Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (L), US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (C) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talk after a group photo of G-20 foreign ministers during a meeting at the World Conference Center February 16, 2017 in Bonn, Germany
There are serious doubts over the exact route of the US domestic and foreign policies under Donald Trump due to his controversial positions on various issues. In the meantime, one of the important issues that attracted the attention of observers and analysts even before the election of Trump and during the election campaign was his approach toward Russia and the possible policy of the US new administration toward the Kremlin. During the time the results of the elections were officially announced, Trump’s conciliatory approach toward Moscow has shown itself in his positions and comments from admiring Putin’s approach to expel the Russian diplomats from the US to questioning the accusations against the Kremlin stating that it intervened in the process of the US presidential elections.
In this context and regarding this issue, two important issues related to each other can be presented. First, how much gap is between words and actions of Trump on the subject of Russia, and basically to what extent it is possible for him to adhere to his current approach toward this issue. Second, if this approach enters into the practical phase, how this will change the subject areas and major regional issues in the international arena. Among these areas, it seems that what is more important than others for Iran is the impact of the possible reconciliation process between Moscow and Washington on the Middle East and current developments in the region.
Trump, Russia and the US Doctrinal Documents
In examining the topic of discussion, first of all, it should be noted that given the past history and the current state of relations between Russia and the US, the realization of what Trump stated in his positions on Russia means to fundamentally change the US foreign policy direction, and this will be beyond the usual tactical changes at the time of the change in the US Presidents. In this context, studying the US National Security Strategy document released on 2015 can be helpful.
Under the preamble of this document, what is known as the “Russian aggression” is called one of the main challenges against the US national security. But the most important part of this document related to Russia is the part called “strengthening our traditional alliance with Europe” and a section of it reads: “We assure our allies to prevent further Russian aggression by fulfilling our security commitments, and increasing accountability through training and holding military exercises as well as by being present in the Central and East Europe.”
In what follows in this section, the issue of Russia is discussed in more detail, and it reads: “Through applying sanctions and other tools, we will try to impose more and heavier costs to Russia, and at the same time, we will deal with the Russian false and deceptive promotion. We will stop the Russian aggression, and will be vigilant against her strategic capabilities, and will help our allies and partners deal with the Russian aggression in the long term. At the same time, we will leave the doors open for the extensive cooperation with Russia in the field of common interests. Russia might choose a different path, i.e., the path of peaceful cooperation where the respect for independence and the democratic development of the neighboring states are considered.”
Looking at this part, the contrast between this document on the subject of Russia and the positions expressed so far by Trump about this state is clearly seen. In fact, based on Trump’s comments, it can be argued that he not only has not believed in issues like “the Russian false and deceptive promotion”, but also at times he has spoken of the need to reduce the US commitment to the NATO. At the same time, it is clear that the “peaceful cooperation” with Russia is not subject to the Moscow’s selection of a “different path”. In the meantime, however, it is unlikely that on issues such as the NATO - with regard to the interests of the US military sector and the military industry as well as the presence of high-ranking generals within the framework of Trump’s desired government - the coming change is a fundamental and an infrastructure change, but it can be expected that the NATO’s provocative agendas toward Russia, particularly plans such as the missile defense shield in East Europe will be no longer on the US government’s agenda like before.
Moreover, it is expected that the new US government under Trump will stop to make the improved relations with Russia conditional on the Moscow’s changed approach to the surrounding environment, especially the issue of Ukraine, and at least the US will enter into a process of cooperation with Russia in the subject areas with common interests. This is evident in Trump’s emphasis on the joint counter-terrorism operations with Russia in Syria. This can directly prepare the ground for the cooperation and coordination between the two states within the framework of the Middle East region.
Trump and Russia, the Status of the Middle East and the Prospect of Iran
Over the past two years, particularly since the rise of the explosive crisis in Syria, and coinciding with the emergence of the terrorist group - the ISIS - in the region, the growing trend of cooperation and coordination between Iran and Russia in the region has reached a point that some even go beyond the concept of “partnership”, and talk of the formation of an “alliance” between the two states.
In the meantime, considering the terms of the formation of this special relationship between Tehran and Moscow provides the context for a better understanding of the possible future changes.
In short, it can be said that the common interests between Tehran and Moscow in a particular time on the issue of Syria played a role, and pushed them towards a multilateral cooperation in this state. These common interests include preventing the spread of terrorism in the region, keeping Bashar al-Assad as a reliable ally in Syria, and opposing the further development of the US influence in the Middle East and any change in the political map of the region in favor of Washington. But now, the possibility of improved relations between Washington and Moscow is raised under the situations that the ISIS is approaching its end in Iraq, and states ranging from Iran to Russia and even Turkey are fighting against it in Syria. Moreover, the presence of Bashar al-Assad in power seems certain, at least until the end of a transition period - when he cedes the power to his allies to manage the situation - and the US under Trump has also announced she has no plans to develop the US further influence and presence in the Middle East.
But the problem is that the common interests between Iran and Russia do not mean that the two states share interests/opinions in all areas, because, for example, the two sides have expressed different positions on an important issue such as the federal or centralized structure of the next government in Syria. On the one hand, it can be said that common interests between Tehran and Moscow will not be necessarily followed in the future of Syria as vigorously as now. On the other hand, during this period Russia has repeatedly shown that she is willing to achieve an understanding and a consensus with the US, and she is considering that it is more stable and reliable to have a solution between major powers achieved in the context of the realistic approach governing her foreign policy. This issue was evident in her two Syrian cease-fire talks with the US without the presence of Iran.
However, all this does not mean that Iran is excluded from the framework of Russia’s approach to the Middle East, and this also does not mean what is called the “betrayal of Russia” in the conventional literature. First, it should be noted that in the current situation, the fact that Russia is ensured that the US will not show any future opposition caused Moscow to be involved in the process of advancing the political process in Syria first with Iran and Turkey and then with more focus on Turkey. This means that even under Trump, Iran can still play a role, but her role depends on how she defines her interests, how much she diversifies the options available, and how she plays with these options. In other words, it is Iran that can increase the benefits of continued participation, and possibly costs of being excluded for Russia in such a way that the interests of Iran will be met in this framework. Establishing positive balance in the regional and trans-regional arena in order to benefit from more options, on the one hand, and strengthening the existing cooperation with Russia within a commitment framework - and possibly establishing it within the framework of multilateral organization cooperation - on the other hand, can be considered as the two available options for Iran in this area.
Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), is the fellow at IRAS.
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