What Is Russia’s Game in U.S.-Iran Standoff?

Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani

by Shireen T. Hunter     

During his visit to Japan last month, President Donald Trump suggested some softening of American position regarding Iran and indicated that the United States welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s mediation between Tehran and Washington. Soon after, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Rybakov paid a visit to Tehran on May 29. He told Sputnik News that the purpose of his visit was to discuss matters related to the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA).

The timing of the softening of American tone towards Iran and the Rybakov visit might have been mere coincidence. And Rybakov might simply have gone to Tehran to talk about the JCPOA. Moscow, like other European capitals, is not happy about the potential risks to the nuclear deal. It is concerned that Tehran might finally lose patience and, faced with the unpalatable choice of either abject capitulation or going nuclear, choose the latter option. Russia would find this prospect highly worrying. Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier had stated that he told the Iranians to stay in the JCPOA even if sanctions continue or Europe fails to ease Iran’s economic and financial problems.

However, Moscow has long been concerned about a real reconciliation between Tehran and Washington, and Russia has derived strategic benefits from Iran’s post-revolutionary isolation. As such, Rybakov’s visit might have had other more sinister purposes, like urging Iran to stand firm vis a vis America and refuse any compromise.

Moscow the Winner in Iran’s Islamic Revolution

The 1979 revolution in Iran was a significant strategic gain for Moscow and a clear strategic loss for the United States. Although outwardly the new regime claimed to follow a policy independent of both superpowers, its hostility toward America was much stronger and deeper than any misgivings about the USSR and later Russia. For example, former prime minister (and now reformist) Mir Hussein Moussavi, in an interview during the early years of the new regime, said that in the previous 50 years Iran had not suffered as much from the USSR as it had suffered from America. He clearly  ignored Russian efforts to dismember Iran by setting up puppet republics in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in 1940s. Most notably, Ayatollah Khomeini had a visceral hatred of America because of what it represented—all that was wrong with modernity. Thus, his dislike went beyond mere policy differences. Furthermore, all leftists , including the so-called Islamic Marxists, were sympathetic to Moscow and also had connections with Soviet security and other organizations. Moscow had sympathizers within the clerical establishment as well, because the KGB had infiltrated the religious schools as part of Moscow’s dual strategy toward the monarchical regime: official cordiality and hidden sabotage.

During the hostage crisis of 1979-1981, pro-Moscow elements contributed to the prolongation of the crisis. For example, Noureddin Kianouri, the leader of Iran’s Stalinist Communist party, the Tudeh, rightly opined that as long as the hostage crisis continued there would be no improvement in U.S.-Iran relations. During Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, the left sabotaged his efforts at reach out to Washington. When Muhammad Khatami became president, Moscow’s anxieties about a reconciliation between Washington and Tehran intensified. During a trip to Moscow in 1999, I heard a Russian expert at a panel discussion at France 24 openly say that Russia did not favor U.S.-Iran reconciliation.

Russia’s Iran Card

From a geopolitical perspective, Russia’s position makes perfect sense. Iran’s isolation because of its strained relations with America has essentially eliminated it as a competitor to Moscow in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, despite Iran’s deep historical and civilizational roots in both regions. Iran’s isolation has also eliminated it as competitor in the energy field. Were Iran reintegrated into the international economy, Russia’s ability to use its energy supply to blackmail Europe or increase its influence in Turkey would be considerably undermined.

Throughout the 1990s and in the following decades, Russia has used Iran as a bargaining chip in its relations with the West and has abandoned Iran at every juncture whenever its interests have required it. Today, the Kremlin is pursuing the same practice in Syria, regarding Israel, and even in dealings with the Persian Gulf Arab states. It is using Iran to appear as the peacemaker and the great conciliator while also peddling its military wares to the Gulf Arabs and whoever else is willing to buy them. But Russia has  not helped Iran in this regard. Most recently, Putin refused to sell Iran S400 air defense system. All Iran has gotten from Russia have been empty and/or broken promises.

Despite the benefits of manipulating Iran, Russian leaders, notably Vladimir Putin, do not trust the Islamists and dislike their ideology. Iran’s cautious approach toward Russian Muslims has somewhat eased Moscow’s concerns. But the basic mistrust remains. Iran potentially could be a competitor to Russia in a region stretching from the Caucasus to Syria, especially if it resolves its problems with America.

What Explains Iran’s Deference toward Russia?

While Iran’s top leadership fears Western culture, it does not consider Russia a cultural threat. Russia also has a support base within the Iranian system, including the Revolutionary Guard and possibly even the army, while American policy toward Iran has consistently weakened elements in Iran that want reconciliation with the West. Finally, this excessively hostile American policy has left Iran with few options for partners. Russia is one of the few states that at least is not openly hostile to Iran.

Even today, and despite the oil wealth of the Gulf Arabs, Iran is the strategic prize in southwest Asia. When America in the late 1970s treated Iranian events with complacency, it suffered a major strategic loss after the 1979 revolution. Hostile relations between Iran and America ever since have limited Washington’s strategic options in a region from Afghanistan to Yemen. In fact, it has made Washington a prisoner of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s paranoiac view of Iran and allowed Pakistan to undermine Washington’s efforts in Afghanistan.

America will not be able to recover completely from the loss of Iran. But a more nuanced and long-term policy toward Tehran that looks beyond the current configuration of the country’s political forces would go a long way in checking Russian ambitions and increasing America’s strategic options in the region. Most important, American pressure should not reach a level that antagonizes those Iranians otherwise positively disposed toward the United States.

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Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.

SHOW 13 COMMENTS

13 Comments

  1. Ms Hunter couple of additional points! When you and Ali Mostofi and your families were living in norther Tehran comfortably under the shadow of your inept leader, the MF M. Pahlavi, without even worrying or thinking about the rest of us 32 millions, the Soviet and communism had penetrated every segment of the society in Iran including the Doctors, Engineers, teachers, University Professor, NIOC staff and labors!
    The Soviets hated the MF Shah and they wanted him to be dead. At the same time miscalculations of the stupid CIA presented a gift to the Soviets by giving rise to the Islamists whom many of them were Stalinist and Leninist, including the MEK, thinking that Islamists are a force who can stand up to communism!! So the CIA threw the honey at the big Bear!
    After the fall of Soviets and During Reagan and Gorbachev have an unwritten contract to take maxi advantage of the situation in Iran for their own internal interests. The Russia was to take a market share of oil&gal business from Iran and the US (MIC) to sell arms to the Sunnis up to their eyeballs! Well their plan has worked and Iran is where it was intended to be by the powers today.
    I diagree with you in regards to Iran rapprochement with either the US or Russia. Iran should keep both Russia and the US at bay and pin them against one another until eternity! AT THE SAME TIME IRAN SHOULD AND MUST FINISH THE NUCLEAR PROGRAM AND JOIN THE NUCLEAR POWER CLUB!

  2. What? An article trying to get at why the US “lost” Iran without a mention of Mosaddegh? The US cemented its position when it overthrew Iranian democracy and installed the Shah. Would there have been a 1979 revolution without the installation of a brutal dictator as US puppet? It seems ridiculous to think there would have been.

    No, in the end the real problem is the US running around the world doing things like installing brutal dictators for their own interests, and then turning around and acting so mystified when such actions blow up in their face. Who’da thunk it?

  3. “As such, Rybakov’s visit might have had other more sinister purposes, like urging Iran to stand firm vis a vis America and refuse any compromise.”

    How is that “sinister”? Iran should absolutely refuse any compromise. The US is the bad actor and the one that foolishly violated JCPOA. That was the compromise!! The US broke it!

    If there ought to be any compromise or concessions it should be to the detriment of the bad actor and in the favor of the good actor. Especially since the bad actor has proven many times in different global situations that it’s agreement-incapable. An agreement with the US is virtually worthless (even with its allies, much less “adversaries”).

    And the US doesn’t practice diplomacy anymore, it practices economic and terroristic warfare on anyone who doesn’t capitulate (meaning opening markets to Western capitalism). Why would any rational actor bow and beg before it? Iranians aren’t masochists. And the world in general is getting tired of the flailings of the dying US empire.

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