The Russian Mirage in the Middle East

By Tzvi Kahn

Foreign Policy Initiative

November 28, 2016


President-elect Trump has articulated two primary goals in the Middle East: the defeat of radical Islamist terrorism and the abrogation or renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal. At the same time, however, he also seeks to strengthen America’s relationship with Russia, which he has portrayed as a strategic partner that shares U.S. objectives in the region. These views are incompatible. Through its support of the Syrian and Iranian regimes, the Kremlin has fueled the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and facilitated Tehran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions. If the president-elect intends to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East, he must adopt a strategy aimed at combating Moscow’s influence.
The Russian-Iranian Alliance Since the Nuclear Deal
Russian policy in the Middle East is rooted in its desire to project power, reduce Western influence, and undermine American global leadership. Tehran and Moscow seek to combat IS only to the degree that its decline would enable the Assad regime to remain in power, thereby facilitating Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony and the Kremlin’s role as a regional power broker. Russian support for Iran’s military and nuclear infrastructure aims to bolster the Islamist regime’s regional position at the expense of Sunni Arab allies of the United States.
Shared animosity toward America constitutes the glue that binds Moscow and Tehran together, enabling them to transcend religious and ideological differences that would otherwise render them unlikely partners. “America’s long-term plot for the region is to the disadvantage of all nations and countries — particularly Iran and Russia — and therefore, this plot should be foiled in an intelligent way and with closer interactions,” said Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran in November 2015. The Russian leader, in turn, called Iran “a trustworthy and reliable ally in the region and in the world.”
The Russian-Iranian alliance has dramatically intensified in the wake of last year’s nuclear accord. Today, the two countries constitute the Middle East’s most dominant actors.
Military Cooperation
On July 24, 2015, just over a week after the JCPOA’s finalization, Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, visited Moscow — in violation of a U.N. travel ban — for talks concerning Russian intervention in Syria. Two months later, Russian airstrikes in Syria began, inaugurating a bloody new phase in the conflict that Moscow and Tehran disingenuously described as a joint effort to defeat IS. In reality, the intervention has sought to help the Assad regime preserve its grip on power by targeting moderate rebels and providing cover for Iranian troops. In the past year, Tehran even allowed Moscow to use an Iranian airbase to bomb targets in Syria. In April 2016, Suleimani traveled to Russia again for further talks.
In March 2016, Tehran announced that it plans to purchase Sukhoi-30 (Su-30) fighter jets from Russia. Iran’s acquisition of the Su-30, an analogue to the latest versions of the F-15 and F-18, would dramatically strengthen its antiquated air force, which currently lacks the capability to prevail in virtually any conventional conflict. In late 2015, Tehran also expressed interest in buying advanced T-90 tanks from Moscow.
Earlier this month, Moscow stated that it had begun talks with Iran over a $10 billion arms deal that may include the Su-30, the T-90, and other military hardware. If completed, the transactions would directly violate the five-year arms embargo mandated in U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which enshrined the nuclear accord as international law. Strikingly, however, Moscow has openly disputed the plain meaning of the resolution’s text, falsely claiming, in April 2016, that it actually permits the sale of the Su-30. This posture suggests that Russia intends to continue its efforts to acquire illicit weaponry unless Washington takes action to stop it.
Iran’s Nuclear Program
Although Moscow formally opposes Tehran’s acquisition of a bomb, the Kremlin has enabled the advancement and security of the Islamist regime’s nuclear infrastructure. In April 2015, shortly after Tehran and world powers reached a framework agreement that led to the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Moscow announced that it would conclude the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran, thereby enabling the Islamist regime to protect its nuclear facilities from aerial attack. Russia completed the delivery of the system to Iran last month.
In September 2016, Moscow and Tehran began construction on two nuclear power plants in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr pursuant to a contract first signed in 2014. In August 2016, Putin pledged that his nation would continue to aid Iran’s nuclear program even beyond the Bushehr project. “We are going to help our Iranian partners further in carrying out their nuclear program action plan, which will include working with enriched uranium and producing stable isotopes,” he said. The two nations have said they seek to build six more power plants in the coming years.
Moscow has supported Iran’s right to produce ballistic missiles, the key delivery vehicle for a nuclear weapon. When Tehran tested ballistic missiles in late 2015 and early 2016 in defiance of UNSCR 2231, the Kremlin defended its Iranian ally, noting that the U.N. prohibition is non-binding. In November 2015, Russia and Iran reached an agreement on expanding research on dual-use space technology that Tehran could use to develop ballistic missiles.
Russia has opposed U.S. efforts to strengthen the enforcement provisions and transparency of the JCPOA. In February 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report on Tehran’s compliance with the accord that Washington criticized for its omission of key details regarding the regime’s nuclear activities. Moscow disagreed, however, describing it as “an absolutely balanced document.” Subsequent reports in May 2016, September 2016, and November 2016 have omitted the same data.
Similarly, an April 2016 report by the Institute for Science and International Security noted that Russia has weakened, in multiple ways, the Procurement Working Group (PWG) established by the JCPOA to review proposals by individual states to transfer dual-use technologies to Iran that could facilitate its nuclear program. For example, in response to a request from Moscow and Beijing, the PWG exempted items transferred to the Fordow enrichment plant and the Arak heavy water reactor from its purview. Fordow and Arak lie at the heart of the regime’s efforts to develop a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb, respectively.
Over the past year, the Obama administration has largely ignored the burgeoning relationship between Moscow and Tehran, apparently fearful that any meaningful opposition would undermine the viability of the JCPOA. In this respect, President-elect Trump’s stated approach to Russia not only would continue the failed efforts of his predecessor, but would double down on a policy that will further embolden both Russian and Iranian aggression. If the president-elect wishes to reverse the nuclear agreement he rightly lambasted during the campaign, he must prove willing to challenge the key actors who have enabled its worst consequences.