Since President Trump’s election, American allies and other foreign policy observers have been curious to know how the new White House intends to resolve an apparent contradiction. How is it possible that Trump seems keen to make some sort of deal with Vladimir Putin while expressing belligerent contempt for Russia’s key Middle East ally, Iran? There may be an answer: Recent press reports indicate the Trump team will try to lure Russia away from Iran. The chances for success are slim.
Moscow and Tehran’s alliance was cemented in Syria, where both have historically backed the Assad regime, first Hafez al-Assad and later his son Bashar. Both have supported Bashar al-Assad against an array of opposition forces since the Syrian conflict erupted in the summer of 2011. Four years later, with Assad and Iranian forces in danger of losing the war, Qassem Suleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s expeditionary Quds Force unit, visited Moscow to beg the Russians for more help. Putin consented. He escalated Russia’s position in Syria with men and materiel, and marked it with naval installations and airstrips. Ever since, Russian planes have flown in support of Iranian, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-backed ground forces. Rumors regarding points of conflict between Russia and Iran continue to circulate, but this is not, as many have called it, a “marriage of convenience,” but a strategic alliance in which each actor depends on the other.
The notion that it is possible to separate Moscow from Tehran is apparently based on two historical precedents. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was intelligence chief for Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq during the surge. Coalition forces were able to ensure relative stability in Iraq as the Sunni tribes were induced to turn their weapons on foreign fighters they had previously aligned with to battle coalition troops.
The second precedent is Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s decision after the October 1973 war with Israel to leave the Soviet fold and ally with the United States. Sadat’s move proved such a boon to America’s Cold War efforts against Moscow that American policymakers tried to get other Soviet clients to jump, chief among them Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, who nonetheless clung to Moscow.
Even after the Cold War, American diplomats continued their efforts in the Levant by courting Hafez’s son Bashar, to see if he’d abandon his patrons in Tehran. Bashar never had any intention of jumping; he had simply learned from his father that dangling possibilities in front of American diplomats brings them to the table with incentives and promises, all of which you can pocket to enhance your own prestige without giving the Americans a thing.
What two generations of American policymakers who dealt with the Assad family seem to have missed is that Sadat came to his decision on his own. The Soviets were bad for Egypt, Sadat believed, and the Americans and their money were the future. The same was true three decades later of Iraq’s Sunni tribes, which concluded that al Qaeda and the foreign fighters who occupied Iraq to fight the Americans were a dead end. Better to work with U.S. forces to get rid of them. Both Sadat and the Iraqi tribes were, in the parlance of the intelligence world, walk-ins who volunteered to change sides. Washington added various incentives to facilitate decisions that greatly benefited the United States, but there was little even the subtlest and most creative diplomats, policymakers, or dealmakers could have offered had the tribes and Sadat not already shown signs they were looking to jump.
Now, it’s certainly possible that the Russians are privately sending messages to the Trump administration that they’re willing to entertain a deal to abandon the Iranians. But it’s highly unlikely. The Russia-Iran alliance is a strategic relationship in the most fundamental way.
When Vladimir Putin surveys the Middle East, he sees a post-1973 landscape, what the Middle East looked like after Sadat embraced the United States. The region is covered with American allies, from Israel to Egypt, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Sure, Barack Obama put American allies in a hard spot by forsaking them all, creating a vacuum filled by Moscow, where traditional U.S. regional partners were compelled to petition Putin on bended knee. But eight years is a relatively short period compared to the decades during which Washington established strategic relationships in the region, through arms deals and security arrangements and economic and cultural exchanges. When Putin looks at the region, he sees only one empty space on the board—Iran. There is simply no way for the Russians to project power or manage their regional interests without Iran and its partners, like Hezbollah. Asking Putin to abandon the Iranians is like asking him to leave the Middle East.
And that’s the kind of deal the Trump administration should be angling for in the region. The United States doesn’t want Putin on NATO’s Turkish border. It doesn’t want Russia sending missiles to Syria, as it did last week. The White House doesn’t want Russia compromising Israel’s air superiority in the eastern Mediterranean, and it surely doesn’t want Russia backing Hezbollah and Iran’s approach to Israel’s Golan Heights border. So how do you get to yes?
You don’t have to be an artist of the deal to know that starting talks with the premise that you want to make the other players at the table happy puts you on course to losing your shirt. You surely don’t concede up front that Putin gets to keep his naval base in Tartus, for instance, or that Russia gets to carve out a mini-statelet for Syria’s Alawite community.
No, you start by not speaking directly with Russia at all. You negotiate with Putin by targeting Iran, through a variety of measures, including sanctions, clandestine operations, cyberwar, and a snare ready everywhere Tehran is likely to misbehave: the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, eastern Mediterranean, etc. And indeed, Flynn and the staff he’s put together at the National Security Council are eager to put Iranians back in the box that Obama let them out of.
In other words, the way to persuade Putin to abandon Iran is by showing him that it’s a bad investment, that his position in the region, which is based entirely on his partnership with an Iran that is growing in power and prestige, has been pulled out from under him, like a Persian carpet. Why keep throwing good money after bad?
It’s a risky gambit, which is perhaps why the Trump administration is floating rumors of trying to “talk” Putin out of his alliance with Iran, even as it seeks to target his allies. The other choice, however, is much riskier: to acquiesce to Obama’s vision of the region, where American allies and interests are at risk, and American adversaries are on the rise.