Russia and the Iran Crisis

Vladimir Putin (Frederic Legrand - COMEO via Shutterstock)

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.

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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

SHOW 16 COMMENTS

16 Comments

  1. Please don’t underestimate or insult Iranian intelligence. Iranians have known the Russians for longer than the USA age and they know how to play them with a limited trust. The Troika in US is spinning Putin’s words now and their propaganda machines are disseminating the manufactured comments to put a wedge in Iran and Putin relationship. Divide and conquer is a routine MO for the west and it is really getting old for the current world except for the idiots like KSA!

  2. FYI
    Strategically speaking a strong independent Iran is the best shield that can prevent western access to Russia’s soft underbelly and central Asia, and this natural security arrangement is mutual with Iran’s hard to protect Caspian region which is like Iran’s bread basket. Iran and Russia strategically complete each other’s security weaknesses, as well as provide each other access to markets that is difficult to reach, for Iran Russia is one country away to reach European markets and for Russia Iran is one country away to reach Indian ocean markets.
    IMO president Putin, and ayatollah Khamenei are well aware of this shared strategically be necessity between the two countries. You are right before Putin this was not possible. IMO you have a correct assessment, although non will directly get involved with other’s confrontation with US/west, and is not necessary.

  3. As usual for American( especially academic) analyst Mr. Katz has a very poor understanding for strategic geopolitical necessities that countries (specially neighboring) can complement each other’s security and at minimum cost. Mr. Katz like most American analyst sees all relationship between countries as transactional relations, one that mostly benefits the stronger country. Apparently, he lacks understanding geostrategic necessities over economic valves. I suggest he reads FYI and my comments above. can he ask himself for what reason Russia might want to support President Maduro, just to get more money or to trade with US?Or could there be a bigger goal for russia, like a multipolar world, and cutting US to her size.

  4. Whether or not “fostering divisions within the NATO alliance” is really Putin’s goal, it’s one I can enthusiastically support, as there seems no other way to rid the world of this dangerous organization—an organization which too often has been exploited as the American president’s personal army. Indeed, any obsolescent military alliance whose primary purpose is to perpetuate its existence is a dangerous entity, for plenty of imminent and ongoing wars to fight (or inconvenient regimes to contain or change) is its only argument in support of that purpose.

    One European faction or another has to make a move—preferably to fully withdraw from NATO and undertake its own military security—as no other of Washington’s vassals is important enough to generate a big enough fracture in NATO by withdrawing. But that possibility might have to wait until the departure of Macron and Merkel and other heads of state and of government who find dependence on the US all too comfortable. We might be waiting a long time for appropriate replacements. If Putin wants to continue joining with Europeans who oppose the US, I wish him luck.

  5. Zahra,Parchizadeh is paid propagandist and his Neocon handlers have elevated him to a scholar of some sort. He is war peddler just like thousands of Ali Mostofis who conceal their hatred of Iran with human rights words while advocation an absolute monarchy and fascism for Iran.

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