Russia’s Potential Response to a U.S.-Iran Conflict

Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin

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

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  1. Bolton, the author of the regime change plan presently guiding U.S. – Iran policy appears to have convinced president Trump that 1) Iran was violating JCPOA and 2) the regime has weak popular support, many protests and that many Iranians welcome U.S. intervention. Trump has said a war would be short and that Iranians no longer march and shout “death to America!” because they know Trump is on their side. The CIA has confirmed that Iran has not violated JCPOA and is not developing nuclear weapons. Trump claims he knows better. The popular support of the regime cannot be determined, but a short war appears implausible. The UAE’s withdrawal of forces from Yemen and denial of Saudi and U.S. claims that Iran was behind the attacks on the tankers suggests that the U.S. cannot count on UAE involvement against Iran.

    Russia has stated it supports JCPOA, which is an instrument of the Security Council authorized by UNSCR2231. No bilateral issues between the U.S. and Iran were involved in negotiating JCPOA other than unfreezing of Iranian assets held in the U.S. Not supporting JCPOA would legitimize U.S. unilateral actions, weaken the authority of the Security Council, and destabilize the Middle East. Putin has confirmed support for Iran.

    Iran’s national security was threatened by the expansion of ISIS seizing much of Iraq and Syria. Iran was justified in committing resources to fight ISIS and other Sunni terrorists in Syria. Given that ISIS no longer controls territory in Syria we could expect significant withdrawal of Iran’s military support in Syria, without urging from Russia.

    It appears that Trump will persist with the “maximum pressure” campaign and seek to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero with the assumption that the regime is on the verge of collapse. Russia is unlikely to permit collapse and would choose to intervene possibly on humanitarian grounds for which a case can be made. Iran is suffering under an extreme, prolonged drought. Such an action would be difficult to counter by the U.S. and lead to an expansion of INSTEX and other means of providing support to Iran.

    Trump appears to listen to Putin. Given that “maximum pressure” has no plausible positive outcome Putin can emerge in the strategic position of shaping resolution to the crisis and thereby weakening U.S. standing and strengthening the position of Russia while contributing to stability in the Middle East.

  2. Since this writer Mr Buonomo, has been allowed to write for Atlantic council, what else can one expect from his write ups. He seems to be A true Pax Americana believer . To start with to him legally and recognized government of Syria is regime, Russia and not Israel (you read Putin) interfered in “Democratic” American election ( a well established elite controlled selection” he still believes and thinks of the “US lead International Order” which means NATO that includes non or limited sovereign American satrapies in Europe.
    Turkey is bad since is no longer fallowing American dictates. Who needs to read any more of these Think Thank commissioned write ups. The minute I read Assad regime, Putin interfered in our election, Iran is a bad bad actor I start yawning. This article belong to be published in Atlantic rag and not on LL

  3. Vibedeldavs

    US abrogation of JCPOA was supposed to achieve one of the following in 6 months or so:

    Popular Uprising
    Retreat of Iran from Syria and Yemen and Iraq
    Regime Implosion
    Abandonment of JCPOA

    When none of those expectations were met, US was left at a very long test of wills with Iran: all the while US having to absorb the political and reputational costs of forcing the rest the world to pay for this war of choice.

    Iran is principally self-sufficient in most foods and medicines. She has plenty of petroleum and natural gas to fuel her own economy – and under favorable conditions, those of her allies. This will not be a repeat of Iraq.

    [What she lacks are certain chemicals, machinary, electronic components, etc.]

    US is actually helping Khamenei realize his 30-year old dream of not exporting crude oil but value-added products; give Iran another 7 years.

    Russia, by the way, has no leverage on Iran.

  4. One thing leaves no doubt in the world and in the Middle East. And it’s the fact that Russians and Iranians are intelligent people, educated and lovers of History and proud of themselves. Americans are not, they don’t have really History and don’t care about that. Their ‘history’ is the conquest of the western part, over natives and Mexicans, cowboys stories, that gave us the John Wayne and thereafter that John McCain. For some of them there was of course the North South war… what was it about? Most Americans ignored that it was about slavery. Well, they’re proud of themselves as cowboys are. Just look at Americans when they travel abroad… they of course don’t understand a word about what’s going on around and open the mouth in disbelief with rather an idiotic smile… The same happens with their soldiers abroad, in war or not, in closed camps because they’re not truly ‘boots on the ground’. In danger they look at the air waiting for their bombers to kill hundreds of thousands of the villagers or tribes around… And that’s it. Europeans took millennia to understand and deal properly with the Middle East. Making commerce and luring the tribes with sticks and carrots. They tried some conquests but they learned their lessons…

  5. FYI,

    Thank you for continuing to comment on this site.

    Can you please explain what Iran gains by being the only party still upholding the JCPOA?

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