While the Trump administration has been tacitly showing off its willingness to start a new, and a better, phase of relations with Russia, the policy the new administration is chalking out towards the Middle East in general, particularly Iran, is likely to trigger a fresh wave of tension that might make the task of tilling the frozen ground of US-Russia relations a lot harder even for Rex Tillerson. On the one hand, the Trump administration has been vocal about defeating the Islamic State, and on the other hand, it has decided to uphold and execute the Obama administration’s policy of supplying weapons to the “moderate” Sunni groups, including Kurdish militias, and is also determined to establish ‘safe zones’ with Saudi backing despite Russia’s opposition to this policy. This execution has coincided with the rising tension with Iran, potentially signaling the Trump administration’s renewed push towards inserting the US back into the Middle East.
What this multi-faceted policy indicates is the dual nature of objectives the US is currently pursuing. That is, while it may be wanting to improve relations with Russia, it cannot strategically afford to ‘abandon’ the Middle East, give Iran and Russia a free hand to shape its politics and thus leave its own Arab allies in a political quandary where they might find no other option but to look to Russia, allow China a trade route across the Middle East and into Europe and be forced, subsequent to this, to improve relations with Iran too. This objectives pits the US as much against Russia as Iran.
The Trump administration has clearly outlined Iran as a villain in the region. The last Wednesday statement given by the US National security adviser, Michael Flynn, was not only provocative but also said things that indicate a significant downfall in US-Iran bi-lateral relations.
Accusing the Obama administration of following a lacklustre policy towards Iran, Flynn went on to list the ‘crimes’ Iran has been committing and continues to commit. He attributed to Tehran the responsibility for the attacks in recent months by the Houthis of Yemen against Emirati and Saudi naval vessels and the threats to US and allied vessels transiting the Red Sea. Flynn said, “In these and other similar activities, Iran continues to threaten US friends and allies in the region.” Marking a potential end of the so-called era of lacklustre policies, Flynn said, “the days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”
This policy is, however, not limited to containing Iran’s ballistic missile programme, it goes deep into containing Iran’s regional clout that it has quite successfully projected through its military assistance to Syria against both the IS and the US sponsored “moderate” groups. Flynn’s statement suggests that Trump prioritizes the exit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Hezbollah from the Syrian theatre above anything else. There is little doubt that a storm is gathering. Fresh sanctions on Iran is only a small indication of what is to come in the future.
The policy towards Iran is, therefore, fundamentally different from the policy the Trump administration is probably designing towards Russia (read: Trump administration’s resolve to defeat the IS through joint action). Therefore, the key question here is: is the Trump administration looking for dividing the Russia-Iran relations—and if yes, can it do so?
According to a report carried by the Wall Street Journal
“The Trump administration is exploring ways to break Russia’s military and diplomatic alliance with Iran in a bid to both end the Syrian conflict and bolster the fight against Islamic State, said senior administration, European and Arab officials involved in the policy discussions. The emerging strategy seeks to reconcile President Donald Trump’s seemingly contradictory vows to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and to aggressively challenge the military presence of Iran—one of Moscow’s most critical allies—in the Middle East, these officials say.”
The new “divide and rule” strategy is, therefore, likely to sow fresh seeds of tension in the region. This dualism wouldn’t work to the advantage of the US due potentially to the interlinked nature of Russia’s presence in Syria, which has now been extended to almost 50 years, and the nature of Iran-Syria relations. Iran is key to Russia’s long-term presence in Syria just as Syria is key to Iran’s presence in and reach to Israel’s “under-belly” i.e., Lebanon. Separating Russia from Iran is, therefore, a task that is much harder than tilling the frozen-ground of US-Russia relations. In fact, the dual policy is likely to going to add more snow to the frozen ground.
By trying to strike at the core of Russia-Iran relations, the Trump administration is fundamentally trying to reverse the gains both countries have achieved through joint action in Syria. Whereas Iran has been successful in defeating the Arab countries’ hegemonic agenda, Russia has been successful in projecting itself as a reliable, capable and strong military power—something that the US was unable to achieve during the Obama administrations era.
Russia, on the contrary, has achieved a lot. To say the least, the winning of Aleppo is not just winning of Aleppo or winning of Syria. It really confirms Russia’s ability to operate in the Middle East and reach its strategic objectives without resistance. This success has made Russia an ‘essential partner’ for the Iranians, who see in Russian power, in Putin’s posturing, in what the Russians have been able to deliver in Syria , a strategic depth that’s going to protect them against American pressure.
In this context, reversing what has transpired in the last year or so and what has considerably altered the Middle East’s strategic landscape are the cardinal objective of the Trump administration’s policy of “driving a wedge” between Russia and Iran.
While Russia has already stated its disagreement over Flynn’s Iran-comments, underscoring the importance it attaches to Iran as its prime regional ally, what could potentially sink the ‘Trump-Putin relationship’ is the very conflicting type of importance both Russia and the US attach to Iran. Iran is, therefore, a ploy for the US to re-write its rules of engagement in the Middle East, re-define its relations with Russia and re-insert itself as a “reliable” partner of Arab countries. The steps the Trump administration has taken are only going to flame things up and take the US relations with Russia and Iran back to the square one, leaving no-to-minimum space for real joint action against the Islamic State.
Without Iran’s and Russia’s cooperation, the US cannot hope to defeat the IS, leave alone bring stability to Syria. But then, this is predicated on the assumption that a strong, independent, secure and unified Syria is what the Trump administration wants. However, the key question is: What if that isn’t the case? This being not the case, the logic of co-operation with Russia loses its strength and comes down to nothing but a dead end. Hence, the drive towards “driving a wedge.”
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.