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Can the U.S. Take Advantage of Russian-Iranian Tensions?

Tensions are back in the Persian Gulf between the U.S. and Iran following Washington’s decisions to leave the Iran nuclear deal, imposing sanctions against key Iranian economic sectors and designating the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. All of these actions have resulted in Iran facing a severe economic situation, which has had an impact on the political balance of power of Iranian domestic politics and has lead the so-called “hardliners” in Tehran to respond to these activities. Tehran is pushing back by using asymmetric tactics (attacking oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, downing a U.S. drone) to send a message, but at the same time avoiding massive retaliation from the U.S. This tension, which could lead to a wider conflict between the U.S. and Iran have undoubtedly had an impact on not only the security and stability of the Persian Gulf but on Russia’s interests in the Middle East.

The U.S. and Iran have had adversarial relations for the last four decades and the Persian Gulf is not the only area where the two countries are on opposite sides. In Syria, the U.S. has been pushing to contain Iran’s influence in the country, and as the civil war in Syria seems to be winding down, the U.S. is trying to take advantage of Russia-Iran tensions in Syria. Iran and Russia, as the main backers of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, were closely aligned to defend the regime but new tensions appear to be on the surface, as both countries are trying to exert more influence on the Assad government in a post-civil war Syria. These areas include the reconstruction of Syria and the building of Syria’s security sector. As tensions emerge in the Russo-Iranian cooperation in Syria, the U.S. role comes into play.

Next week, top security officials from the U.S., Israel, and Russia are meeting in Jerusalem, to discuss issues regarding Syria and Iran’s presence in the country. The U.S. could take this as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran. Iran’s expanding influence to build a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea raises serious security concerns for both the U.S. and Israel, and Israel took a number of steps to prevent a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, including bombing Iranian military assets in order to push Iranian military and its proxies away from its borders. But this did not deter Iran from expanding its presence in Syria.

As tensions are looming in the Persian Gulf between the U.S. and Iran, Washington seems determined to contain Iran both in Syria and in the Strait of Hormuz by increasing its naval assets in the region and sending an aircraft carrier last month, but it could not contain Iran without Moscow’s help and here is where Russia comes in. The important question is whether the U.S. can successfully exploit tensions between Iran and Russia by at least collaborating with Russia to expel Iranian forces from Syria?

Russia and Iran are not allies in general (the two had a long history of rivalry in the empire days) and in particular in Syria. Hence some analysts and commentators believe that Moscow is the “main benefactor” of the current U.S.-Iran tension. Some go further to argue that the current tensions between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf serve as an opportunity for Russia to increase its oil exports at the expense of Iranian oil, currently halted due to U.S. sanctions. Recently President Vladimir Putin stated that Moscow “is not a fire brigade, we cannot save just everything,” implying that Russia cannot help Iran in its current tensions with the U.S., which justifies this line of argument. Even a report by Bloomberg suggested that Moscow rejected Iran’s request to buy a S-400 surface to air missile from Russia, although the timing could raise questions. However, to answer this question, one has to address what Russia could trade off with the U.S. and Israel in exchange for cooperating with Moscow to reduce Iran’s footprint in Syria and how a trade-off with the U.S. could affect its strategic goals in the Middle East.

For starters, relations between Russia and the U.S. are all-time low due to issues that range from Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 to the issue of Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections in 2016 to backing warring sides in the Syrian conflict and the list goes on. For both, the annexation of Crimea and the election interference, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions against Russia that crippled its economy, although it did not change its foreign policy. This could be an area where a trade-off can happen, where the U.S. could lift sanctions (maybe some of them) in exchange for a U.S.-Russia cooperation against Iran. But here is the problem. Although President Trump argued on multiple occasions that “getting along with Russia is a good thing” for the U.S., his hand in this area is limited. Congress has a big influence on U.S. Russia policy and lifting sanctions against Russia is a non-starter.

Second, although it is true that Russia has used the “Iran card” in the past to improve relations with the U.S. and there are a number of examples that indicate that, so far Moscow has not achieved what it was looking for, and there is no reason to believe that Moscow would risk its complicated partnership with Iran to accommodate the U.S. at the moment. However complicated their relationship is, Iran is a Russian partner on multiple strategic areas that the Kremlin cares about, including in the Middle East and the Caspian Sea, as both Nikolay Kozhanov and Leonid Issaev argued. Instead of being an active partner of the U.S. in its tensions with Tehran and throwing Iran under the bus, what is more likely to happen is that Moscow takes the helm and acts as a mediator between the U.S. and Iran to deescalate tensions– a task that the Kremlin is good at when it comes to the Middle East, as Moscow engages with a number of warring factions in the region.

Relations between Iran and Russia are complicated. It is certainly not a “strategic alliance” and the two countries do not always share the same interests in Syria, but they share a number of common interests that are beyond Syria and their differences on Syria would not cede their partnership. And while it is true that, in the short term, Russia could benefit from the current U.S.-Iran tensions on areas that include expanding its foothold in Syria, increasing its oil exports in conjunction with Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries, which could avoid an increase in the oil prices which is a U.S. goal, all at the expense of Iran, Moscow is not willing to further worsen its partnership with Iran due to their common interests. So counting on Moscow to force Iran out of Syria is not a wise move.