Washington’s policy of exerting maximum pressure on Tehran, in response to its spoiler regional role and weapons development, is putting the two capitals on a confrontational path entailing dire consequences. Though the Trump Administration has affirmed that its aim is not regime change, its actions and rhetoric belie this affirmation. Ominously, this policy is virtually dismissive of the growing strategic Iran-Russia relationship, which would dreadfully derail an American victory.
National Security Advisor John Bolton has been intractably headstrong about his desire to change the regime in Iran. In 2018, before joining the administration, he asserted to his hosts the cult-like Mujahedeen Khalq, the exiled Iranian group in Paris, that “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran.” He added. “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.” This attitude was reiterated recently when he warned the Ayatollahs, on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution: “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.” This drum beat of war is echoed by some Republicans and close advisors of the President.
Evidently, the back-to-back U.S. sanctions against the Iranian regime, meant to isolate Iran from the world economy, pauperize the Ayatollahs and therefore incite an unstoppable oppositional wellspring, are apparently devised to provoke a direct or indirect Iranian military reaction, which would serve Washington as a pretext to attack Tehran. As it turned out, Washington rushed an aircraft carrier task force to the Persian Gulf in response to what Bolton characterized as “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.” Max Boot perceptively observed that the current hyping of the Iranian threat “reminds some analysts…of the run-up to the Iraq War,” and that Bolton “may be trying to provoke Iran into striking first.” Raising the brinkmanship, the White House recently ordered an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons.
This march to war is grounded in an incoherent foreign policy based more on hawkish attitudes and dismissive of significant regional and international developments, potentially plunging the U.S. in a catastrophic quagmire. Chief among those developments that Washington has neglected to take into account are the evolving Iranian-Russian relations and their ramifications for Washington’s policies in the greater Middle East. In other words, U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran is not only turning the Iranian-Russian relationship into a strategic alliance but also enhancing Russia’s power at the expense of that of United States.
Iran and Russia had a historic conflicted relationship. Tsarist Russia fought consequential wars with Iran. The Persian Qajar Dynasty, under Fath Ali Shah, was forced to sign the notorious Treaty of Gulistan (1813) following the outcome of the Russo-Persian war of 1804-13. The Persian dynasty lost what is modern-day Dagestan, Georgia, and a big chunk of Azerbaijan. Before long, the Persian dynasty was forced again to sign the Treaty of Turkmenchay (1828) following the outcome of the Russo-Persian War of 1826-28. The dynasty lost modern-day Armenia and the remainder of the Azerbaijan Republic, save granting Russia several capitulatory rights.
Iranian historical grievances against Russia only heightened following Tsarist Russian military intervention against the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in the early twentieth century and the forced division of the country in 1907 by Russia and Britain into three areas, whereby Tsarist Russia gained control over the northern areas of Iran, which included the cities of Tabriz, Tehran, Mashad, and Isfahan.
Notwithstanding that the Bolshevik Revolution forced thousands of Russians to flee to Persia, the Soviet Union supported secessionist movements in northwestern Iran, at the end of both World War I and World War II. Accusing Iran of supporting Germany and Italy, the British and Soviets invaded Iran in 1941 and forced the abdication of Shah Reza Pahalvi in favor of his son. In 1945-1946, Soviet leaders supported the short-lived creation of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, which concluded the last efforts by the Soviet Union to foment communism in Iran.
In fact, the end of WWII ushered American dominance into Iran’s political realm until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Although, in principle, the new Khomeini regime pursued neither West nor East policy, the Soviets supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). However, Iran, which suffered heavily from Iraq’s use of conventional and unconventional weapons, inched gradually closer towards the Soviet Union and then Russia as Tehran sought to become militarily strong and self-sufficient.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s transformed the Iranian-Russian relationship, which became more or less affected by the triangular Iran-Russia-U.S. relationship. Moscow subordinated furthering its relations with Tehran to the priority of normalizing its relationship with United States. The Clinton Administration pursued a “First Russia” policy to bring Moscow into the Western Camp. But this policy suffered setbacks in response to the first Chechen War (1994-1995) and to the Bosnia-Herzegovina War (1992-1995). Whereas Moscow grudgingly sat out the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict in which their Serb allies were forced to walk back their transgressions, Washington was not happy with Russian heavy handed policy in Chechnya. Nevertheless, the collapse of “First Russia” policy stemmed more from the ingrained distrust U.S. policymakers felt about Moscow and their outlook that U.S. security would be better served with NATO eastward expansion.
In the meantime, Iran and Russia’s concerns intersected whereupon Iran sought conventional and unconventional weapons from Russia and the latter sought stability in Central Asia and the Caucuses. Apparently, Russia and Iran made an agreement according to which Moscow would help Tehran revive its nuclear program and in turn Tehran would not meddle in its former territories, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and to help Russia maintain stability there.
Before long, Russia and Iran signed a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement in August 1992. And in 1995, Russia agreed to complete construction of the Bushehr-1 nuclear power plant and to secretly supply Iran with a large research reactor, a fuel fabrication facility, and a gas centrifuge plant. Nevertheless, Russian agreements with Iran were not unqualified. In fact, once Washington expressed its concerns about these overt and covert agreements to Moscow, the later eventually scaled back Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation. More so, Washington and Moscow signed the 1995 Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement (named after the U.S. vice president and Russian prime minister at the time), whereby Russia agreed to limit the amount of nuclear know-how and weaponry it provided to Iran.
But NATO’s advance into Russia’s sphere of influence, especially towards the Baltic states, coupled with Washington’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, heightened U.S.-Russian tension. Conversely, Iranian non-intervention in the second Chechnya War (1999-2000), unlike in Bosnia, convinced Russia to deepen its relationship with Tehran. Correspondingly, from the mid to late 2000s, Russia deepened its military and diplomatic cooperation with Iran, albeit with certain conditions on Iran’s nuclear program. Russia supported UNSC Resolutions that sanctioned and compelled Iran to comply with IAEA guidelines. Even when U.S.-Russian tensions rose over Georgia’s crisis in 2008, Moscow supported the international community in opposing any attempt by Iran to weaponize its nuclear program. Significantly, when the Obama administration pursued a “reset” policy with Russia and scuttled plans to place long-range missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Moscow reneged on its promise to deliver the S-300 air-defense missile systems to Tehran.
No doubt, Moscow was more interested in having an understanding with United States over its national security concerns than in supporting Iran’s military and nuclear program. Clearly, Moscow wanted Washington to take into consideration Moscow’s concerns and apprehension about a U.S. antimissile defense system in Eastern Europe, Western support of anti-Russian movements and leaders in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and NATO’s presence in the Baltic states. In return, Moscow was ready to cooperate with U.S. over Iran and other issues.
However, the unfolding of events following the Arab uprisings and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in Ukraine brought to an end any Russian hope that the U.S. will ever heed Moscow’s national security concerns. Barring Russian reservations about the Arab uprisings, the most galling development for Russia (and China) was the West’s ouster of Libyan leader Mu’amar Qaddhafi and its feeling of betrayal by the West. Russia and China were furious that a UNSC Resolution meant to protect the Libyan people from Qadhhafi’s potential aggression was transformed by the U.S. into a military vessel to oust the Libyan leader. This anger and feeling of betrayal was expressed by Yevgeny Y. Satanovsky, an influential analyst, president of the Institute of the Middle East in Moscow: “We were naïve and stupid…The Chinese were the same. Trust this: That was the last mistake of such type.”
Western sanctions against Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and military involvement in Ukraine only hardened Russian attitudes toward the West, especially United States. No longer would Russia entertain any beneficial hope from cooperating with the U.S. To be sure, Russia set about to curb American hegemony in world affairs, deepening its cooperation with China, Iran and Turkey and trying to drive a wedge between United States and its European allies.
At this critical juncture, Iran and Russia has perceived that the U.S. is instigating a war with Iran. The U.S. abandonment of the Iran’s nuclear deal, U.S. decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, Washington’s policy of putting “maximum pressure” on Iran to entirely halt Iranian oil exports and isolate it from world economy, and US efforts to significantly reinforce its military presence in the Persian Gulf region all point to an American design to strike at Iran. No doubt, the U.S., in the event hostilities broke out, will exact a heavy cost on Iran. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean a regime change would follow. Rather, Washington may get stuck with a proxy or direct confrontation with Iran whose denouement would be difficult to predict and whose medium and long term cost to the U.S. may be difficult to sustain. Going to war with Iran without designing a strategy taking into a consideration Russian potential involvement, against a background in which Washington is fighting an expansive war on terrorism and is involved in a great power competition with Russia and China, Washington would be setting itself up for another interventional costly debacle.
To be sure, Washington has virtually dismissed important geostrategic ramifications of its crisis with Iran, chief among them the growing strategic cooperation between Iran and Russia. Iran emerged as a country of note to support Russia’s revanchist foreign policy, grounded in restoring Russian global influence and some bastions of former Soviet power. Iran shares Russia’s view that U.S. global hegemony should be curbed, especially in their spheres of influence. Significantly, Russia and Iran’s interests have converged on many geopolitical and economic matters. Both countries are deeply concerned about and involved in negotiations over their economies, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Iraq, Syria, Central Asia, Caspian Sea, drug and human trafficking, cross border crimes and terrorism. What’s making these issues paramount to both Moscow and Tehran is their broader impact on their security and societies, thereby casting American actions against them as harmful to their national security.
Obviously, Iran is no longer a weak state at the mercy of the West or Tsarist Russia. Iran today is a regional power wielding more or less influence from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to Afghanistan in the east, and to the Caucasus in the north. Not only is a big chunk of these areas falls in Russia’s sphere of influence, but also the stability of these areas is paramount to the security of Russia.
As Russia seeks to expand its trade with the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent, Iran has emerged as a key transit country. At a trilateral summit in Baku, Azerbaijan, in August 2016, Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan agreed to develop a 7,200-kilometer-long North-South trading corridor linking St. Petersburg, Moscow, Baku, Bandar-Abas and Mumbai. Iran, as an observer member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, has had warm bilateral cooperation on economic, transit and security issues with China, Russia, India and Pakistan. True, Russia is not a top trading partner with Iran; nevertheless, Iran provides Russia significant economic opportunities given its population size and potential for technological, educational, and cultural growth. In addition, in as much Iran needs Russian weapons as Russia seeks not only to increase its arms sales, but also to use the sales as a means to foster strong alliances. Confirming the end of its ambivalent relationship with Iran and the beginning of a strong alliance, Russia, in early 2016, finally delivered the S-300 air defense system to Iran, and left the door open for selling to it the most sophisticated S-400 system.
Iran and Russia have cooperated in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power in 1996. The two also collaborated with the United States to defeat the Taliban in 2001. As the U.S. seeks to conclude an agreement with its former nemesis the Taliban and prepares to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan to a minimum, the Iranians and the Russians have every incentive to cooperate closely together to curb the staggering drug production in Afghanistan and to prevent Salafi-jihadi organizations there, such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan from threatening their security.
Similarly, the Syrian crisis and the allure of the Islamic State as representing the long awaited for Islamist ideal have mobilized Chechen, Ingush and other north Caucasus Islamists to join ranks with the Emirate of the Islamic Caucasus to evict Russia from the North Caucasus. This is so with Central Asian Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks, Kazahks, Kyrkyz and Uighurs who joined ranks with the Islamic Movement of Central Asia, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement to create an Islamic Emirate in Central Asia and sever Xinjiang province from China. This has heightened the concerns of not only Russia and Central Asian leaders, but also Chinese leaders. Central Asian leaders have urged Putin to help protect Central Asia from the rising threat of Salafi-jihadism as U.S. forces draw down their numbers in Afghanistan and the Islamic State and al-Qaeda reinforce their presence alongside the Afghan-Pakistan border. Sounding this alarm back in 2014, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov asserted: “Central Asia, a resource-rich and mainly Muslim region nestled between Russia, China and Afghanistan, could face a fate similar to that of Iraq, swathes of which have been taken over by Islamic State insurgents.”
Facing the threat of the rise of radical Islamism, Central Asian countries and Russia have perceived Iran as a bulwark against the rise of transnational Salafi-jihadism. From their standpoint, Iran is not only cooperating with Russia in Syria to defend the Syrian regime from Salafi-jihadis, many of whom hail from Central Asia and Russia, but also protecting their societies by cooperating with their governments to eliminate this threat. For example, in 1997, Moscow and Tehran joined forces to end the brutal civil war in Persian-speaking Tajikistan between the Tajik government and a coalition of opponents led by a radical Islamist group called the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). Although as of late some friction has surfaced between Russia and Iran in Syria, Moscow has asserted the significance of its strategic cooperation and solidarity with Iran in so far Tehran does not attempt to build military bases in proximity to the Golan Heights.
No less significant, in the South Caucasus, Iran has stayed on the sidelines of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Taken all this under consideration, one could safely argue that Russia will not stand idly by in the event hostilities broke out between Iran and United States. In fact, reports are circulating in the Middle East that Russia has already prepared arms shipments to Iran and beefed up its military and intelligence cooperation with the latter. This is in line with the reported promise Putin gave to the Supreme Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during the Russian leader visit to Tehran in November 2017: “I will not betray you.” Putin also confirmed: “We consider Iran a strategic partner and a great neighbor, and we will take advantage of every opportunity to expand and consolidate relationships in all dimensions.”
How will Iran, and by extension Russia, respond to what it perceives America’s instigation of war? The recent attacks on two large Saudi crude oil tankers and smaller Emirati and Norwegian tankers in the Gulf on May 12, followed by drones, sent by pro-Iranian Houthis in Yemen, striking Saudi Aramco oil pumping stations at Afif and al-Duwadimi on May 14, provide a fair assessment of Iran’s most likely response.
Apparently, these well calculated and executed attacks carried double messages. They showed that Iran could disrupt oil exports in both the Persian Gulf and in highly important overland locations. They also revealed Iran’s multifaceted military reach via its proxy forces without getting engaged in a headlong confrontation with the U.S. It follows from this that Tehran has apparently substituted its strategy of “strategic patience” with Washington since it abandoned the Iranian nuclear agreement for a strategy of “gradual escalatory response.” No doubt, this strategy is a response to and a growth of Iran and Russia’s growing strategic collaboration and shared objective of curbing American power.
However that may be, the threat of a devastating war has never been higher between Washington and Tehran. Ominously, this is happening at a time the U.S. is dealing with multiple crises, while remaining virtually dismissive or ignorant about the geopolitical landscape in which Iran and Russia would certainly and strategically collaborate to afflict on the U.S. heavy and unsustainable costs on several fronts.
President Donald Trump should remain faithful to his initial cautious impulses about the Middle East and rein in the dangerous actions and rhetoric of his advisors, who clearly are irresponsibly and reflexively taking the U.S. on a path of a doubly devastating war than the one they supported with Iraq.
*Robert G. Rabil is professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (2003); Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (2006); Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (2011); Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014); The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016); and most recently White Heart (2018). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of FAU. He can be reached @robertgrabil.