Why a Trump-Putin Deal on Iran isn’t Likely to Happen
At first glance, Iran appears to be in a compromised position with the election of Donald Trump, much to its chagrin. One aspect of Trump’s election that has baffled foreign policy experts is his desire, whether real or perceived, to improve relations with Russia. The latter has consistently undermined American foreign policy in the Middle East through arming and supporting two rogue powers: Syria and Iran. While the former is deadlocked in a multi-faceted civil war, the latter is emerging from international isolation, and has already signed tens of billions in trade deals with a consortium of nations including France, Italy, and Russia. The World Bank has forecasted the economic growth rate for Iran to be 5.2 percent, and this figure is in light of the recent oil production cuts by OPEC.
As Iran removes itself from international isolation, it will be seeking to garner more influence in the region through its proxy militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. It will also be keen to purchase sophisticated armaments, to project power in the Persian Gulf in the event of Arab or American provocation. It will also be keen to restart developments in oil and natural gas, as well as industrial and infrastructure development. While Russia is not opposed to the Arab nations of the Gulf, a strong Iran has prevented total American hegemony and dominance over a strategic area of the globe.
It is unlikely in any event that Donald Trump will be able to strike a deal with Vladimir Putin to abandon Russian support for Iran. Similarly the Kremlin has said while it looks forward to improved relations with the United States, it has signaled its intent to build relations with Iran. In February, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov stated “Don’t try to fix what is not broken,” upon being asked about Trump’s policy towards the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Over the last 38 years, Iranian policy has been to look kindly towards Russia’s activity in the region.
In Afghanistan, Iran did not provide significant support to the Mujahedeen and, mutually beneficial for both countries during the Russian invasion, later aided the Russian backed Northern alliance in their war with the Taliban.
In Tajikistan, Iran aided in achieving a peace settlement thereby preserving Russian influence in its former state.
In the Northern Caucasus, Iran has behaved rationally, not extending support to Islamist rebels, who Iran could have pocketed as a future ally through furnishing the rebels with arms and financial support.
If Russia and the United States are to divide the region like a cake there is little the United States can potentially offer in exchange for Russian co-operation on containing Iran. Even as Russia’s benefit from having Iran as an energy supplier is diminishing as its dependence on Middle Eastern oil is weaning; the nation represents an important avenue for export and joint ventures. While Russia is unlikely to desire a nuclear-armed Iran, as its effect would be destabilizing to international security as a whole. Russia does not object to an Iran with conventional nuclear power, since this has already generated billions of dollars of high human capital exports for the former.
Another fear is that Russian abandonment of Iran could be filled by China, whose opportunism has already been noted in Pakistan through the Chinese-Pacific Economic Corridor and its increasing involvement in Africa.
Another dimension is the broad reach of Iran’s foreign policy and its ability to project anger and retribution through the militia groups it supports. Swift and public acknowledgement of an understanding between the United States and Russia could result in a headache for Russia in the Muslim majority, former Soviet states.
More importantly, an anti-American Iran is a long term strategic asset for Russia. As the largest and most capable state in the Persian Gulf region, it keeps American power in the region in check. Even if Trump and Putin were to enjoy warmer, cordial relations, the former may only enjoy another term in office—whereas Putin is president for life. As such, a volatile Iran could be pushed to trouble another president in the not so distant future who isn’t as pro-Russian.
Cutting a deal with Russia on Iran may pose another major issue as well. If a nation such as France or the UK were to reap the benefits of billions of dollars in trade deals with Iran (or Iraq, Libya, Syria), would they also be cut a deal? In this case, any nation who possesses the ability to manufacture advanced weaponry, build nuclear power plants, and develop oil infrastructure could simply ask the United States for something in return for not dealing with Iran when its own economic benefits are at jeopardy.
Finally, there is the historical precedent and social perception in the United States towards such a “grand bargain.” The United States and Russia have failed on a number of issues to enact realpolitik in the Middle East. Neither could reach a collective strategy or even a general understanding at times on the Iraq War nor the War in Afghanistan. In 2003, former American ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, called this a “values gap.” Critics of such a deal, should stress that co-operation with Russia may falsely give the illusion that Russia has joined the West, while its foreign policy and motives are distinct in every way, shape and form.