Trump Is Driving Iran into Russia’s Arms
U.S. sanctions won’t necessarily isolate Tehran. They could spur new strategic alliances.
MOSCOW—Russia is seeking to take advantage of the erratic actions of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in the latest U.S.-Iranian crisis to expand its influence in the Middle East. For now, Russia and Iran have a close alliance, but maintaining it over the long term may prove difficult.
The Trump administration has sent contradictory signals regarding Iran in recent weeks. The crisis began when U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton announced on May 5 that Washington would send an aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf, and on May 10 Pentagon officials announced the deployment of Patriot missile batteries. On May 19, after a pro-Iranian militia allegedly fired a rocket that landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Trump tweeted a threat: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.”
Five days later, Trump announced plans to deploy fighter jets and 1,500 troops to the region. But Trump also offered some conciliatory words. “Right now, I don’t think Iran wants to fight and I certainly don’t think they want to fight with us,” he said. Then, on May 27, Trump expressed support for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s offer to mediate the dispute. A top Iranian official was skeptical about Trump’s sincerity.
Russian officials believe such blustery threats followed by offers to negotiate further discredit Trump’s Iran policy and contrast it with their own. Russia and Iran have created a durable alliance, according to Alexey Pushkov, a member of the upper house of the Russian legislature and close ally of President Vladimir Putin. He told Foreign Policy that Russia would naturally ally with countries, such as Iran, which face pressure from the U.S. government. He described Russia-Iran relations as a “partnership which can evolve into a strategic relationship.”
Russia is emerging as a lesser interventionist power in the region. Moscow has national interests in the Middle East and demands that they be respected. Russia is therefore seeking to keep oil and gas channels open to Russian trade, fight extremist political Islam so it will not spread to Russia, and to protect its military bases in Syria. What those “national interests” mean in practice can be seen in Syria.
In 2015 Russia sent air and ground troops to Syria—allegedly to fight terrorism. Russia and Iran did help to defeat the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other extremists. But they also waged a brutal war against any group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Both countries see the possibility of developing Syria’s oil fields, now held by U.S. and Kurdish forces.
In 2017, Syria signed an agreement to expand an existing Russian naval base and establish an air force base in the country. The agreement lasts for 49 years, with the option of a 25-year extension. Syria granted Russia extraterritoriality, which prohibits Russians from being tried in Syrian courts. The bases provide Russia with a permanent military presence to project power throughout the region, and a means to support its allies Syria and Iran.
Russia further enhanced its regional influence by signing onto the 2015 nuclear accord, which allowed Iran to develop nuclear power while providing for intrusive inspections that prohibit the construction of nuclear weapons. The agreement was ratified unanimously by the U.N. Security Council, which mandated the lifting of nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran. One year ago, the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the accord.
Although Iran continued to abide by the agreement, according to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United States began reimposing harsh, unilateral sanctions in August 2018. This month, the Iranian government issued a warning to the accord’s European signatories: Germany, France, and Britain as well as the European Union. If they didn’t restore normal trade and banking within 60 days, Iran would enrich uranium at a higher level, stockpile enriched uranium and heavy water, and resume activities at its mothballed Arak nuclear complex.
Washington believes that such actions will decrease the time Iran needs to produce enough uranium to eventually make a nuclear bomb. Russian experts view the situation differently. They argue that Iran is seeking only to pressure Europe to lift sanctions and engage in trade with Iran, not build a bomb. And should the U.S. military attack Iran, even in a so-called limited strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, it will rally Iranians around their government, according to Vladimir Sazhin, an Iran specialist at the government-sponsored Institute for Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. “The results will be the opposite of American intentions,” Sazhin told Foreign Policy.
Russia criticized the U.S. arms buildup in the Gulf and opposes a strike on Iran. But Russia has limited resources and does not plan a military response if the United States attacks. Putin told an international press conference that Russia is not a “fire brigade.”
While Moscow rhetorically opposes unilateral U.S. economic sanctions on Iran, the Russian government has not significantly increased trade or investments in Iran to counter the sanctions. U.S. sanctions have severely limited international banking transactions with Iran and made trade difficult. But China, facing the same problems, has $33 billion in annual trade with Iran compared to only $2 billion for Russia.
Russia is building two more nuclear power facilities in Iran but otherwise has few business dealings there. Moscow finished building the Bushehr nuclear energy complex, which had been partially built by German companies and then abandoned after 1979. Russia is now expanding one reactor at Bushehr and building a second expected to be completed in 2020.
Overall Russia “hasn’t done much” to combat U.S. sanctions, Vladimir Pozner, the host of a popular Russian TV talk show, told Foreign Policy. “Russia is very leery of Iran’s nuclear intentions.”
Russia acknowledges that that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. But if Iran changes course, Russians believe, a nuclear-armed Iran could compete more effectively for regional influence.
Iranian officials don’t completely trust Russia either. Leaders of the 1979 Iranian Revolution stressed that their country would ally with neither “east nor west.” They opposed both U.S. imperialism and Soviet-style communism. The anti-Soviet sentiment now applies to Russia, both among the Iranian people and some Iranian leaders.
In 2016, Russia and Iran reached an agreement to allow Russian planes to launch sorties over Syria from the Iranian air base at Hamadan in western Iran. Some members of the Iranian parliament opposed the move because the Iranian Constitution prohibits foreign military bases. The Iranians criticized Russia for publicizing the deal, which quickly riled public opinion. Russians withdrew their planes after only a week.
The two countries also differ about Israel and its role in Syria. Israel frequently bombs targets in Syria that it claims are controlled by Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but has not attacked Russian bases. “We close our eyes when the Israeli air force attacks Syria as long as there’s no attack on Russian installations,” said Sazhin. “It’s a gentleman’s agreement.”
This informal accord reflects a wider disagreement over Israel. Iran doesn’t recognize the existence of a Jewish state, while Russia has robust relations with Israel. Unlike the Soviet Union, which sided with Arab nationalists against U.S.-backed Israel, today’s Russia has full diplomatic and trade relations with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly met with Putin at least 11 times since 2015, more than with any other world leader. Israel is also full of Russian speakers. Out of a total population of approximately 9 million, some 1 million are former Soviet citizens or their descendants.
Putin is pursuing a strictly realist approach to the region, allying with any country willing to work with him. He has allied with military leaders in Syria, for example, while seeking to stay away from the country’s sectarian conflicts.
Iran, by contrast, wants to expand its economic, political, and religious influence, relying primarily on Shiite Muslim groups. These and other differences could lead to serious competition in the future. Russia is, after all, a secular, expansionist state with growing global strength. Iran is a religious, regional power with established ties to Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq.
But so long as the United States continues its aggressive and erratic policies in the region, Iran and Russia will remain allies with an easily defined common enemy. The Trump administration thinks it is isolating Iran with harsh economic sanctions and military threats. In reality, it has the opposite effect.
Pushkov noted that Iran is an important regional power and that both countries work closely together in Syria. “It is on the ground and we are in the skies,” he said. “Russia won’t easily let its relations go.”