Iran Plays the Russia Card

In the midst of the new US war on terrorism (ISIS), the Iranian nuclear negotiations are now in jeopardy of taking a distinctly more ominous turn. Tehran appears to be exercising a double game when it comes to the Americans. The Iranians are certainly willing to cooperate in Washington’s anti-ISIS endeavors when it comes to Iraq and Syria. But that cooperation will come with a nuclear price tag. Absent a US assent to such overt (or even covert) partnership, the Iranians have been looking toward Moscow for succor. The breakdown in US-Russia relations has not gone unnoticed in the hard-line circles of Tehran.

Lately, the Iranians have hardened their position with regard to the nuclear negotiations. Instead of the so-called flexibility that Secretary of State John Kerry thought his Iranian counterpart had displayed in July, now — as the talks are scheduled to reconvene — events in the region and the Ukraine have added another level of complexity to the mix. With Washington threatening airstrikes against Syrian ISIS targets without Assad’s approval, Russia has reacted strongly to any unilateral US approach in Syria. Meanwhile, a new sanctions regime directed by the US and EU toward Moscow’s actions in eastern Europe, along with the Russian response, have begun to erode the strict sanction measures against Iran. For the first time, the solidarity that the UN Security Council and the P5+1 have exhibited over the years has begun to erode.

Iran and Russia are on the verge of a sanction-busting trade deal. For the hardliners in Tehran, this is brilliant news. For President Putin of Russia, he probably feels he has little choice. NATO expansion into eastern Europe was bad enough; the possibility of the Ukraine in the EU (or worse, NATO) is a red line that he simply will not tolerate. As the West backed Russia into a corner, Iran decided to test the waters. Within the last two days, an agreement was signed in Tehran that has the potential of a ten-fold increase in trade within the short time-frame of a mere two years. With Russian cooperation in place, could China be next? And if the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes, what would that do to an Iranian response to the P5+1 nuclear negotiations?

Meanwhile, the Obama game plan against ISIS has engendered only tepid support among America’s Sunni state allies. Jordan’s response was incomprehensible. It blamed the rise of ISIS on the US failure to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Jordan’s preferred solution to the conflict is a complete Israeli withdrawal from the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, in addition to a complete Palestinian refugee return to Israel within the green line. With such an analysis, is it any wonder that Jordan’s fear of events in Syria has brought about its failure to act? The other Sunni states of the region are equally hesitant. Only Syria and Iran (the two Shiite powers) have given the Obama plan any serious vocal support. But for Washington, Shiite support is a dead end. For Obama’s anti-ISIS plan to work, it must NOT produce a regional imbalance favoring the so-called Shiite crescent (so named by Jordan’s King Abdullah).

Enter the final stages of the Iran nuclear negotiations. For Iran to have now played its Russian trade card shows that it understands the global nature of the game being played. But there is more, a lot more. In Iraq, the US has official government approval to attack ISIS. However, Syria is a whole different matter. The US has painted itself into a corner. If it attacks ISIS in Syria, it only weakens the resistance against Assad. But if it also attacks Assad’s forces (as many Sunnis in the region would like), it risks a serious Russian response. Either way, just the bombing action itself (without even hitting Assad) risks Moscow’s ire and near-certain response. This takes us back all the way to the spring of 2013. Remember Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sudden and surprise visit to Moscow? At that time, the PM was extremely concerned that the Russians would supply Assad with the S-300 air-defense missile system. The last thing Israel needed at that time was for such a system to fall into Hezbollah or Assad’s hands.

The same is very much true today. With Iran toughening its nuclear negotiating position and with potential sanction-busting trade deals, Israel can ill afford a deeper split in US-Russian relations. But this is the path the Jewish state and its American ally are now on. If Bibi were to go talk to Putin today, the conversation would be much more intense. Putin would expect Israel to offer a regional alternative to US unilateralism in Syria. For that matter, he would expect the same in order to maintain the Iran sanctions regime. But Israel doesn’t have a regional plan that it could offer Moscow as an incentive to push forward toward a political solution in Syria (another more serious round at Geneva). Moscow has its allies in the Middle East — Iran and Assad — and it would take an extremely attractive diplomatic offer to dislodge President Putin from aiding them in any way possible. This certainly includes both trade and S-300s.

If the Iran nuclear negotiations fail, and the international sanctions regime against Tehran crumbles, what would the cautious PM Netanyahu do then? An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities seems less likely. On the other hand, an American attack (under this president) is completely out of the question. Iran and Russia are playing hardball. Russia’s concern about NATO’s attempt at encirclement is real. China feels the same way toward American policy. Iran has felt that all along. The regional dynamic of the Middle East has now entered a far more global phase. ISIS is certainly a terrorist threat to the US, but Russia, Iran and China are playing for much bigger stakes. If anything, President Obama might decide that an Iranian rapprochement — and a nuclear deal much more to Iran’s liking — is a better way to isolate the Russians and the Chinese. Iranian oil and gas going to Europe would certainly not be in Moscow’s interest.

Perhaps Iran’s Russia card might be a ploy. A kind of insurance policy so that in the very long run its nuclear enrichment program will remain more than a token. With such a deal, all sanctions against Iran would be lifted. In other words, the Russian card may be a way of pressuring Washington to achieve a sweetheart deal. If this is the case, however, Obama’s ISIS intervention works against such a ploy. The US is in enough trouble with its Sunni allies and Israel, without the added prospect of the appearance of such a sweet nuclear endgame. For the Sunni world, to accept an American air campaign against Sunni-controlled territory will require a strong measure of military balance toward Iran. Assad cannot be allowed to benefit from Obama’s war on ISIS. Similarly, everyone in the region will be looking to the conclusion of the Iran nuclear negotiation as an example of total regional security. This must include both nuclear and conventional potential. It will require a distinct roll-back of Iran’s position in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as well as a nuclear conclusion that America’s allies can believe in. If the perception is different, nuclear proliferation will be the most likely outcome.

A nuclear Middle East is the nightmare everyone wants to avoid. But without an alternative to the present course, the likelihood of such a catastrophe is high. So too could be the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Bibi, when backed into a corner, might throw caution to the wind. So, without much closer UN Security Council relations, a regional Muslim war has the potential to morph into something much greater. The US is playing a very dangerous game by trying to isolate Russia in Europe. This American action has now spilled into the Middle East. A total regional solution within the context of a new global paradigm is the only way forward. Russia, China and the US must work with a renewed spirit of cooperation. This is true across the board — in Asia, in Europe, and especially the Middle East. Time is running out for everyone.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).