by Thomas Buonomo
Russia’s swift military intervention in 2015 to maintain the Syrian regime in power should give American policymakers reason to be wary of war with Iran, which would expand across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and the Gulf. As former Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in his memoir, Russia gave the Obama administration “no indication of what was coming” in Syria.
The likely entrance of a major rival nuclear power that has been attempting to destabilize the United States through interference in its elections and other covert means certainly would raise the stakes of a conflict with Iran. Such an intervention would likely occur in the form of covert arms transfers but might also include overt military deployments—as in Syria—if Iran requested it and Russia anticipated a U.S. effort to forcibly impose regime change.
From the Russian perspective, Iran serves as a valuable geostrategic foil to U.S. dominance of the Middle East and its resulting ability to further influence global oil and gas prices to Russia’s detriment. Iran also limits the U.S. ability to reallocate its resources to pressure Russia to enter into the U.S.-led international order.
Resurgent Russian influence in the Middle East beyond Syria is demonstrated most alarmingly by Turkey’s pending acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile system. This weapon system is a viable threat to even the most advanced U.S. military aircraft. Conflicting reports have also emerged in recent weeks on whether Russia intends to provide it to Iran. Qatar has also engaged in discussions with Russia in recent months on possible acquisition of this system. Russia has also provided diplomatic cover to Iran’s provision of ballistic missiles to the Houthis, which they have been firing into Saudi territory.
In a recent interview, Ruslan Mamedov, Middle East North Africa Program Coordinator at the Russian International Affairs Council, argued that Russia wishes to avoid confrontation with the United States over Iran. However, Russia does want the EU to implement its INSTEX initiative to enable European companies to work around U.S. sanctions against Iran. Mamedov described INSTEX not only as a potential way to salvage the Iran nuclear agreement but also as a prelude to the end of U.S. hegemony over the global financial system.
Russia does have different interests than Iran, he noted. Russia wants a “stable, secular, and strong” Syrian military and not an entrenchment of Iranian proxy forces there or in Lebanon or Iraq.
Russia is benefiting from U.S. sanctions on Iran, he stated, because the more limited Iran’s resources, the less capacity Iran has to sustain its influence in Syria. Sanctions also benefit Russian oil companies.
Mamedov tempered this by emphasizing that although there is divergence between Russian and Iranian objectives, it is not in Russia’s interest for Iran to be destabilized. A stable Iran is important for Russia not only in the Middle East but also in the Caucasus and Afghanistan.
He offered reassurances that Russia understands and respects Israel’s interests vis-a-vis Iran in Syria, though Israel’s shoot-down of a Russian military aircraft over Syrian airspace in September 2018 generated friction. Russia seems to have a clear interest in deescalating tensions between Iran and Israel. But if a full-scale military conflict breaks out between the two countries, Russia might “reconsider its response.”
According to Stephen Blank, professor of Russian national security at the U.S. Army War College from 1989-2013:
I do think [certain U.S. officials] are interested in overthrowing the government of Iran. I don’t believe U.S. officials actually want war with Iran but they may back Iran into a corner and then who knows what the Iranians might do. Iran might unleash strikes on Israel via Hezbollah and Hamas and attempt to open up a second front.
I think Russia will try to prevent Iran from attacking Israel because they don’t want to see Iran get into a war it will lose. What Russia will do is support Iran against the United States diplomatically, economically; there may be arms transfers, overt or covert, [including] air, air defense, short and intermediate-range missiles.
Blank wrote in an October 2017 analysis for the Jamestown Foundation, “Russia’s fundamental strategic interests lie in promoting Iranian-US hostility, not cooperation…. Iranian-American hostility precludes [U.S. security dominance of the Middle East] and permits Russia to exercise influence by supporting the maintenance of a system of controlled tension that benefits the Kremlin.”
At a Center for American Progress Action Fund event on June 11, retired Israeli brigadier general Shlomo Brom, senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, asserted that Russia would not intervene militarily in the event of a conflict with Iran but would, rather, seek to exploit potential advantages after its conclusion.
In a brief exchange immediately after the event, I pointed out that given Russia’s dependence on Iranian ground forces to preserve Assad’s rule, a U.S.-Iran-Israel conflict—which would include military engagements in Syria and Lebanon—would likely have a major impact on Russia’s interests in Syria. At the very least it would increase Russia’s own expenses related to expanded military commitments in Syria.
“I concur,” he replied, then stated that Russian provision of military aid to Iran would violate the terms of the nuclear deal. He acknowledged that Iran could receive such aid covertly but contended that it would be difficult to do so without detection.
The United States, meanwhile, has already abrogated its commitment to the agreement, which is on the verge of complete breakdown as the United States expands sanctions and Iran resumes uranium enrichment and related activities beyond what the deal permits. U.S. policymakers should take note that any more aggressive effort to pursue confrontation with Iran, given the experience of previous wars, may well expand beyond U.S. control to involve rival nuclear powers like Russia.
Thomas Buonomo is an international relations and foreign policy analyst with expertise in Middle East affairs. His writing has been published by the Atlantic Council, Middle East Policy Council, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Fikra Forum, The Cipher Brief, Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Small Wars Journal, Diplomatic Courier, and other outlets. Twitter: @ThomasBuonomo