Putin Benefits from Trump’s Anti-Iran Sanctions

by Mark N. Katz

Russia is the one country that has arguably benefited the most from the Trump administration’s insistence that other countries (including America’s Western allies) reduce their petroleum imports from Iran to zero or face U.S. sanctions.

Both during Soviet times and under Putin, Moscow has long sought to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, thereby weakening the Western alliance. Trump’s actions regarding Iran (as well as other issues) have done just this. Not only do most of America’s allies in Europe and outside the Middle East continue to support the Iranian nuclear accord, but they are angered that Trump is threatening them with sanctions unless they comply with what they regard as Trump’s wrong-headed and illegal withdrawal from an agreement that Iran is continuing to observe.

In addition, although Russia and Iran have cooperated on Syria and other issues, they are both oil exporters and hence are in competition with each other. Moscow, as well as other oil exporters, was unhappy about how the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran by the Iranian nuclear accord resulted in increased Iranian oil exports, which tended to depress oil prices. Nor did Moscow appreciate how the lifting of sanctions against Iran coincided with the increase of sanctions against Russia due to its actions in Ukraine. The Trump administration’s insistence that other countries eliminate oil imports from Iran ameliorates all these problems since it reduces the amount of oil Iran can export, tends to raise oil prices, and makes Russia a more attractive oil supplier to countries complying (even if unwillingly) with Trump’s anti-Iran sanctions. And this, of course, tends to weaken the sanctions regime against Russia.

Further, although it has denied doing so, Moscow is following the lead of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by acceding to Trump’s tweet request for OPEC (minus Iran) to increase production in order to keep prices from further rising. This only serves to further ingratiate Putin with Trump—who may not have realized at first that seeking to reduce Iranian oil exports would help to raise gasoline prices that Trump supporters (along with everyone else) must pay in the U.S. And the Trump administration’s view of Putin as “cooperative” will further erode its interest in maintaining economic sanctions against Moscow—as well as dishearten those European countries most worried about the security threat they face from the East.

If Putin on his own had tried to weaken America’s relations with its Western allies, increase Russian oil exports, and improve Russian-American relations all at once, he couldn’t have achieved all three—or perhaps even any—of these goals. But Trump’s actions have advanced all three of Putin’s objectives. Quite an accomplishment!

While some might think otherwise, Trump probably didn’t intend to advance Russian interests by withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear accord and announcing that U.S. sanctions would be imposed on Western allies unless they eliminate their imports from Iran by early November. This, however, has been the unintended consequence of Trump’s focus on weakening Iran. Though unintended, this result should have been foreseen.

In the post-Cold War era, Washington has come to see itself as facing five main adversaries simultaneously: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Sunni Muslim jihadists such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Washington should have learned from its experience during the George W. Bush administration that when it succeeds in weakening one set of adversaries, such as the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, it can strengthen others—most notably Iran in this instance. Similarly, the Trump administration’s focus on the Iranian threat now is serving to strengthen Russia. And Trump administration actions that harm U.S. relations with its Western allies strengthen all of America’s adversaries. But Trump and his inner circle seem utterly oblivious to this. As long as they remain so, Putin will undoubtedly continue to benefit.

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com



  1. ‘… drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies’, a common but twisted way of putting things.

    Russia is part of Europe and has many common interests both economic and security related. Putin has always tried to make this point and this is always portrayed as a sinister plot to ‘drive a wedge or separate them from the U.S’. The truth of the matter is that the U.S. can afford to blow things up in the M.E. or in eastern Europe because we don’t have to live with the consequences.

    1. Sanctions over Crimea? Europe loses Tens of Billions of $ in trade w/Russia, the U.S., next to nothing.
    2. Refugee crisis in the the M.E.? Europe gets flooded, the U.S. not so much, Russia has a large Muslim population.

    Regarding Iran, Russia argued that Iran should be allowed to resume their pre-sanctions oil production during OPEC negotiations. While this was not in their economic interests, Putin recognizes that fair negotiations ensure stability and stability is better in the long run.

  2. It is quite clear to all, that the people of Iran are protesting to the presence of IRGC in Syria. The IRGC, tried to justify their existence, by abusing Iran’s oil income, to carry out terrorist activities abroad. So it makes sense for Russians to abandon them.

    In Iran, the IRGC are a menace to innocent secular Iranians. It is time for regime change in a non-violent manner. And it will be done. Civilized Iranians will run Iran. The Russians will then deal with a modern Iran.

    We pray to Ahuramazda it will happen.

  3. Real issue as article implies that Russia should not be given kind of credibility as it was done to USSR in before 1991.As with such a small footprint of 1.2 t GDP,it is regional power as OBAMA had been saying and criminal act of Crimea should not ignored.
    Unfortunately POTUS walked in photo op summit to accomplish nothing.

  4. Russia and opportunist putin now always betrayed Iran and some other countries, history shows majority of Iranian people Do not trust Russia for what so ever, listen for now Putin and Trump have love hate relationship to confused ordinary people and this is by design not by accident for both to comply with their same master, it was several twist and turn on the way for confusion before they get to this point .

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