that empire’s reach waxed and waned. Ultimately, Persia became enmeshed in the politics of the larger region. The Persians also went from being polytheists to Shiite Muslims. Things change, but imperial dreams rarely do.

For the first time in a very long time, the Iranians believe that their geopolitical fortunes have changed for the better. The Sunni world, Iran’s chief rival, has been rocked by a wave of jihadism that threatens the rule of the mostly pro-Western elite in those countries; America’s bumbling military interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan have made the United States military–once the most feared force in the region–look impotent and ripe for challenge; and, of course, the return of Russia to the region has made it seem as though America has a new rival to its power. Also, in the eyes of many in the region, that Russian rival is beating the United States.

All of this has bode well for the Iranians.

In 2003, when the United States toppled Saddam Hussein in 21 days, the Iranians reportedly sent a letter to the Bush Administration through intermediaries in Switzerland, offering to renounce terrorism and allow for weapons inspectors to return to suspected WMD sites in Iran. The Iranians, like much of the rest of the world, were in shock at how such a small American force (about 150,000 troops) could topple Saddam Hussein in less than a month. Of course, the George W. Bush Administration, feeling empowered with its windswept victory, shrugged off the entreaty from Iran (at the insistence of former Secretary of State Colin Powell). We have been made less safe because of such hubris. Iran went into wait-and-see mode regarding America’s intentions in the region. It didn’t take long for the Iranians to rest easy, as the Americans quickly became bogged down in the geopolitical mosh-pit of Iraq and the larger Mideast politics.

As America sapped its strength in the dunes of Iraq, the Iranians doubled-down on their revanchist goals for the region. Like one of the horrors released from Pandora’s box, the Iranians jetted out from their previous diplomatic and military containment with renewed vigor. When Barack Obama became president in 2009, just as the Iranian people were rising to challenge the orthodoxy of the Iranian regime, the United States indicated that it was willing to compromise with the Mullahs on their nuclear and regional ambitions. Soon, the Iranian government would brutally put down its youthful, democratic protests and the Obama Administration would work at a) cutting-and-running from Iraq; b) turning on its Sunni and Israeli allies; c) working on an executive agreement between itself and Iran’s leadership that would give the Iranians all that they yearned for.

Unfortunately for Iran, however, the Obama “doctrine” of disengagement and retrenchment would not last. The rise of Donald J. Trump and the Republican Party to power means that the executive agreement signed between the Obama White House and the Mullahs is no longer a reliable deal. Not to worry, though, the Iranians developed an ace-up-their-sleeve in the form of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Iranians understood that should the United States decide to reassert itself in the region, they could do little to stop America’s military. The one thing that might prompt America to stay its hand would be the presence of a larger force that has near-parity with the United States. Enter, the Russians.

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The Russians and the Iranians have enjoyed a long-standing relationship. The Russians view Iran as a stable partner in the Mideast that will assist Russia in stabilizing its own relations with its large–and growing–Muslim population. The Russians also hope that an alliance with Iran will serve as an anti-jihadist counterweight in the region (since most of the jihadists who threaten Russia, like those who threaten Europe and the United States , are of the Wahhabī variant). Meanwhile, the Russians also support the Iranians at the international diplomatic level because the Iranians buy Russian military equipment and pay top dollar for Russian scientific help (read, Russian WMD know-how). Plus, the Russians have increasing levels of shared interest with Iran in developing pipelines to transport Mideast oil and natural gas out of the desert and into Europe. Lastly, the Russians view Iran as a strategic counterweight to the American-led alliance system in the region and as a means of complicating U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Remember, folks, Russia is the ultimate spoiler. Putin does not accept the U.S.-led world order that arose following the Cold War. He favors a system in which ultimate power is not amassed in the hands of a global hegemon, such as the United States, but one that sees power disaggregated to multiple poles. In such a world, Putin’s Russia would play an outsized role–as would Iran. To Putin, this is important, because having many centers of power would prevent the United States from, in Putin’s view, overreaching and allowing for NATO and the EU to expand into what once was the Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and beyond.

All politics is local, after all.

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What the Russians clearly don’t comprehend is that the Iranians, as led by the mad Mullah council, do not view the Russians as allies. They view Russia in much the same way that the mujahideen of Afghanistan viewed the United States in the Soviet-Afghan War: useful infidels. The Russians believe that their alliance with Iran will serve their strategic interests of harming the United States. It will and it already has. However, the Russians also believe that once the United States is pushed out of the Mideast (and eventually in Eastern Europe), that America will simply retreat and return home to mind its own business, and they will be the unquestionable powerhouse in all of Eurasia. The Iranians do not share this view. The Iranians are using Russia to further their strategic interests of securing the strategic, ancient caravan routes that link Iran, Iraq, and Syria together (and offer a vital strategic pivot toward the Mediterranean Sea via Iranian-dominated Lebanon).

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Iran’s forces fighting in Syria, alongside Bashar al-Assad’s forces, have shifted away from fighting in the northern and western portions of Syria and taken to fighting in the eastern and southeastern portions of Syria. They are now running up against American-backed coalition partners fighting in this region. It’s all about those caravan routes. If Iran (with Russian help) can come to dominate these ancient routes then they will be one step closer to building their regional empire. If they get to that point, the American position in the region will have been dealt a serious blow; the Sunnis will once again become jittery and look to Pakistan to supply them with nuclear arms; the jihadists of the Sunni world will become even more galvanized; and Israel’s existence will be threatened.

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Meanwhile, the Russians will think that they’ve won and keep pressing their purported advantage in places like Eastern Europe and beyond. But, all that they will have done is to have created a Frankenstein’s monster in Iran. For, once Iran believes that it has secured its own position in the region, it will become more daring. As it does this, it will be disinclined to heed strategic advice–or limitations–from its Russian “partners.” Further, it will likely turn on those former partners, seeing as the Russians are not of the one true faith.

In Syria, Russia has become an unwitting pawn in Iran’s master strategy for building its own, Shiite-dominated regional hegemony. Writing in the New York Post today on this very subject, former U.S. Army Intelligence Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters brilliantly asks:

“What’s wryly striking is that the Russians, who see themselves as master strategists, are blind to the way Iran has been manipulating them: Iran got us to fight ISIS and may get Putin to fight us. Guess who wins, either way?”

The Russians have long had a minor stake in Syria: the Assad Regime was a client of theirs going back to the 1970s. It is true that Russia has an airbase in Latakia and a naval base in Tartarus. However, these positions have always been small outposts for the Motherland rather than key strategic pivot points. And, it is also true that with the advent of the Syrian Civil War, the Russian position in Syria has expanded and the Syrians have allowed for Russia to build up their presence at these two facilities, thereby increasing Russia’s overall strategic presence in the region. However, these facilities are wastelands. They are not fully functioning military outposts, as the American military understands them. The real reason that Putin intensified his role in Syria, I believe, was to create a bargaining chip for himself to use in negotiations for settling the Crimea situation.

In fact, we know that this line of thought was a part of Putin’s logic for intervening in Syria. The Russians floated a possible trade to the Obama Administration: they would stand down in Syria in exchange for the United States standing down from trying to reunite Crimea with Ukraine. The Obama Administration didn’t take the bait. So, now, Putin is left holding both the Syria and Crimea bags with no one willing to take them off of his hand. He’s getting desperate. In his desperation, he is doubling down on a very bad investment in Syria. Indeed, recently, he’s now committed himself to threatening the United States with open warfare, in order to defend Assad’s forces from anymore U.S.-backed attacks.

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U.S. cruise missiles launched into Syria in April 2017.
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Russian long-range cruise missiles launched against ISIS targets in June 2017.
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Courtesy of DefenseOne.

The United States doesn’t want war. The Russians, despite their bluster, don’t really want war. The Assad Regime is just desperate to prevent the Sunnis from taking Syria (and thereby likely perpetrating mass genocide against the Alawites). The only group that really stands to benefit from this chaos is the Iranians. They are the ones who need Syria more than anyone else. Without Syria as a transition point for Iranian influence into Lebanon and Gaza, the Iranians will never be able to solidify their regional hegemony.

However, there is a way we can all have our cake and eat it. Taking the information above into account, the ultimate Russian objective is simple to understand. First, they want to focus on securing their position in Crimea. Second, they want to maintain their bases in Syria, but so long as the United States opts not to topple the Assad Regime and his Alawite partners, the Russians are fine to let the pieces fall as they may in Syria. Third, the Russians do not want anymore interventions in the Mideast that might topple secular strongmen and replace them with Islamists. Fine, neither do we.

Writing in the brilliant American Affairs Journal, Hall Gardner asserts that “it is absolutely crucial to consider a new ‘Plan A,’ and a general settlement with Moscow that results in a formally neutral Ukraine.” Toward that end, Gardner rightly claims that,

“A general settlement with Moscow that results in Ukrainian neutrality, but allows self-defense forces and permits Moscow to retain sovereignty over Crimea, will not necessarily result in full ‘capitulation.'”

In this, we have our first hope for a way out of this inexorable abyss that we’ve set a course for. The United States should understand that rather than being central to Russian ambitions, Syria is a peripheral matter that it is more than willing to trade away with Washington over. The United States should not weaken its position in Syria, in fact, it should likely strengthen its resolve in combating jihadist terror networks there. Meanwhile, it should continue giving a wide berth to the Assad forces–but not so wide a berth that they end up neutralizing our allies’ position on the ground. We will continue to protect our forces fighting ISIS and other jihadist groups whilst allowing for the Syrians, Iranians, and Russians to continue conducting their missions as they see fit. To the Russians, however, we should float the possibility of finally resolving the Crimea situation amicably in exchange for Russia standing down.

For the price of us promising not to actively seek the toppling of Assad, so long as our allies are respected on the ground (such as the Kurds), we can live and let live. The real test will be what the Iranians will do. It is unlikely that the Iranians will simply allow for the Kurds and other American-backed groups to simply go on in a country that Iran seeks to control. Our deal with Russia will have to be bilateral and it will have to be serious. This means that we will have to give ground to Russia on things such as Crimea, as well as NATO and EU “double enlargement” into what Russia views as its own sphere of influence. We can also dangle the possibility of lifting the sanctions on the Russians. The key will be to get Russian backing in a) preventing our allies from being slaughtered by the Iranians and Assad; b) helping to fight jihadist terror networks; and c) at the very least taking an ambivalent approach to America returning Iran back to its proverbial box.

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These are difficult tasks, but they are possible. All that it takes its statesmanship and commitment to cause. It also requires us understanding the language and logic of force when it comes to dealing with Russia. The natural assumption is that the United States should stand down in Syria and start letting the Russo-Iranian-Alawite axis have free reign there. This is the exact opposite approach. We must continue operating as we deem it necessary in Syria. At the same time, we should start signaling to the Russians that we are open to a fair deal and will meet the Russians with that goal in mind at the diplomatic table, whenever they finally decide to do so.

The Russians are being played by the Iranians. The Iranians envision a world where the Americans and Russians go to war and are too busy fighting each other to even notice what the Iranians are doing in the Mideast. This sounds ridiculous, but if things continue going as they are in the region, events just might play out this way (and if that does happen, the United States should flatten Iran first). But, it doesn’t have to–especially when the Russians care little for warring over Syria. Their aims are much closer to home. The Russian and Iranian alliance is one of convenience and it is neither spiritual nor irrevocable. The United States should use this to its advantage.

We are not interested in turning the Mideast into the Midwest anymore. That’s a good thing. We want to restore a balance of power to the region, by pitting a Sunni-Israeli-Kurdish(?) alliance off of the Shiite alliance, and then taking a step back. That’s a noble goal. In order to do that, we have to get the Russians to step back also. Iran is playing Russia for fools. Once Russia and America are laid low by war, Iran will be able to have their way with both. The sooner the Russians realize that, the world will be better off.



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