After Iran tested another missile, on January 29, in violation of several United Nations resolutions, the White House declared that Tehran was “on notice” and imposed new sanctions on the Middle Eastern country. In addition, the Donald Trump administration signaled it would seek to sever Russia from Iran, presumably to try to isolate the Islamic Republic and to entice Moscow back to some sort of anti-terrorist cooperation with Washington. Yet, this diplomatic effort by the United States ran into opposition from the Russian government, which has rejected putting additional pressure on Iran. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, on February 6, declared that Russia disputes President Trump’s assertion that Iran is “terrorist state number one” (TASS, February 6). Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that Iran must be a member of any anti-terrorist coalition against the Islamic State in Syria (TASS, February 6).
Moscow’s vigorous dismissal of Washington’s calls to shun Tehran contrasts with opinions recently expressed by a number of Russian analysts and political figures who seem to want to blame Iran for throwing this “monkey wrench” into the Kremlin’s efforts to lure the Trump Administration into a self-serving partnership with Russia (see below). This gap between the Russian government and some analysts is interesting, but it bears pointing out that those commentators do not speak for the Vladimir Putin regime.
Several Russian newspapers, including Nezavisimaya Gazeta, picked up on the Trump Administration’s clear desire to set “Russia and Iran at loggerheads” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 4). But the government in Moscow is not ready to jettison its relationship with Tehran. Russia’s foreign ministry stated that the Iranian missile tests from last month did not violate any accords, hence they cannot be grounds for new sanctions or for tearing up the 5 + 1 nuclear agreement with Iran (the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—JCPOA) (Interfax, February 4; RIA Novosti, February 3). Analysts like Vladimir Sazhin, of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Oriental Studies, echoed the ministry’s claim, even if, some conceded, the Iranian missile launch did show disrespect to the UN. Viktor Ozerov, the chairman of the Federation Council’s (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) Committee on Defense and Security, also stated that despite Iran’s missile tests, there is no need to call the JCPOA into question (Interfax, February 4).
On the other hand Frants Klintsevich, the first deputy head of the same Federation Council committee, openly stated that Iran provoked the US into decreeing new sanctions and placed the JCPOA—which Russia supports—in doubt. Furthermore, Iran’s belligerent behavior places Russia’s growing economic and other interests in the Islamic Republic at some risk (Interfax, February 4). Lurking behind Klintsevich’s remarks is the notion that, as Moscow moves forward to entice Washington into a bilateral agreement that overrides virtually every other foreign policy interest, it is not happy about Tehran pursuing its own defiance of the US. Iran’s bellicosity could force Moscow to choose between Tehran and Washington. Similarly, Vladimir Nikonov, the chairman of the Duma (lower chamber of parliament) Education Committee and a noted pro-Putin commentator (as well as the late Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s grandson), candidly admitted that Iran had clearly challenged the US by launching a missile (Izvestiya, February 4).
Although Moscow may well prefer to handle this new problem in a low key manner, given the magnitude of the issues at stake, Putin’s government will not throw Iran to the wolves for Trump’s sake. Indeed, his press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov openly stated that “Russia had friendly partner-like relations with Iran, we cooperate on a wide range of issues, value our trade ties, and hope to develop them further” (RT, Iran-daily.com, February 6). This statement certainly should not come as any surprise. Partnership and cooperation with Iran—if not more than that—have been the foundation stone of Russia’s Middle East policies going back to former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov in the 1990s. This is unlikely to change today unless Iran actually went nuclear or acted in another comparably drastic fashion. Frictions exist between the two states, in no small part because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s continuation in power is a more vital issue for Iran than for Russia. Nevertheless, their cooperation in Syria is solid, as is Russian support for many of Iran’s clients—like the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nor will Russia likely renounce Iran for the dubious prospects of cooperation with the erratic Trump administration, whose goodwill toward Russia remains to be demonstrated in fact not rhetoric (see above).
So while Moscow may take umbrage at Tehran’s periodic assertions of defiance, in fact Russia will continue to pursue cooperation with Iran not just because the two are neighbors but because an-anti-Western Iran in partnership with Russia is the only way the latter can be a major player in the Middle East. Russia will almost certainly not renounce that aspiration. Indeed, it is clear from everything that has happened until now that Moscow will demand that Washington accord it the status of an equal in the region, so jettisoning Iran, without the Islamic Republic having done anything to justify that move, is probably out of the question.
As a result, the “triangular” relationship of these three states is an obtuse one, where Russia’s ties with Iran are the “long pole” or largest angle of this unbalanced triangle. Given Washington’s bad relations with both Moscow and Tehran, combined with the apparent obsession with Iran in the Trump White House, this imbalance is likely to remain—and with it the “obtuse triangle” among the three states. So unless Washington offers Moscow a particularly large carrot—which would likely provoke massive domestic and foreign resistance—it would probably be imprudent to think that the US will find it easy or even possible to break the Russo-Iranian partnership.