A US-Iranian Clash Presents Dangers and Opportunities for Russia

As more American forces head to the Middle East, the prospects for a military clash with Iran seem to be increasing. National Security Advisor John Bolton insists that deploying the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force will “send a clear and unmistakable message … that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” Although he added that the United States “is not seeking war with the Iranian regime,” the administration’s recent actions give Tehran ample reason to believe the White House’s ultimate goal is to provoke a military confrontation. After all, the administration has not only declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a  foreign terrorist organization; it has also eliminated the sanctions waivers that had allowed China, India, and several other countries to continue buying Iranian oil.

It is hard to imagine that the White House did not anticipate that Iran’s leaders would retaliate against this obvious effort to shut down Iran’s economy. Threats by Iranian officials to close the Strait of Hormuz—and even more so, President Hassan Rouhani’s May 8 declaration that Iran will now cease to honor two of its commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—underscore Tehran’s mounting desperation. If not looking for a war, at the very least the US administration seems intent on pursuing a high stakes game of chicken designed to show that the United States has the means and will to deter (and intimidate) Iran.

Trump’s Deterrence Policy

The problem with this deterrence policy is well known: as each side flexes its military muscle, its adversary will feel compelled to save face by retaliating. The White House might think it can avoid the slippery slope of escalation, either by amassing enough forces to scare Iran or, if necessary, by launching surgical strikes that inflict real pain but—it hopes—without prompting the nightmare of a wider armed conflict. This is a perilous calculation for a US president who has staked his reputation and presidency on a promise of economic revival at home and disengagement from military conflicts abroad. With the United States enjoying sustained economic growth and Donald Trump’s Democratic rivals fighting among themselves, the domestic benefits of looking strong on the global front could be sucked away into the black hole of an extended and costly multi-front war with Iran.

The White House might think it can avoid the slippery slope of escalation, either by amassing enough forces to scare Iran or, if necessary, by launching surgical strikes that inflict real pain but—it hopes—without prompting the nightmare of a wider armed conflict.

Beyond the dangers of escalation looms a more basic diplomatic and geostrategic challenge: how to contain the ripple effects of US-Iranian military confrontation in the Middle East. Whatever misgivings it has about Russian actions in other regions or states (such as Venezuela), the US administration has effectively accepted the fact that Moscow has forged a workable—if testy—Syrian-Iranian-Turkish entente, one that ensures that Russia (and President Vladimir Putin in particular) will be the ultimate arbiter of any post-conflict solution to Syria’s civil war. While Trump likes to talk tough, this arrangement has in fact relieved the White House of military, human, and financial burdens and costs that the US president is unwilling to shoulder.

Still, if this policy has benefited Putin, it has thus far had little impact on the dangerous course of US-Iran relations. Putin must now ensure that US-Iran tensions do not wreck the diplomatic balancing act he nurtured for some five years. Although this will not be easy, Moscow is well placed to leverage the US-Iranian conflict in ways that could help Russia manage its entente with Tehran and Ankara, not to mention its complicated relationship with the Trump Administration.

Moscow’s Tricky Balancing Act

The realists’ Realist, Putin has forged a Middle East policy whose nimble efficacy gives him far more leverage than the United States can exercise, even with Washington’s clear military superiority in the region. The efficacy of this policy derives from a coherent linking of sufficient means to a clearly defined objective: safeguarding the survival of Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s key Middle East strategic ally. Prompted by both Damascus and Tehran, Moscow provided Assad with just the right amount of lethal military support he needed, thus avoiding mission creep. Moscow also benefited from the desire of both the Obama and Trump Administrations not only to avoid a military confrontation with Russia, but more importantly to pursue a military strategy focused on defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS) rather than endangering Assad. Beyond this implicit convergence of American and Russian strategies, Putin has good diplomatic relations with all the key regional players, including Israel. The Russian president thinks outside the box while the Trump Administration is boxed in by its unrelenting and deeply ideological obsession with building an anti-Iran alliance.

Putin has good diplomatic relations with all the key regional players, including Israel. The Russian president thinks outside the box while the Trump Administration is boxed in by its unrelenting and deeply ideological obsession with building an anti-Iran alliance.

Putin has translated his military successes in Syria into wider diplomatic gains by fostering an entente between Moscow, Damascus, Tehran, and Ankara. Under the umbrella of the Moscow-led Astana Process, Iran and Turkey have not only sought common ground on the immediate strategic and political challenges they face in Syria, but they have displayed a clear and growing readiness to push back against the Trump Administration. In September 2018, Moscow leveraged these converging impulses to secure Iran and Turkey’s backing for a diplomatic roadmap to stabilize Syria. This included a partial withdrawal of Russian forces, launching talks aimed at removing Sunni jihadist forces from Idlib province, creating a committee to write a new constitution (the key principles of which were already spelled out by Russian experts), and setting the date for elections. This plan was reiterated during a February 2018 summit in Sochi attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Putin.

Moscow’s capacity to sustain this entente hinges partly on making sure that potentially clashing interests and objectives of all the key parties do not capsize the ship of consensus. Russia needs a post-conflict solution that not only enhances Moscow’s strategic partnership with Assad but also secures some reasonable measure of coexistence between Syria and its bordering states—including Turkey and Israel. By contrast, Iran has sought to enlarge its military and economic footprint in Syria to open a new front against Israel that can be sustained by a land route that begins in Tehran, traverses Iraq, and extends through Syria. To advance this ambitious agenda, Iran reportedly signed five cooperation deals with Assad including one that would allow it to invest funds in the coastal city of Tartous. Reports that Iran has been operating a precision missile factory close to Russia’s air base in Latakia underscore the potential for rivalry between Moscow and Tehran. Indeed, Iran’s ambitious efforts have reportedly rubbed Moscow the wrong way because they have prompted a dangerous escalation of Israel-Iranian tensions, and more fundamentally, because Iran’s efforts to project power in Syria could undercut Russia’s quest to sustain a Syrian solution that ensures a compliant and loyal ally in Damascus.

Iran’s ambitious efforts have reportedly rubbed Moscow the wrong way because they have prompted a dangerous escalation of Israel-Iranian tensions, and more fundamentally, because Iran’s efforts to project power in Syria could undercut Russia’s quest to sustain a Syrian solution that ensures a compliant and loyal ally in Damascus.

Russian-Turkish cooperation is similarly vulnerable to the different interests and perspectives of both countries. Ankara’s efforts to defeat Kurdish forces that have played a key role in defeating IS constitute one source of tension. But a greater challenge has been Turkey’s refusal to implement an agreement that requires the peaceful dismantling of the Ahrar al-Sham jihadist forces in northern Syria. Turkey’s hesitation underscores a deeper conflict. Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party—which has recently suffered electoral defeats in municipal elections—needs to sustain its legitimacy as a defender of Sunni Islamist interests at home, in the region, and far beyond. By contrast, Moscow and Damascus want to defeat all Sunni Islamist forces. They seek this goal not only because such a victory would help Assad extend his control over northern Syria but, more fundamentally, because Moscow and Damascus believe that their long-term security requires delivering a final and lethal blow to all Sunni Wahhabi groups. Iran is fully with them on this score whereas Ankara is ambivalent.

US-Iran (and US-Russia) Tensions Complicate Moscow’s Entente Strategy

By design or default, the Trump Administration’s Middle East diplomacy facilitated Putin’s efforts to subordinate the above tensions to the shared interests of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. One major factor that helped to cement this entente was the White House’s decision to renounce the JCPOA, a move that Erdoğan denounced—to the delight of Iran’s leaders. The Trump Administration’s efforts to block Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles have reinforced Turkey’s determination to work with its Russian and Iranian partners. But perhaps paradoxically, Moscow’s ability to sustain the entente has also depended on, and been buoyed by, Trump’s demonstrated desire not to challenge Moscow’s leadership role in the region, or to take military steps that would provoke a direct military conflict with Russia’s Iranian friends.

Sustaining this position was much easier before Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo grabbed the reigns of US Middle East policy. But even after they settled into the White House and State Department, respectively, they had to contend with Trump’s isolationist impulses. On this score, they achieved something of a tactical victory when they persuaded Trump to backtrack on his demands for the immediate removal of US forces from Syria—a shift that clearly alarmed Moscow. But the far bigger headache that Putin now confronts is that Pompeo’s and Bolton’s efforts to shut down Iran’s economy seem designed—at least from the vantage point of Moscow, Ankara, and most of all Tehran—to precipitate an American-Iranian military confrontation that could upend Russia’s effort to push for a diplomatic solution to Syria under its carefully calibrated leadership.

The far bigger headache that Putin now confronts is that Pompeo’s and Bolton’s efforts to shut down Iran’s economy seem designed to precipitate an American-Iranian military confrontation that could upend Russia’s effort to push for a diplomatic solution to Syria under its carefully calibrated leadership.

It does not help matters that when the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier, along with ten US warships, sailed past the Syrian coast on April 24, the US ambassador to Russia stood on the Lincoln’s command bridge and proclaimed that “when you have 200,000 tons of diplomacy cruising in the Mediterranean, this is forward operating diplomacy.” Moscow understood his declaration—which came two weeks before Bolton announced that the Lincoln would now sail to the Gulf to “deter” Iran—as a provocation, one that sent a clear message: with Pompeo and Bolton at the policy helm, Trump’s preference for working with, rather than confronting, Moscow (and its Iranian ally) might now be history.

Russia and Iran Clash as Moscow Rides the Tiger

These developments followed Russia’s decision to finally launch air strikes at jihadist forces in Idlib. The April 29 attacks took place just as Russia, Iran, and Turkey were leading peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, which were held ostensibly to find a diplomatic solution to the Idlib question. The strikes underscored Moscow’s readiness to take actions that would defend its interests, even at the risk of alienating a key member of the Russian-Iranian-Turkish entente.

The task of managing Russian-Turkish relations pales by comparison to the challenge of managing Russian-Iranian relations in a context of an escalating US-Iranian conflict. Confronted by a US administration that, from Tehran’s point of view, is gearing up to topple the regime, Iran’s leaders—from the entire political spectrum—have shown a great deal of unity. Ayatollah Khamenei’s assertion that the “enemy” is “apparently not in battle formation, but our military is focused in any case” suggests a stance of defiant prudence from a government that wants to avoid conflict but is also ready to confront the United States if the moment arrives. The appointment of a new IRGC leader, Hossein Salami, was surely meant to signal Tehran’s willingness to use force, a point reiterated by an IRGC official who asserted that: “Iran is ready to just pull the trigger. US threats and measures such as labeling the IRGC as terror organization will not force Tehran to retreat. It is even prepared for an all-out war.”

Confronted by a US administration that, from Tehran’s point of view, is gearing up to topple the regime, Iran’s leaders—from the entire political spectrum—have shown a great deal of unity.

All of this, of course, might just amount to rhetorical saber rattling. But if the situation escalates and a full-blown war unfolds, it is likely to pull the entire region into the conflict, beginning with Lebanon, Hezbollah, and of course Israel. Russia’s five-year project to build a diplomatic edifice that will secure its basic interests and influence could collapse in the process.

In a sign of the times, over the last couple of months Russia has attempted to signal its growing unhappiness with Tehran by taking measures designed to push Hezbollah out of Syria. This has led to armed clashes between Russian troops and IRGC and Hezbollah fighters such as the one on April 16 in Aleppo that led to 11 deaths. Although these clashes certainly had local causes, the readiness of Russian troops to clash with the IRGC carries its own message. Seeking to reiterate what is at stake, Nikolay Kozhanovk, who served as Russia’s ambassador to Iran, stated that while “Russia and Iran are both interested in insuring the survival of Assad, they have completely different strategic goals and priorities.” If this remark exaggerates such differences, it also suggests that Moscow has no interest in seeing US-Iranian tensions escalate into open conflict. Indeed, in the coming weeks Moscow might very well try to insert itself as a mediator between Washington and Tehran. Putin must defend the diplomatic gains he has scored in the region and the entente that is central to it. Thus, the intensifying US-Iran conflict might present Moscow with an opportunity as much as—if not more than—a dangerous situation.

Finally, the prospects for a wider US-Iran conflict will hinge in part on who is calling the policy shots in the administration. If Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s statements are any indication, some of Iran’s leaders are clinging to the perhaps desperate hope that Pompeo will contain Bolton’s warmongering. Indeed, despite escalating tensions, Tehran would prefer to bide its time in the hope that Trump is defeated at the polls and a new US president proposes a real negotiation with Tehran. But the US election is a long way off. In the meantime, all eyes will be on Putin—including those of a US president who only recently praised him for joining Trump in repudiating any notion of Russian collusion in US elections.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here