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Washington Must Actively Manage a Dispute It Can’t End
By all appearances, the Donald Trump administration is preparing to attempt a historic reconciliation with Russia. In part, the strategy is aimed at driving a wedge into the long-running strategic partnership between Moscow and Tehran. With the proper incentives, the thinking goes, it might be possible to “flip” Russia. “There’s daylight between Russia and Iran, for sure,” one foreign official familiar with the White House’s deliberations explained. “What’s unclear is what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin would demand in return for weakening the alliance.”
The new president and his advisers may soon find, however, that precipitating a Russian-Iranian split is an exceedingly tall order. The past decade has provided ample proof that the military, political, and economic bonds that Russia and the Islamic Republic have built over the past quarter-century are remarkably resilient. And today, there is reason to believe that the strategic partnership between the two countries is stronger than ever.
In 2005, speaking before the prestigious Munich Security Conference, Putin famously remarked that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” The years since have seen Putin pursue a foreign policy centered in large part on recreating a modified version of the old Soviet sphere of influence.
In military terms, this has meant creating or supporting security blocs, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, that are tethered to the Kremlin and are designed to further Russian strategic priorities in the Eurasian theater. On the economic front, Putin has put forth an alternative to the EU, known broadly as the Eurasian Economic Union. Although it can hardly be called a resounding success, the union is nonetheless a viable construct. It boasts four members in addition to Russia (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan) and is currently contemplating the addition of two more (Mongolia and Tajikistan).
Politically, meanwhile, Moscow has invested enormous capital in building closer ties with countries such as Belarus, and to assorted Central Asian regimes and eastern European governments, in an effort to increase its political freedom of action along its periphery. The result is what can best be described as a postmodern Russian empire—one not of actual military control but of political and economic dependency.
Iran plays a large part in these plans. The country is an ally of choice for Russia’s Eurasianists—ideological proponents of a distinct Russian civilizational identity whose thinking has gained currency in recent years in the corridors of the Kremlin. (The most famous contemporary example is Alexander Dugin, who explicitly called for an alliance with Iran in his sprawling 1997 opus, The Foundations of Geopolitics.) In the minds of Dugin and his compatriots, Iran’s strategic position in the Middle East, along with Iran’s distinct strategic culture and history, make it an attractive—albeit temporary—partner for Russia as it gathers strength to reclaim a global role.
Moscow will need to remain in Iran’s good graces to preserve its strategic foothold in Syria.
Tehran’s strategic value to Moscow is reflected in the Kremlin’s persistent efforts (blocked by China, at least so far) to elevate Iran from a mere observer nation to a full-fledged member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and in the quiet encouragement of Iran’s expansion of contacts with the Central Asian republics. The result, Russia’s foreign policy ideologues hope, is the creation of a dependable proxy in the Middle East—one that can help augment Russian power and objectives there.
Iran is also increasingly vital to Russia’s economy. Over the past few years, Russian fiscal health has been ravaged by low world oil prices and successive rounds of Western sanctions aimed at penalizing it for its aggressive policy toward Ukraine. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Russia’s economy, which constricted by as much as 3.5 percent in 2015, shrank by nearly another one percent last year, continuing a protracted process of national decline. And although there are now some signs that Russia might see a slight recovery in 2017, economists have been quick to point out that a real turnaround isn’t in the cards for the foreseeable future due to the country’s endemic corruption and systemic weaknesses.
Meanwhile, a number of self-inflicted wounds have compounded the external financial pressures. To wit, the annexation of Crimea has added as much as $7.5 billion in annual expenditures to the country’s already stretched federal budget. Russia’s expensive military adventurism in Ukraine and Syria, meanwhile, has depleted its coffers further still. (A telling study issued in August by the financial news agency RosBusinessConsulting estimated that, every month, Moscow has been spending up to $150 million just on military contractors to support its operations in Syria.)
Against this backdrop, Iran—once an international pariah deeply dependent on Russia's good graces—has taken on growing importance for the Kremlin. As a result of last summer’s nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), Iran has enjoyed an economic windfall of unprecedented magnitude. This has taken the form of more than $100 billion in direct sanctions relief and a surge in post-sanctions trade with an array of international partners, including China and India.
For its part, over the past several months, the Kremlin has concluded at least $10 billion in new arms deals with the Iranian regime. Nuclear commerce between the two countries has seen a similar surge. These are arrangements that the Russian government, increasingly struggling to make ends meet, can ill afford to give up, whatever the promise of a new, more cordial relationship with Washington.
Russia likewise needs Iran to preserve its presence in the Middle East. Like the Islamic Republic, Russia has become a crucial player in the ongoing Syrian civil war. But unlike that of Tehran, Moscow’s endgame in Syria is not entirely clear. To date, the Kremlin’s strategy is focused on expanding and strengthening its military presence in Syria’s east (where Moscow has been ensconced since the early 1970s) and on combating assorted Islamist radicals arrayed against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a great many of whose members hail from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
By contrast, Iran’s ayatollahs have made it clear that preserving the stability of the Assad regime is a cardinal priority and have invested massive sums of money and military materiel in ensuring this outcome. These investments, coupled with parallel Western operations against the Islamic State (ISIS), have succeeded in turning the tide of the conflict in favor of Syria’s embattled dictator.
As such, it is reasonable to conclude that, whatever settlement ultimately emerges in Syria, it will be one deeply influenced by, and beneficial to, Iran. Under these circumstances, Moscow will need to remain in Iran’s good graces to preserve its strategic foothold in Syria over the long term.
All this suggests that, despite the White House’s fervent wishes, the Russian-Iranian alliance is both durable and resilient. Indeed, the Trump administration’s focus looks more than a little like the Clinton administration’s repeated efforts throughout the 1990s to pull Syria away from Iran and into the Western orbit. Those attempts failed miserably, not least because Washington greatly underestimated the strategic value Syria attached to its ongoing partnership with Tehran.
Today, Washington runs the danger of making the same mistake with Moscow. While the new president has made it abundantly clear that he wants a more cordial relationship with the Kremlin, he must proceed knowing that those ties will inevitably be circumscribed by the importance that Russian officials attach to their allies in Tehran.