Russian military jets are seen at Hmeymim air base in Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS/VADIM SAVITSKY/RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY VIA REUTERS)
Having left the Iran nuclear deal in early May, the Trump administration’s Iranian policy is taking shape. On May 22, in comments at the Heritage Foundation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated that the US is already re-imposing harsh sanctions against Iran and has demanded that it leave Syria. Just a few days ago, he confirmed that a Russia-US summit is on the horizon.
Ties between Washington and Moscow are currently frayed by US allegations of Russian tampering in our presidential election. Cold War talk is rampant in Washington. Nevertheless, Russia, the US and Israel have converging interests – removing Iran from Syria, preventing Iranian hegemony in the region and thwarting Tehran’s efforts to export Islamism.
Putin sees a role for Russia as a power broker in the Middle East – and he wants to encourage an American-Russian rapprochement.
Russia’s significant military presence in Syria has successfully prevented the fall of the Assad regime. Putin now realizes that Tehran will not play second fiddle to Moscow, but rather intends to continue building its military presence as a launching pad for expansion in the area and destruction of the Jewish state. Putin considers these intentions to be destabilizing and contrary to Russian interests.
Israel clearly views Iran’s activity in Syria as an existential threat that it will oppose at all costs. Since early February, Jerusalem has carried out preventive attacks against Iranian-backed forces, destroying Iranian military bases and weapons supplies to Hezbollah. To date, the Iranian response has been restrained, but Russia fears that this limited military engagement could spin out of control.
President Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have cultivated a close personal relationship. Sympathetic to Israel’s position regarding Iranian behavior in Syria, the Russian president has allowed Jerusalem significant freedom to use Israel’s air power against Iranian military activity, believing that Israel is focused on a defensive strategy and is not interested in toppling Assad.
Russia wishes to finalize the end of the Syrian conflict while retaining its presence there. The last thing Russia wants is to have Israel respond even more forcefully to Iran’s presence in Syria. Moscow continues to maintain good relations with Tehran; both countries oppose US pressure and presence in the region.
PUTIN REALIZES that Iranian control of Syria could embolden Islamist radicals in Russia. Tehran runs the risk that Russia might decide to stand aside in Syria and let the Israelis annihilate the al-Quds forces, Hezbollah and the mercenaries Iran imported to fight there.
The Russian economy has only two bright spots: arms sales, and oil and gas exports. An extended war in Syria will consume more of Russia’s financial resources when their people are hungry for economic growth.
Moscow clearly stated that all foreign forces, except its own, should withdraw from Syria – and that only Syrian troops should be on the country’s southern border. Tehran’s response was a sharp rebuke of its Russian ally.
Since Syria is pivotal to Tehran’s quest for a land corridor to the Mediterranean, the mullahs see Iranian deployment as permanent.
Their supply network strengthens Hezbollah and projects their power and influence to neighboring countries.
Given his relationship with both sides, Putin may believe that he can play “mediator” between Iran and Israel. “If you want to speak with the Iranians, you have to speak with the Russians,” said a former Israeli ambassador to Moscow. Success here would be a diplomatic coup.
At the recent St. Petersburg Economic Forum, he offered a somewhat sympathetic explanation for the Trump administration’s decision to exit the Iran deal, suggesting that Trump left open the possibility for renegotiation. Putin said, “We are ready for dialogue.” He may hope to cajole Tehran to come to the negotiating table with the US.
The Iranians have to be worried about a possible thaw between Washington and Moscow. Iran’s economy is a mess, with significant flight of capital, decreasing foreign currency reserves and dramatic depreciation of the rial. Large multinational companies are leaving, even before the US re-imposes economic sanctions. Iranian citizens are protesting and striking across the country.
Pompeo said that the Islamist regime faces a clear-cut choice between saving its economy and continuing its aggressive activities abroad. The US hopes the emerging alliance of Arabs with Israelis will provide us with local partners ready to bear many of the risks and costs of an anti-Iran policy. Israeli air power and Arab ground forces, together with their intelligence networks and local connections, could put Iran on the defensive.
Does Putin succeed in enhancing Russia’s position as a global power? Will there be cooperation between Russia and the US? Putin hopes so. Will President Trump succeed in “restarting” our relationship with Russia, despite his domestic problems with the Mueller Russia-collusion investigation?
This is a complex situation with interesting possibilities. Stay tuned.Ziva Dahl is a senior fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center.
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