by Mark N. Katz
As tensions ratchet up between Washington and Tehran, Moscow has adopted a more measured approach.
Putin, along with many of Washington’s Western allies, has criticized the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement reached during the Obama years. Moscow also joined with the other signatories—the UK, France, Germany, China, and Iran—in seeking to preserve the agreement. Following the recent Iranian announcement that Tehran would cease abiding by some of the provisions of the JCPOA in response to increased U.S. sanctions, Putin himself has urged Iran to abide by the agreement. He has warned that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the U.S. was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”
Putin also pointed out that, despite European government opposition to the Trump administration’s increased sanctions on Iran, Europe has proven powerless in this situation. He appears to have been referring to Europe’s inability to continue trading with Iran despite its desire to do so because of heavy U.S. penalties on European firms that remain engaged with the country. He also indicated, though, that Moscow cannot do much about the situation since Russia is not “a fire brigade” to “rescue everything.”
In one sense, Russian inability to prevent increased U.S. pressure on Iran, Moscow’s partner on Syria and other issues, suggests that Russia can neither resolve nor even influence this crisis. This inability undercuts Putin’s longstanding aim of reasserting Moscow’s role as an influential great power.
However, Moscow is benefiting from the U.S.-Iranian crisis in several ways.
First, European opposition to the Trump administration’s increased hostility toward Iran furthers Putin’s goal of fostering divisions within the NATO alliance. Even more than in 2003, when Russia joined with some European governments (notably France and Germany) in opposing the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq—which some other European governments (notably the UK and Poland) supported—Russia now joins with virtually all European governments in opposing Trump on Iran. If U.S.-Iranian tensions further increase, European opposition to U.S. policy may result in greater European willingness to decrease U.S.-backed sanctions on Russia regarding Ukraine and other issues—a key Russian goal.
In addition, by expressing opposition to U.S. policy toward Iran but signaling that Moscow cannot do much about the situation, Putin may hope to preserve or even improve Russian relations with the four U.S. Middle East allies that are especially hostile toward Iran: Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Moscow seeks to increase its lucrative economic relationships with the first three in particular.
Iran would undoubtedly prefer more support from Moscow in its conflict with the United States and would rather that Moscow not have quite such good relations with Tehran’s Middle East adversaries. But Tehran has little choice but to continue relying on Russia. Whatever its differences with Moscow, Iran can hardly afford to diminish its ties to Russia so long as U.S.-Iranian relations are as tense as they are.
Now that Russia and Iran have largely succeeded in stabilizing Bashar al-Assad’s regime and defeating or coopting its opponents, something of a competition for influence in Syria has reportedly emerged between Russia and Iran. Iran and its Hezbollah and Shi’a militia allies have a much larger military presence than Russia does in Syria, so Russia is hardly in a position to reduce Iranian influence there (as the Trump administration and its Saudi and Israeli allies in particular have hoped). But to the extent that U.S. pressure on Iran makes it more difficult for Tehran to act in Syria, Moscow maybe able to increase its influence there at Iran’s expense.
Also, if Trump administration sanctions succeed in reducing Iran’s oil exports, other producers—including Russia—will be able to increase their exports at Iran’s expense.
Finally, as long as the Trump administration focuses on its dispute with Iran, it is paying less attention to its various disputes with Russia—perhaps even giving Moscow a freer hand regarding Ukraine, Belarus, and other areas.
Compared to the United States, Russia has a much smaller population, economy, and military. The United States (still) has a large network of allies, while Russia has relatively few. What Putin excels at, though, is taking advantage of mistakes made by Russia’s adversaries to further his country’s interests. Trump’s Iran policy has given Putin plenty of opportunity to do that.