by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
In his recent high-profile visit to Moscow, National Security Adviser John Bolton bluntly told his hosts that the United States would not back down from its announced plan to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that President Trump announced on October 20. In his meeting with Bolton, Russian President Vladimir Putin rather jovially shrugged off the U.S. announcement, although he has adopted a tougher response since then, warning of an impending, destabilizing nuclear arms race with dire consequences for Europe if the United States follows through. Nearly two weeks later, Russia has yet to receive the official U.S. notice of withdrawal, namely the six-month notice to “suspend” cooperation with the treaty, as called for by the provisions of the treaty.
Chances are that the Trump administration will not send that official notice for the foreseeable future—Trump is due to discuss this and Russia’s “behavior in the Middle East” at an upcoming meeting in Paris—if it can extract certain favors from Moscow in exchange. The question is, what can Moscow do to dissuade Washington from scrapping an important bilateral nuclear arms treaty that, along with the more important New Start Treaty due to expire in 2021, has brought a measure of stability to the superpower nuclear arms race?
One possible answer to this question is related to China, which possesses a fairly large number of intermediate ground-based ballistic missiles not covered by any arms-control agreement. By invoking China in his INF withdrawal statement, Trump has sought to link the country to the ongoing U.S.-Russia nuclear negotiations. This move comes amid Washington’s growing misgivings regarding closer Russia-China military cooperation, to the point that recently the administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese military for its purchases of Russian arms. In a certain sense, this is in line with the long-standing U.S. dual-containment approach toward Moscow and Beijing, the two biggest threats to U.S. national security interests, according to U.S. national security documents.
The United States may also be exploiting certain Russian fears of a rising China, given that some of China’s nuclear warheads are targeted toward Russia, and vice versa. After all, Russia and China are still far from establishing a strategic partnership despite their formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an antidote to Western hegemony. That Washington hopes to use the announcement of the INF withdrawal to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing by raising the specter of China’s missile threat is not a far-fetched hypothesis.
Nor is the timing a surprise: the administration’s sudden announcement on the INF Treaty comes two weeks before the imposition of a new round of oil sanctions on Iran. After all, the United States has recently expressed concerns over reports of Russian cooperation with Iran—including Russia’s sale of Iranian oil on the international market—to circumvent U.S. sanctions against Iran.
This is not the first time that the United States is leaning on Russia over Iran. For instance, in 2010, the Obama administration successfully used meetings with Russians on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty “to make progress on the Iran account,” to paraphrase then U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul in his book, From Cold War to Hot Peace. According to McFaul, the Obama administration relied primarily on the carrot of economic incentives—commitment to strengthen U.S.-Russia economic ties, support for Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, and the adoption of the 123 Agreement on nuclear cooperation between Washington and Moscow—in order to secure Russia’s backing of the anti-Iran UN Security Council Resolution 1929.
That resolution established a global framework for sanctioning Iranian banks and paved the way for Iran’s exclusion from SWIFT financial services in 2012. A backbone of the global financial system, SWIFT reconnected Iran after the Iran nuclear deal was reached in 2015. The Trump administration is now debating whether or not to pressure SWIFT to cut off Iran again, a move that the Treasury secretary reportedly opposes but administration hawks led by National Security Adviser John Bolton favor. The latter group argues that without the SWIFT move U.S. sanctions will be “weak” and insufficiently punishing for Iran. One U.S. concerns in this regard, however, is the potential blowback against the dollar and Western financial domination, in light of Russia’s initial steps to design an alternative SWIFT. If the United States pressures SWIFT to exclude Iran, then Iran would likely join the Russian system, which offers a financial lifeline even though it’s not on par with SWIFT.
Such Iranian counter-measures can be checked if the White House somehow reaches a gentleman’s agreement with the Kremlin. Wooing Russia would require sweeteners like reducing U.S. sanctions on Russia and lowering the heat on opposition to Russia’s gas sales to Europe. It would also mean not reneging on the INF Treaty. Concretely, the Trump administration could roll back the plans to install a Aegis Ashore radar and missile complex in Poland, which has been delayed for two years. Washington has justified the Polish complex and a similar system established in Romania in 2016, both of which angered Russia, on the pretext of Iran’s ballistic missile threat, thus establishing a direct link between the INF Treaty and Iran. Bolton may have conceivably used his Moscow trip to raise the Iran issue behind closed doors, echoing the 1995 secret agreement on the sale of advanced Russian arms to Iran signed by then-Vice President Al Gore and Russian Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin in Moscow. Just as Obama persuaded Russia in 2010 to “think strategically” by dangling the prospect of improved relations with Washington—which promised to be more lucrative than Russia’s relations with Iran—Bolton may have put more carrots on the table, although in his public meeting with Putin he denied that he’d brought any carrots with him.
Given the absence of adequate information, the above scenario is hypothetical. However, Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly made a similar agreement with respect to the presence of Iranian forces in Israel’s vicinity inside Syria. But Moscow has already appeased Trump by boosting oil production. How much further is Putin willing to barter with Trump on Iran, which is a strategic ally in Syria and the Middle East and an anti-U.S. bulwark on its eastern front? Prominent Iran foreign policy expert Shireen Hunter has argued that both East and West are using Iran as a bargaining chip.
Trump’s maximalist strategy of “regime change” in Iran runs contrary to Russia’s interests, and the United States cannot expect Moscow’s cooperation unless it reverts to a more modest containment strategy aimed at “changing Iran’s behavior,” to paraphrase Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. By giving the impression of cooperating with the United States on Iran, Putin may actually be able to influence Trump’s hostile approach by lowering the temperature, particularly since Trump’s Iran policy appears to oscillate between the two poles of rollback and containment.
Also, given that Moscow reportedly ignored the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement and continued to sell arms to Iran anyway, Putin may be contemplating a similar stratagem that garners benefits from both sides. After all, Iran is also wary of any Trump-Putin deal on Iran, which the Kremlin can use to extract concessions from Tehran on trade and regional security. But this can be a risky proposition. Washington, too, can assure Moscow that it will temper its approach to Iran to get a deal from Moscow—only to fall back on the regime change approach of Bolton and company.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team and the author of several books on Iran’s foreign affairs.