February 9, 2017

Putin Resists Pressure to Take Sides as U.S.-Iran Tensions Grow

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as they attend a signing ceremony during the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

President Donald J. Trump is seeking an improved Russian-U.S. relationship. He is also pursuing a harsher policy toward Iran than that of the Obama administration. But Russia, with whom Trump seeks better relations, is cooperating closely with Iran, especially in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin has welcomed Trump’s interest in improved Russian-U.S. relations, but has made clear he opposes the new U.S. administration’s tough policy on Iran.

Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, declared that an Iranian missile test on January 29 violated U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which forbids Tehran from testing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. Flynn declared that the United States was “putting Iran on notice” as a result. Some limited U.S. sanctions were announced, and it was made clear that unspecified additional ones could be imposed.

Russian commentators reacted by asserting the Iranian missile test did not violate the U.N. resolution, and that only the U.N. Security Council (where Russia has a veto) has the authority to determine whether Iran violated the resolution, not the U.S. government alone. Russian experts stressed that despite the prospects for improved Russian-U.S. relations, Moscow would not join the Trump administration’s efforts to contain Iran.

Russian officials also pushed back against Trump’s declaration that Iran is the “number one terrorist state.” Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that Russia does not regard Iran as a terrorist state, and seeks further cooperation with the country. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went further noting Iran’s “contribution to the struggle against the Islamic State,” and stating that “Iran must be part of our common efforts” in creating a coalition against terrorism.

On February 5, a Wall Street Journal article reported that senior White House, European, and Arab officials said that the Trump administration is seeking to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran. In response, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov claimed The Wall Street Journal and other news sources “do nothing but look for reasons for unfounded speculation and groundless insinuations and attempts to poison the atmosphere.” (The Wall Street Journal article actually did note that “persuading Mr. Putin to break with Tehran would be immensely difficult.”)

But despite Moscow’s obvious disapproval of the Trump administration’s tougher line on Iran, Russia’s response to it has also been remarkably moderate. Instead of condemning the Trump administration, Russian officials and observers have adopted a regretful tone. Indeed, Ryabkov stated how Moscow “regrets” the new sanctions that Trump imposed on Iran. He further warned that it is not only “too risky” to try to renegotiate the Iranian nuclear accord, but also that it is unnecessary since it is working. “Don’t try to fix what is not broken,” he warned.

Lavrov pointed out that the United States, Russia, and Iran are all on the same side in opposing the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. And while Iran reportedly did not want the United States to join in the Russian/Iranian/Turkish-sponsored Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, Russia did want it involved (but only “on the basis of mutual respect”).

The Russian ambassador to Iran, Levan Dzhagaryan, noted that Moscow is “concerned” over the escalation of rhetoric between Washington and Tehran, and stated that “Russia will do everything in its power to lower the degree of tensions.” Still, he also made clear that Moscow was not offering to mediate between Washington and Tehran since Iran had not asked it to do so.

Contrary to what the Trump administration may have hoped, Putin is clearly not rushing to side with the United States against Iran for the sake of an improved Russian-U.S. relationship. On the other hand, while Moscow is indicating that it disagrees with Trump’s approach to Tehran, Russia is not signaling that it will defend Iran against the United States either. Instead, Russian officials seem to be calling on both sides to remain calm and even recognize that they have common interests (along with Russia), but not indicating plans to prevent further deterioration in Iranian-U.S. relations.

What, then, does this suggest about Putin’s policy with regard to a deteriorating Iranian-U.S. relationship? Putin may seek to avoid Russian entanglement in any Iranian-U.S. confrontation, expressing sympathy for Iran while at the same time continuing to pursue good relations with Trump. This would be disappointing to both Washington and Tehran, but each would have an interest in courting Putin to ensure that he did not side with the other.

For Putin, this approach would be useful not just for keeping Russia out of a potential, or even actual, conflict, but also to give the protagonists in it strong incentive to overlook Russian policies that each disagrees with (such as Moscow’s policy toward Ukraine for the United States and the West, and Russian cooperation with Israel, the Kurds, and the Gulf Cooperation Council states for Iran). Just as important, the more that the Trump administration focuses on thwarting Iran, the less time and attention it will have for countering Russian actions elsewhere.

Thus, while Trump may hope that the prospect of an improved Russian-U.S. relationship will induce Putin to distance himself from Iran, Putin prefers a situation in which both Washington and Tehran seek to propitiate him even if their hostility toward each other increases.

Mark N. Katz is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is grateful to Elinor Hayes and Kaelyn Vitale, who are both undergraduates at George Mason University, for their research assistance.