A piece in the Wall Street Journal not too long ago indicated that the Trump White House is grappling with a thorny foreign policy dilemma – namely, how to disrupt the strong bond between Russia and Iran. One can safely bet, however, that this objective is unattainable for the foreseeable future.
For Washington to achieve such a diplomatic goal, it would need to offer one of the two allies – most likely Russia – incentives that would make it worthwhile for it to forsake the other. Even assuming that Washington is eager to pursue such an option, there is nothing American officials can put forth that would be sufficient for Russia to abandon Iran.
Conversely, trying to approach the dilemma from the other angle, i.e. Iran, would be a very tall mountain to climb: any effort to foster rapprochement with Iran would face strong internal opposition and be categorically opposed by America’s Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia.
There is no question that Russia’s close ties to Iran have deeply complicated the American approach in the Middle East. Russia and Iran have been cooperating in shoring up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with military and strategic support, and their involvement has been crucial in foiling American attempts to instill a new order in Syria.
As far as Syria is concerned, it is obvious that the United States has nothing to offer Russia to encourage Moscow to change its current course. This means that Washington would have to look beyond Syria to come up with the chips needed to make a deal. But where US officials might find such incentives remains unclear. Even an offer to recognize Russia’s takeover of Crimea – the annexation of which by Moscow in 2014 led to the introduction of economic sanctions by Washington – would at this point have very limited appeal for Moscow. After all, the process of Crimea’s integration into Russia has proceeded apace with no regard for Western opposition, and the Russian economy has continued to adjust to the sanctions.
In returning to the idea of trying to fracture the Russia-Iran partnership, the Trump administration finds itself wrestling with a dilemma that has stumped US foreign policy for over a decade. One previous unsuccessful attempt to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran was the abortive effort to secure Iranian participation in the ill-fated Nabucco natural gas pipeline. Several top American officials openly suggested such cooperation could forge a path to renewed engagement with Tehran. Yet this proposal quickly ran into significant domestic and foreign barriers, before the entire Nabucco project stalled.
Today, in dealing with either side of the Russia-Iran partnership, even weak leverage of this kind would be impossible for Washington to find. A clear illustration of America’s lack of influence has been its effective exclusion from multilateral negotiations on Syria that have taken place in Kazakhstan. Those talks have been dominated by Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
Rather than try to disrupt the Russia-Iran partnership, therefore, the United States may have to acknowledge there is a new reality of Middle Eastern politics, with corresponding repercussions for Syria and beyond.
Nikolay Pakhomov is an analyst focused on Eurasian affairs, and is president of the New York Consulting Bureau.