Where Is Putin? The Escalating U.S.-Iran Relations and the Russian-Iranian Tango

While the “Leader of the Free World” (the United States) is dealing with allegations of Russia’s meddling into the U.S. 2016 presidential elections and with possible Trump-Russia connections, the self-proclaimed “Leader of the Muslim World” (Iran) is cozying up with U.S.’s foremost global competitor Russia, which is itself seeking political, economic, and military hegemony.

In his March 21, 2017, Nawruz address, Supreme Leader Khamenei seemed to openly instruct Iranian leaders that the Islamic Republic must return to the era of pre-JCPOA and make considerable advances in science and technology. This meant even increasing uranium enrichment from 3.4 percent to 20 percent. Khamenei called for “taking steps toward manufacturing modern tools for production.” For the Supreme Leader, scientific progress (pishraft-i ‘elmi), robust economy (eqtesad-i qavi), and strong management (modiriyat-i qavi) are the key requisites for obtaining greater national authority (ezat-i melli), national security (amniyat-i melli), national power (eqtedar-i melli) and national progress (pishraft-i melli). The employment of these three key rudiments will become basis for strong national production (tolid-i qavi-ye dakheli) and lead to the prosperity of the country. Hence, the Leader called for further cooperation between scientists, government agencies, and universities.

Rouhani’s government immediately took action and went to work. On March 27th, during his first cabinet meeting in the Iranian New Year, Rouhani instructed all branches of the government, institutions, and armed forces to work together to ensure that the policies of Resistance Economy are implemented in order to boost domestic production and job creation. “Achieving double-digit economic growth, single-digit inflation, and creating 700,000 jobs has been unprecedented. The young people who graduated from universities create great opportunities for the country. The government’s economic team will create positive employment growth with more cooperation aimed at economic vitality,” stated the president.

On the same day, Rouhani departed Iran for Russia for a two-day visit with hopes of deepening Tehran-Moscow relations. He affirmed that it is Tehran’s intentions to develop good ties and a multilateral cooperation with Moscow. 

Tense Week in U.S.-Iran Relations

While all of these events were unfolding, U.S.-Iran relations took a new turn as tensions began mounting between Tehran and Washington.

Several critical events occurred on March 21, 2017.

During his Nawruz address, Khamenei set a new tone for the nation as he called Iranians to move toward greater political, economic, and military might.

In the Persian Gulf tensions escalated between American and Iranian Navy vessels. United States Navy commanders reported that American warships headed for the Arabian Gulf were “harassed” by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz. According to the commanders, the Iranian fast-attack boats came as close as 950 yards (870 meters) from the USS George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier all while their weapons were exposed. Commanding Officer Captain Will Pennington reported that “The incident ended without a shot being fired, and the vessels continued on their way to the northern part of the Gulf to participate in U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.” He condemned “the behavior of Iran’s navy,” accusing Iranians of becoming “more aggressive and less predictable.” This incident occurred less than three weeks after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps accused a “U.S. Navy ship of changing course toward Iranian vessels in the Strait of Hormuz.” Tehran accused Washington of “unprofessional action,” warning the United States that this could have “irreversible consequences.”

In response, the United States imposed sanctions on eleven companies and individuals operating in North Korea, China, and the United Arab Emirates—all of whom the U.S. accuses of transferring technology to Iran in support of its ballistic missile program. “These sanctions exemplify the U.S. government’s continued commitment to nonproliferation and the promotion of global stability and security. The imposition of sanctions against these eleven foreign entities is a continuation of our commitment to hold Iran accountable for its actions,” stated State Department’s March 24, 2017 report. The report further detailed that the United States has imposed sanctions on “30 foreign entities and individuals in 10 countries pursuant to the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA).” Washington claimed that “Iran’s proliferation of missile technology significantly contributes to regional tensions.” The U.S. is committed “to taking steps to address Iran’s missile development and production and sanction entities and individuals involved in supporting these programs under U.S. law.” On the same day, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a new Iran sanctions bill called, Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017, “to impose sanctions with respect to Iran in relation to Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for acts of international terrorism, and violations of human rights.”

In response, on March 26th, Iran’s Foreign Ministry announced that Tehran had imposed sanctions on 15 American companies involved in supporting “Israel’s development of Zionist settlements on the Palestinian soil against the Resolution 2334 adopted by the United Nations Security Council urging Tel Aviv to stop construction of new settlements.” In a statement, the Foreign Ministry stated:

The Islamic Republic of Iran condemns the recent measure taken by the United States administration to impose one-sided extraterritorial sanctions against Iranian and non-Iranian individuals and institutions. Imposition of new sanctions by the U.S. is based on fabricated and illegitimate pretexts and amount to an action against the international regulations as well as the word and spirit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Hereby, the Islamic Republic repeats and insists that strengthening and enhancement of the country’s defense capabilities, including boosting Iran’s missile defense power remains to be certain and inevitable in a bid to safeguard the country’s right to defend itself against any foreign aggression and build up its deterrence power against threats. The Islamic Republic of Iran accepts no restrictions imposed against its efforts to protect its dignity, territorial integrity, and security of the people.

On March 28th, Zarif warned the U.S. against extending Iran Sanctions Act (ISA). These warnings were sent in December 2016 as U.S. Senate voted to extend ISA for 10 years. “To the world community, the extension of sanctions against Iran shows the unreliability of the American government. America is acting against its commitment,” stated Zarif during his state visit to India.

Speculation has been that since February, President Trump’s administration has been considering a proposal that could potentially lead to designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Corps—the military arm with longstanding ties to Hezbollah—as a terrorist organization. In response, Tehran has pledged to consider a bill designating both the U.S. military and the CIA as terrorist organizations. In an interview with Mehr News Agency, Iranian lawmaker Allaeddin Boroujerdi, who leads the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, stated: “The U.S. military has become a de facto supporter of terrorist groups who are killing the innocent people of the region to put into practice the secret operation of the U.S. and U.S. intelligence organizations in the region. The Intelligence Organization of the U.S. and the U.S. Army are full-fledged state terrorist organizations.”

Iranian-Russian Warming Relations

On March 21st, the U.S. State Department announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will skip attending NATO foreign ministers meeting in April and will instead will travel to Russia to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is at the center of this most controversial U.S.-Russia-Iran triangle.

Less than a week later, on Monday, March 27th, Iranian President Rouhani made his first state visit to Moscow to meet President Putin. During this two-day visit, Tehran and Moscow signed 14 documents for the expansion of cooperation in various political, economic, scientific, military, cultural, judicial, and legal fields. Meanwhile, high-ranking politico-economic delegations composed of entrepreneurs and businesspeople from both sides signed agreements to boost economic cooperation between the two countries’ private sectors. “The two countries also signed other documents in the field of ICT, mining, railroad construction, extradition of criminals, nuclear energy, electricity, export, and tourism.”

During their March 28th news conference, the two leaders affirmed that Tehran-Moscow relations have entered into a new phase of sustainable and long-term relations. President Rouhani stated: “Iran-Russia relations are developing in all fields, which is beneficial to both nations and also the region.” This included cooperation between the two countries in combatting terrorism and regional stability. “Our ultimate goal is to contribute to peace and stability in the region. [Our] bilateral relations will not be detrimental to any other country,” affirmed Rouhani.

Vladimir Putin asserted: “We are determined to develop ties with Iran in all fields. Russia considers the Islamic Republic of Iran a good and trustworthy partner. In the field of international issues and resolving them, the two countries have very good and fruitful cooperation and will accelerate this cooperation.” Putin expressed satisfaction over good economic ties between the two nations that has resulted in 70% growth in tourism. 

In Iran, Foreign Minister Zarif confirmed further military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, stating that Russia can use Iranian military bases “on a case by case basis” for military strikes against terrorist targets in Syria. “Russia doesn’t have a military base [in Iran], we have good cooperation, and on a case by case basis, when it is necessary for Russians fighting terrorism to use Iranian facilities, we will make a decision.” This is not the first time Russia conducted military operations from Iranian bases. In August 2016, Moscow used the Hamadan Airbase to deploy long-range strategic bombers and launch attacks against militants in Syria. Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council told Mehr news agency: “Iran and Russia cooperate in Syria not in single cases, but the coordination is comprehensive, embracing different aspects; accordingly, Iran’s airspace welcomes Russian fighter jets in case they seek to hit terrorist targets in Syria.”

At the conclusion of his visit, Rouhani received an honorary doctorate from Moscow State University. During the ceremony, Viktor Sadovnichiy, the Chancellor of the Moscow State University stated that “the title was awarded because of President Rouhani’s efforts in boosting academic relations between the two countries.”

Implications for the United States

It is clear that neither U.S.-Russia nor U.S.-Iran policies are working well at this time. Tensions are high between U.S. and the two Eastern countries, and Putin is enjoying this political game in this vicious U.S.-Russia-Iran triangle. For the time being, Russia seems to be winning the growing hegemonic war with the United States.

Is Russia Iran’s new friend? Not necessarily. It is no secret that Russia is clearly pursuing global hegemony, especially at a time when Putin perceives the U.S. government as vulnerable and lethally divided. While Americans have placed their full focus on sorting out their government’s alleged ties to Russia, Putin has turned his focus to creating alliances with the most controversial country in the region, one reputed among its global foes and friends as a growing regional power.

In this contentious Trump-Khamenei growing Cold War, Iran cozying up with Putin is only in Russia’s best interests. Despite Khamenei’s isolationist foreign policy of “Neither East, Nor West,” the “East” or Russia seems to have always been the first major power Iran turned to in order to increase its hegemonic power and at the same time counter any U.S. economic or military threats. For example, Russia was the first member of P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) that began negotiating a $10 billion arms deal with Iran in November 2015—only four months after signing the final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This included Tehran’s commitment to purchase Russian-made aircraft, tanks, and artillery. Under the 2015 nuclear agreement, the UN arms embargo on Iran is scheduled to be lifted in October 2020. Prior to that date, “all sales of offensive weapons systems to Iran will have to be approved by the UN Security Council.” Viktor Ozerov, the chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s defense and security committee stated: “There’s been no such request so far, but work on such issues is in progress. If the United States and Europe fail to grant permission, then we will get back to this issue in October 2020, when the formal legal aspect of this will be gone.”

In this recent Russian-Iranian tango, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has a lot of convincing to do when he meets Vladimir Putin in April, as to why his Russian counterpart should abandon his regional and global ambitions and instead support the U.S. agenda in the Middle East, including the most critical regional issues: fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Iran’s nuclear program, and supporting the U.S. in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

For the time being, Russia and Iran seem to be strong allies sharing common interests. They both are seeking to counter U.S. influence in the region while increasing their economic, political, and military power. Since the outbreak of war in Syria, Moscow and Tehran have been fighting on the same side in support of Assad’s regime. This mission will most likely not change. Russia has an economic, political, and military agenda that is being realized vis-à-vis Iran. The growth of terrorism, rise of ISIS, increase in migration and refugees have crippled most of the European countries. Americans are divided, and the administration is still formulating its alliances with its European partners. For now, Putin is enjoying the growing strength of the East, while the stronghold of the West seems to be dwindling.

As to Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian leadership seem to be confident that they can once again counter U.S. opposition and move forward with national resilience. While Iran is rich in terms of natural resources, Supreme Leader Khamenei sees the true Iranian wealth in its “33-million-strong young workforce that seeks jobs, among whom are engineering experts and people with academic education, [that] could supply the necessary manpower for production.” What Khamenei is implying here is the military power that rests in Iran’s young population. Should the Islamic Republic face military confrontations, the regime is equipped with a substantial number of young people who can join the Basij Resistance Force—the volunteer paramilitary organization operating under the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. 

Established in April of 1980, the “people’s militia,” is composed of Iranian citizens ready and able to engage in the armed defense of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In November 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, sent out a decree calling for the creation of a “twenty-million-man army.” This militant Islamic organization played a critical role in supporting the Islamic Republic in the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War. While it is difficult to estimate the accurate number of Basij forces, Iranian officials often claim over 15 million members. Today, 70 percent of Iran’s 82 million population is between the ages of 15 and 64—ages thus suitable for men and women to join Basij forces should Iran face a military confrontation. “The reason why hegemonic powers, especially America, have always had a covetous eye on Iran is these natural and human riches, but they will certainly take to the grave their wish to once again dominate Iran,” warned Khamenei during his March 21st speech.

Trump’s administration was not short of a response to Iran.

In his address to AIPAC on March 27, 2017, Vice President Mike Pence stated:

America will no longer tolerate Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region and jeopardize Israel’s security. The ayatollahs in Tehran openly admit their desire to wipe Israel off the map and drive its people into the sea. For decades, Iran has funneled weapons and cash to terrorists in Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip. They’ve gone to great lengths to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Due to the disastrous end of nuclear-related sanctions under the Iran deal, they now have additional resources to devote to sowing chaos and imperiling Israel. So, let me be clear, under President Donald Trump, the United States of America will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. This is our solemn promise to you, to Israel, and to the world.

Following Pence’s comments, on March 29th, Gen. Joseph Votel, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, testified before the House Armed Services Committee about the security challenges facing his area of responsibility, and Iran was his primary focus. He argued for military action against Iran’s “destabilizing role” in the region, stating:

Iran poses the most significant threat to the Central Region and to our national interests and the interests of our partners and allies. We have not seen any improvement in Iran’s behavior since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), [which] addressed Iran’s nuclear program, [and] was finalized in July 2015.

It sounds like history is repeating itself. We have once again gone back to the hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s era. Perhaps we will see the 2005 presidential elections repeated in Iran, but this time a presidential candidate who is selected from a conservative pool and will uphold Islamic Revolutionary values. Dreading U.S. economic and military threats, it is likely that the majority of Iranians may unite in support of the regime and rely on the ayatollahs to protect them. If so, they may be willing to support Khamenei’s desired candidate versus the moderate President Rouhani. Should this occur, we may witness the end of moderates in Iran for the next two to three decades. In that case, Iran’s nuclear program will once again become a challenge for U.S. and Israel.

Then perhaps Putin’s newly-brokered cooperation with the Islamic Republic may have saved President Rouhani from the retaliation of hardliners and conservative elites in Iran. If Rouhani succeeds in his partnership with Moscow, he may be able to save his presidency and be on his pathway to re-election. In that case, the U.S. can be confident that the moderate voices in Iran will be dominating the political rhetoric in Iran for a season.

However, the newly-formed strategic alliance between Moscow and Tehran has only complicated U.S. policy toward both Eastern countries. Perhaps Putin has now made a military operation against Iran nearly impossible. 

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