Opinion: What will Russia do if the U.S. strikes Iran?
- Russian leadership and diplomacy played a highly constructive role in concluding the 2015 Iran nuclear deal
- Russia’s intervention in Syria won it respect in the Middle East and did not array other players against Moscow
- Russia is now the “little hegemon” in the region, a power with which one must reach deals and cooperate
It would be a mistake to regard Russia’s role in Iran, Syria and the wider Middle East as that of a “spoiler,” hoping only to chip away opportunistically at the United States-led order wherever it can. Several powerful factors make Russia’s relations with Iran closely linked to its goal of building a position of influence in the Middle East.
For two centuries, the British empire and then the U.S. did their best to keep Russia and the Soviet Union out of the region. Today, a much weaker and smaller Russia has miraculously returned to the Middle East. What began as a limited military intervention to save the Syrian regime has morphed into a lasting regional presence of significant security and economic interest to Russia.
Friends of convenience
Long before the Syrian war, Iran provided Moscow with an entryway for returning to the region. Russia’s interest in a lasting and stable partnership with Iran preceded the current U.S.-Russian confrontation by many years. After decades of being on opposing camps during the Cold War, and then driven apart by the rhetoric of the Iranian revolution, Moscow and Tehran began to warm up to each other. During the 1990s, when Russia yearned for the recognition and support of the U.S., the administration of President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) pressed Moscow to discontinue its cooperation with Iran – namely, the construction of a nuclear power plant in Bushehr. Russian President Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999), who habitually consented to every other American policy, staunchly refused.
The Iranian deal enhanced Russia’s unique role in the Middle East
The Americans were frustrated and claimed not to understand the cause of the Russians’ “stubbornness.” The Bushehr project, after many delays, was completed and started generating electricity in 2011. Moscow touted it as a symbol of Russia’s determination to honor its obligations to foreign partners regardless of political and economic circumstances. The project has a symbolic significance for many countries as it shows Russia as a steadfast power, impervious to U.S. pressure.
Today, many in the West like to describe Russia as a “spoiler in the region.” This disregards Russia’s active role there in recent years – not least its leadership and diplomacy in concluding the 2015 Iran nuclear deal between Iran, the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.) and the European Union. Russia had a twofold interest in the agreement. Firstly, it asserted Russia’s membership in the elite club of five leading nuclear powers, a multilateral forum where the U.S. did not call the shots. In reality, Russia was the pivotal party to this agreement: all weapons-grade material was to be shipped from Iran to Russia to ensure the civilian nature of the Iranian nuclear installations.
Secondly, the Iranian deal enhanced Russia’s unique role in the Middle East. Russia does not supplant the United States as a dominant actor there but its special ties to Tehran and good relations with all antagonists in the region – including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Israel – position Moscow as an arbiter.
The uniqueness of Russia’s place in the region was sealed in 2015-17 with the decisive victory of Russian arms in the Syrian war. Russian President Vladimir Putin found in the war against ISIS a perfect excuse to reinsert his country’s military into the region. The Russian force fought in a coalition war against anti-Assad forces, in which its most important ally was Iran.
Player to reckon with
In Syria, the Russian style of warfare incurred the rage of all Western liberal and human rights organizations, as well as in the U.S. Israel was gravely concerned by the presence of Iranian-armed formations so close to its borders. It is noteworthy that this time around, Russian military intervention did not array other Middle East players against Moscow (and on the side of Washington). To the contrary: Turkey’s leadership, the Saudis, and, reluctantly, even Israel recognized Russia as the “little hegemon” in the area, one who demands deal-making and cooperation.
Moscow sounded out a possibility of using the ports of Crimea for trade with Iran
Russia’s influence has been rising just as the American hegemony has been in decline. While the Americans are widely regarded as an unpredictable power, the Russians are increasingly seen in the region as a status-quo player and a factor for stability.
During recent years, President Putin and his government already translated the idea of a Russian “little hegemony” into tangible economic and political gains:
- Russia’s influence and prestige among the Arab petrostates have grown immensely. This new political capital, along with his role as arbiter, allowed Mr. Putin to help create OPEC+, a novel alliance of OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers to coordinate production cuts and maintain oil prices between $60 to $70 per barrel. Thus far, the arrangement has worked, securing a cashflow critical for Russia’s macroeconomic stability
- Russia reestablished its military presence and acquired a naval base in Syria, this time accepted by Israel, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia (but not by Washington)
- Russia’s trade with Iran has grown, including a trade deal allowing Russia to sell Iranian oil on world markets. Tehran uses the oil revenues obtained with Russian help to pay for Russian goods and services, including power generation, railway infrastructure or agricultural products. If this continues, and with U.S. sanctions in place, Iran’s dependence on Russia would grow and the Iranian economy would get closer to Mr. Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. Recently, Moscow sounded out a possibility of using the ports of Crimea and other Black Sea ports for trade with Iran, which would weaken the trade embargo imposed on the peninsula after its annexation by Russia in 2014
After the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the relationship between Moscow and Tehran tightened into an alliance of convenience, based on the logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” The two countries are facing a common threat (an existential threat in Iran’s case) in Washington’s unceremonious pressure on its transatlantic allies to return to the blockade of Iran. That and the Europeans’ compliance indicates both to Iran and Russia that their best option is to hang together while trying to play up the contradictions between major European powers and the U.S.
In Moscow, there is no illusion as to the high stakes of the U.S.-Iranian confrontation. President Putin and his entourage are convinced that the U.S. hegemonic offensive against Iran is indirectly aimed at Russia and Russian interests. For Mr. Putin and the Russian military, a sudden military attack on Iran by the U.S. forces (probably in coordination with Israel) is entirely within the realm of possibility.
Since 1979, consistent demands have been voiced in the U.S. corridors of powers to topple the “regime of clerics” in Tehran. Only recently, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton publicly promised a group of Iranian refugees that they would return in triumph to Teheran in 2019. Israel, for its part, has been angling for years for a way to have the U.S. (rather than the Israeli military) cut Iran down through a combination of sanctions and military operations.
Any American decision to use force against Iran would be bad for Russia, punching a hole in Moscow’s newly-won prestige in the Middle East. From Moscow’s standpoint, however, the worst-case scenario would be a return of American hegemony to the region: the U.S. sheriff coming back and chasing “little hegemon” Putin away. For Mr. Putin and Russian interests, that would constitute a geopolitical catastrophe of the first order.
What Moscow could do
Russia, of course, cannot prevent Mr. Trump for delivering the first strike. And under no circumstances will the Russian military end up in a direct clash with the U.S. and Israeli forces. But an attack against Iran would impact Russian interests as well. Moscow has reasons to show restraint and relies primarily on diplomatic responses in such a situation. There are, in the end, good chances for Russia to retain and reassert its “little hegemony” role in the Middle East whether or not Mr. Trump strikes the ayatollahs.
In contrast to the Cold War, Israel has stakes in keeping Russia as a good friend
From the Russian perspective, everything depends on how the Americans act. The decisive use of the U.S. forces in 1990-91 against Iraq – undertaken with a suitable pretext and with support of a worldwide coalition, from the Arab countries to the Soviet Union – helped establish American dominion in the Middle East for almost two decades.
Fifteen years later, after the second Gulf war, the unexpected quagmire of the American occupation of Iraq produced an opposite effect: it shattered an international consensus about U.S. hegemony in the region, created fissures among the Arabs and, ultimately, forced the Americans to withdraw without glory. A repeat of the successful 1991 scenario in Iran is highly implausible.
As the leading Russian Arabist Vitaly Naumkin said recently that the Middle East “is an area where everyone fights against everyone.” In this Hobbesian environment, Moscow has a toolbox of diplomatic, economic and military measures to disrupt Washington’s attempts at creating a broad coalition of Sunni Arab states against Iran. Without backing from such an alliance, a U.S. military strike will be seen as an abuse of Western power against an Islamic state. This would complicate U.S. relations with the Islamic world. In Moscow, people know that such a perception problem may contain even the hardliners surrounding President Trump.
Moscow can use diplomatic channels to warn Tel Aviv of negative impact, both political and economic, that a strike on Iran would have for Israel’s relations with Russia. It is one thing when the Israeli planes buzz and harass the Iranian military in Syria, to which the Russians can only protest. It is quite another when Russian personnel can become part of “collateral damage” in the event of Israel targeting Iran’s nuclear installations. In contrast to the Cold War, Israel has stakes in keeping Russia as a good friend rather than an enraged adversary. Also, the Russian-Turkish spat in 2015 over the killed Russian pilots demonstrated how effectively Mr. Putin’s “calculated rage” can inflict economic damage to the object of this ire.
For Saudi Arabia, where the new ruler is not happy to be chastened by the U.S. over human rights, Russia also has an implicit offer: the U.S. cannot be seen as a perfect ally of the Arab petrostates anymore. Moscow argues that “destroying Iran” would perhaps satisfy the short-term interests of Riyadh but would carry lasting damage to Arab oil profits. Partial destruction of the Russia-OPEC oil cartel, of which Iran is an essential element, would allow the U.S. to dictate the rules of the global oil and gas market.
Russia can also act as a thorn in the side of the U.S. elsewhere in the world, if it chooses. One can imagine a greater Russian military presence in Venezuela and, in the case of extreme danger to Russian interests, in the Middle East. Even a resumption of Russian military cooperation with Cuba would be plausible. It is hard to predict all of the far-reaching consequences of these gambles.
Another asymmetrical response would be to threaten another round of Russian meddling in the next U.S. presidential elections, with the release of a (suspected to exist) “kompromat” (compromising material) on the incumbent president. In other words, Moscow may signal to Mr. Trump and his people: Keep away from our interests in Iran and our interests in the Middle East, or we will meddle again, this time with you.
However, such a high-risk move would be considered in the Kremlin only when it is cornered, presented with a choice between a humiliating defeat and the loss of its role in the Middle East – and the ire of the U.S. Congress and the American public (which Russia has incurred anyway).
Finally, there is the most likely scenario, under which Mr. Trump tries to play Iran in a way similar to the case of North Korea. He may have given the pulpit to his hardliners and walked out of the nuclear deal only to create a stage for his unique “strike-of-genius” personal diplomacy. If the U.S. administration oscillates between issuing threats (not backed by force) and attempts to broker unilateral deals, then the decline of American power in the Middle East is inevitable. Which would mean that Russia’s “little hegemony” and special relations with Iran may end up enhanced without Moscow firing a single bullet.