Foreign Policy Essay

Two Is Company, Three Is a Crowd: The Iran Factor in the Changing U.S.-Russia Relationship

By Darya Dolzikova
Sunday, March 12, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: President Trump came into office seemingly determined to improve U.S.-Russia relations, with fighting the Islamic State high on the mutual agenda. Standing in the way of better cooperation, however, is Iran: a top foe in Trump's eyes, and an ally in Putin's. Darya Dolzikova of Georgetown University argues that the Trump administration can wean Russia away from Iranbut it must do so carefully, and a full break is not likely.


If there is any confusion about the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda, Washington-watchers can at least count on one certainty: Trump seems to have a real, though complicated, affinity for Russia. What that actually means or how it translates into the White House’s policy towards Moscow is less clear. It is safe to assume, though, that improving relations with the Kremlin is a priority for the new administration. As President Trump noted in a February press conference, “It would be great if we got along with Russia.”

The administration seems less enthused, however, with the company that Moscow keeps–Iran, in particular. President Trump has strongly criticized the Iran nuclear deal, instated a new round of sanctions on the Islamic Republic, and placed Tehran “on notice” over the country’s recent alleged missile tests. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a moderate in the ranks of the Trump administration, has struck a milder tone on the nuclear deal but has also expressed concerns about Tehran’s support of terrorism and has noted that it “does no good to ignore” or dismiss Iran’s aggressive behavior.

This puts Washington starkly at odds with Moscow on the issue of Iran, and the country is likely to become a sticking point in the changing relationship between the United States and Russia. In response to Trump’s assertion in a Fox News interview that Iran is “the number one terrorist” nation, Moscow responded with a defense of the Islamic Republic, stressing its “friendly” relations with Tehran and the importance of involving Iran in the resolution of the Syrian conflict. Russia’s operations in Syria are closely interwoven with those of Iran; the two countries share intelligence and military bases, support each other’s operations, and conduct joint counterterrorism training, all with the declared goal of fighting Islamic State—though more moderate rebel groups often wind up in Iran and Russia’s crosshairs. In the same Fox News interview, Trump noted that he would appreciate Russia’s help fighting the Islamic State. That is one tough circle to square. If the Trump administration continues down this path, it will require some skillful maneuvering to cooperate on counterterrorism efforts with Russia while condemning Moscow’s main ally for being the leading state-supporter of terrorism. Congressional Republicans, already wary of Trump’s awkward appreciation of the Kremlin, will look for any opportunity to force the president to take a tougher stance on Moscow; Russia’s partnership with Iran will be an easy target.

The Trump administration will have to walk a thin line between bringing Moscow back into the fold and alienating it and pushing it into an even closer relationship with the Islamic Republic.

There will be little patience for Iran sympathizers in the Trump White House or on the Hill, and Washington expects Moscow to prove that it is ready to leave Iran behind if it wants to come back in from the cold. But the Russians have never been ones to fear the cold and Washington can expect considerable resistance if it chooses to push the issue of Russia’s association with Iran too hard. The Trump administration will have to walk a thin line between bringing Moscow back into the fold and alienating it and pushing it into an even closer relationship with the Islamic Republic. How successful it is in this will depend on knowing which buttons to push and which are better left alone.

Weighing the Odds

For Russia, the possibility of resetting relations with the United States is surely a welcome opportunity after years of economic and diplomatic ostracization under the Obama administration. Reports of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential race to support the election of Donald Trump point to the extent of Moscow’s eagerness to see a White House open to reengaging with Russia. The removal of U.S. sanctions and a return to the international stage as a legitimate and influential power alongside the United States are tempting propositions for the Kremlin, and for President Putin in particular. Economic hardship and international isolation are hardly the foundations of a winning presidential platform for the upcoming 2018 elections or a successful strategy for placating oligarchs.

But Russia’s eagerness to renew friendly relations with Washington should not be overestimated. Moscow has already shown its readiness to test the new administration and may be hesitant to trade in old friends for new(ish) ones. Russia has engaged in a strategic reassessment over the last several years, prompted by its isolation from Western markets and diplomatic circles, the loss of Muammar Gaddafi, its on-again, off-again partner in Libya, and the ongoing threat to its ally in Syria. These challenges forced Russia to look for partners where it still could. Iran was a natural choice: a regional neighbor and a Middle Eastern power, a fellow outcast of the Western liberal order, and a lucrative market for infrastructure investment, arms, and nuclear technology—especially since the lifting of international nuclear-related sanctions.

Today, the two countries are cooperating closely in Syria, where they share the same operational, if not strategic, goals. Tehran is Moscow’s last-remaining stable ally in the Middle East and an important partner for managing issues of mutual concern in the Caucasus, even where their interests do not completely align, such as the status of the Caspian Sea or the ongoing territorial dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh. Iran is also an important economic partner for Russia. Moscow has made important investments in Iran’s energy and transportation sectors, and the two are cooperating on the development of the North-South International Transport Corridor—a major trade route expected to deliver a serious economic boost to the Caucasus region. Tehran and Moscow have arranged for the financing of bilateral trade in local currencies and negotiations are ongoing for a preferential trade agreement between the two countries. Iran is also an important market for Russian arms sales. Finally, the two countries share a similar outlook on the nature of the international system, the supremacy of state sovereignty, and the imperialism of the United States and Western liberalism more generally; both recognize that they stand to benefit from a more decentralized, competitive world—what Russian Minister Sergey Lavrov has called a “polycentric” global order. Now, with the opportunity to come back into the fold of legitimate world powers, Moscow will be placed in the awkward position of having to choose between Washington and Tehran.

The economic and diplomatic resources that Moscow has invested into its relationship with Iran thus far, as well as the deep historical and cultural ties that the two nations share, will surely give Kremlin officials pause as they consider changing alliances. More importantly, Russia sees in Iran a manageable partner. As the economically and militarily more powerful of the two, Russia can afford to dictate the terms of the partnership and to settle disagreements largely on its own terms. With the United States, however, Russia would be entering into an unequal relationship skewed very much in favor of Washington. Moscow has expressed such grievances about Washington for years, claiming that the United States has been imposing its Western liberal order on regions of the world that want no part of it, that Washington has taken advantage of Russian willingness to go along just to get along, and that U.S. arrogance and attempts at global hegemony need to be checked. At the 2017 Munich Security Conference, Lavrov made exactly that point, noting, “The U.S. cannot be the only power. We need to set up constructive U.S.-Russia relations, economic and political cooperation. We don't want Russia to be seen as less important. We want mutual respect to recognize the global needs." Moscow certainly understands that trading in its relationship with Iran to align with what it sees as an aggressively imperialistic Washington would have its costs.

Picking the Right Battles

Despite these considerations, weaning Moscow off its particularly warm ties with Tehran is not an impossible task. The partnership between Moscow and Tehran is far more opportunistic than it is strategic and the key for Washington will lie in identifying the soft spots where it can drive a wedge between the two. If Trump is determined to reset relations with Russia, he will have to avoid making Moscow feel like it has to choose between the United States and Iran; there is little guarantee that the United States will win that bet. And that will mean making some trade-offs in U.S. policy towards Iran.

The partnership between Moscow and Tehran is far more opportunistic than it is strategic and the key for Washington will lie in identifying the soft spots where it can drive a wedge between the two.

For starters, the Iran nuclear deal cannot be made the litmus test for loyalty to Washington, as has been suggested by some in the Trump administration. Moscow is highly unlikely to support a withdrawal from or major amendments to the deal; pushing the Kremlin on that front would be counterproductive. Russia has significantly benefited from the lifting of international sanctions on the Iranian economy, signing numerous infrastructure and trade deals with Tehran, and will not be easily persuaded to give up that lucrative market. The European Union will also resist policies that would risk its access to the Iranian market, and if the Europeans cannot be expected to play ball with Trump on the issue, then certainly neither will Moscow. Forcing Russia to show its commitment to Washington by pronouncing itself against the Iran deal would only prove to Moscow that the White House will not take Russian interests into consideration, and would serve to push the Kremlin further from Washington and closer to Tehran.

One potential issue with some room for cooperation and trust-building between Washington and Moscow, as well as an opportunity to gradually start pulling Russia away from Iran, is Syria. While Russia and Iran are working closely in the conflict—both on the battlefield and in the negotiating room with Turkey—the two countries don’t entirely agree on their strategic goals. Moscow has demonstrated a willingness to break away from Iran on key issues, including the future leadership of the country and the role that the United States should play in the settlement of the conflict. As such, Syria may offer fertile ground for a confidence-building exercise with Russia, challenging Moscow to demonstrate flexibility, restraint, and a consideration for U.S. concerns in the region, likely at the expense of some Iranian interests.

The exact nature of Russia-U.S. cooperation in Syria is less clear; Russian disregard for civilian casualties and fundamental incongruences in Moscow’s and Washington’s visions for Syria’s future should cause concern about aligning too closely with Russia. However, both Russian and U.S. input will be critical for a sustainable resolution of the conflict and President Trump has repeatedly expressed his determination to cooperate with Moscow in the region. Some potential starting points for cooperation could include a Russian commitment to end attacks on moderate Syrian opposition forces, a renewal of U.S.-Russia peace talks on the crisis, the establishment of safe zones curated by the two countries, or even some arrangement for a transition of power in Damascus. Some analysts have suggested that Moscow, unlike Iran, may be amenable to replacing Assad, as long as the regime put in place is favorable to Russian interests in the region and allows it to preserve its military bases in the country. This may leave some room for negotiating end objectives that would be acceptable to both Moscow and Washington, but may force Russia to show a willingness to go against Iranian interests.

Alternatively, Russia, Iran, and Turkey may consider splitting Syria into zones of influence, with Assad remaining as president for the near future. Moscow’s support of such a scenario would admittedly be difficult for Washington to swallow and would make the prospect of cooperation in Syria remote. However, such a power-sharing arrangement may in and of itself produce tensions between Moscow and Tehran which Washington could choose to exploit.

Such preliminary attempts at finding a joint approach to the crisis in Syria will be far more effective for the rebuilding of trust and cordial diplomatic relations than demands for dramatic gestures of Russian loyalty that Moscow is unlikely to give. Russia cannot be expected to abandon its major interests in the conflict or completely neglect its Iranian ally in Syria or other aspects of the Russo-Iranian relationship. But by focusing instances of misalignment between the objectives of the two countries, Washington can exploit these openings by presenting Russia with opportunities to demonstrate its readiness to take U.S. interests into account and improve its relations with the United States without forcing Moscow to completely turn its back on Tehran.

Setting a Clear Course

In the end, navigating a relationship as complex as the one between the United States and Russia is bound to be fraught. Whether Trump decides to strengthen ties with Moscow or, like his predecessor, decides that such a partnership is fundamentally irreconcilable with U.S. values and interests, he will be navigating challenging diplomatic territory. Either way, learning to pick his battles and fighting them smartly will be critical. Setting clear and coherent foreign-policy priorities is the first step in that fight. The sooner the administration can settle what the guiding principles of U.S. policy on the international stage will be over the next four years, the sooner it can start evaluating the trade-offs that a rapprochement with Moscow will necessitate and whether it is ready to make those concessions.