Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reunited with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow for a high-profile visit Tuesday that was clearly meant to telegraph to the world — and the United States in particular — that the strategic alliance between Iran and Russia is stronger than ever. After all, as Putin put it, the relationship stretches back 500 years. But neither Putin nor Rouhani has forgotten the intense bouts of geopolitical competition between the two powers over those five centuries. That underlying distrust could be felt this week even as the leaders worked to deepen their ties.
The Russia-Iran alliance that has endured in the more recent past has rested on two key assumptions: that U.S.-Iran hostilities will persist, compelling Iran to find a strategic ally to balance against the West; and that Russia's standoff with the West will continue, driving Moscow to develop additional levers in the Middle East to use in bargaining with the United States. These assumptions have been challenged in recent years. A U.S. push under President Barack Obama to strike a nuclear accord with Tehran and substantially lower the potential for a military conflict disrupted Russia's strategy to play spoiler in this particular theater. Russian threats to sell Iran advanced air defense systems, for example, carried a lot more punch when the U.S. military was consumed with contingency planning to contain Iran's nuclear program.
At the same time, Iran has long lived with the fear that Russia could sacrifice it to secure a broader bargain with Washington. Moscow is not particularly interested in dealing with a nuclear Iran in its periphery, nor is it interested in seeing significant Iranian encroachment on Russia's share of European and Asian energy markets. Iran has the second-largest natural gas reserves in the world, and a large pipeline system carrying Iranian natural gas to Europe would critically threaten Russia's energy clout there.
But — for now, at least — the Russia-Iran partnership remains intact. The intensification of the Syrian civil war has only increased Iran's dependence on Russian support. Meanwhile, the U.S. presidential transition from Obama to Donald Trump, who is backed by a Republican Congress, is sustaining enough tension in the U.S.-Iran relationship to keep Russia relevant in the Iranian sphere. At the same time, it is also creating enough complications in Washington to prevent a broader U.S.-Russia rapprochement that would leave Iran vulnerable.
And the factors undergirding the Russia-Iran alliance are only strengthening with time. As we forecast when Trump first entered the White House, the Iran nuclear deal would remain intact even though it was likely to come under strain from Iran's continued ballistic missile testing. (Iran is supposed to "refrain" from such testing, according to a U.N. Security Council resolution, but is not legally obliged to do so under the nuclear accord.) A potential political shift in Iran, where Rouhani faces a fight in the presidential election in May, will also be an important factor in preserving the nuclear accord.
The U.S. administration has had a chance to take stock of its multiple foreign policy challenges and is wary of adding a serious escalation with Iran to the mix.
In fact, multiple statements out of the White House in recent weeks have signaled that the United States does not intend to "blow up" the deal, as Trump threatened during his campaign, but instead would focus on enforcing its provisions. Even Israel's ability to lobby the White House to revisit certain aspects of the nuclear deal appears to have been muted for now. The U.S. administration has had a chance to take stock of its multiple foreign policy challenges and is wary of adding a serious escalation with Iran to the mix.
Instead, both sides are engaged in mostly symbolic moves to cater to more hard-line elements in their constituencies. The Trump administration, for example, responded to Iran's ballistic missile test in February with sanctions on multiple entities and people linked to the Iranian program. The U.S. State Department on March 21 piled on more sanctions under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act. Then this week, the U.S. Congress put forth legislation aimed at tightening congressional oversight on the country's relationship with Iran and reinforcing sanctions against ballistic missile testing and against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Like Iran's missile tests, these measures fall outside the stipulations of the nuclear accord, enabling the United States to maintain pressure on Iran without jeopardizing the deal just as Iran's security establishment remains steadfast in its efforts to develop the country's conventional military capabilities, including the ballistic missile program. Iran this week issued what it called "reciprocal" sanctions against 15 U.S. companies over their alleged support for Israel and for abetting "terrorism" in the region. The companies, which included truck maker Oshkosh Corp., real estate firm Re/Max Holdings Inc., and defense manufacturers ITT Corp and Raytheon Co., don't have a significant business footprint in Iran anyway.
Even as Iran and the United States ratchet up tensions on the periphery of the deal — taking care to preserve it by not going too far — there are other arenas that will draw Russia and Iran closer. In Yemen, for instance, Iran's military links to Houthi rebels have come under closer U.S. scrutiny in recent weeks. The Pentagon is reportedly requesting that the White House lift an Obama-era ban on military support (specifically, aid in logistics, intelligence and planning) to the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, raising the potential for Washington to get drawn deeper into the proxy battle between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council on Saudi Arabia's doorstep. The more U.S.-Iran frictions heat up over Yemen in the Bab al-Mandab, the more Iran will lean on Russian military and political backing overall for balance against the United States.
In Syria and Lebanon, meanwhile, speculation is growing that Israel could step up military action against Hezbollah while the group is still consumed with the Syrian civil war. Israel's concerns have been growing that the Shiite militant organization has significantly strengthened its capabilities over the course of its fighters' involvement in the civil war. Hezbollah and the IRGC have also been building up a presence in Syrian-government controlled territory along the 1967 cease-fire line in the Golan Heights, creating a wider military front for Israel in a potential confrontation in Syria and Lebanon.
For Iran to adequately defend its positions along Israel's northern frontier, it must have an understanding with Russia, just as Israel must have an understanding with Russia to meet its military objectives in Syria without undue interference. Less than three weeks before Rouhani arrived in Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to Putin (his third in the past 11 months) in an effort to secure such an understanding on intelligence sharing and noninterference from Russia in the Syrian theater as Israel steps up its military operations in the area. Russia's involvement in Syria will remain tactically limited to specific groups and areas of operation while strategically focused on driving at a negotiation with the United States. Despite Iran's efforts to enlist Moscow's cooperation, it will not be able to count on full Russian backing to run interference against Israel as a bigger conflict looms on Israel's northern frontier.