US Policy on Russia Aims for Iran

Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. Foreign leaders and members of Congress have since focused their attention on Donald Trump’s Russia policies and may be neglecting other national security challenges. “The intense scrutiny placed on Trump and collusion has created a political atmosphere in which Russia has effectively become a boogeyman for domestic political ends,” writes Nicholas Trickett, research scholar and editor-in-chief of BMB Russia. “The Russia story provides political cover for the much scarier prospect of war with Iran.” Trump appointed hawks on Iran for two key positions: national security advisor in March and secretary of state in April. By May, the United States withdrew from the deal on containing Iran’s nuclear weapons program. So far, no policy shifts signal that the United States is going easy on Russia. Trickett analyzes the Trump administration’s subsequent moves with Russia on Syria and concludes that the Iran hawks may have figured out how to manipulate the president for their own political ends. – YaleGlobal

US Policy on Russia Aims for Iran

Intense scrutiny of US policies on Russia could distract from hardline moves against Iran in Syria or Afghanistan
Nicholas Trickett
Thursday, September 13, 2018

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in 2015; US National Security Adviser John Bolton meets Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev in 2018
Behind the sanctions: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in 2015, and US National Security Adviser John Bolton meets his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev in 2018

LONDON: Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 US election are irrefutable. Russian hackers were behind attacks aimed at the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Party, and troll farms planted fake stories on social media to prey on existing divides with peripheral attempts to enter voter registration databases in multiple states. Still, discourse of Donald Trump as Vladimir Putin’s puppet is ill-suited to explain US policy.

The intense scrutiny placed on Trump and collusion has created a political atmosphere in which Russia has effectively become a boogeyman for domestic political ends. The uproar following any Russian policy announcement or White House scandal prompts neglect of competing policy priorities. Iran tops the list. The Russia story provides political cover for the much scarier prospect of war with Iran.  

The one-on-one July meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki and Trump’s reluctance to explain what was said still offer fodder for those obsessing over collusion. Yet no policy shifts support the thesis that Trump is giving Putin what he wants or that the United States is going easy on Russia. In fact, the United States released an additional $200 million in non-lethal military aid to Ukraine just after the summit based on advance decisions. Trump even excoriated German Chancellor Angela Merkel for support of Gazprom’s pipeline project Nord Stream 2, saying it was “very bad for NATO.” The Trump administration has multiple foreign policies on Russia.

It took until August 24 for the Senate Democrats from the Foreign Relations Committee to formally request all materials related to the meeting. The request feeds into the narrative that the president is acting against the national interest behind closed doors. The increased interest in foreign policy is welcome. Unfortunately, a considerable part of that interest is meant to score political points. The problem with the Trump-as-Russian-puppet narrative is that it presumes a level of competence the president hasn’t shown in handling other policy areas. Trump’s daily schedule is reportedly lax, unstructured and noticeably shorter than that of his predecessors. The president is not steering policy on a range of issues, including Russia.

Consider US policy as set by Congress and federal departments since Trump’s inauguration. The president had a brief window when he could have rolled back sanctions established by executive order between 2014 and 2016. The US Treasury Department by and large continued to increase the pressure, refusing to offer a waiver to ExxonMobil from sanctions and adding 38 individuals and organizations to sanctions lists due to activity concerning Crimea and Ukraine in June. Then Congress approved the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, in August 2017 with wide-ranging sanctions against Russia as well as Iran and North Korea. The bill proved somewhat contentious, and the Treasury Department infamously trolled Congress by using lists of officials from Forbes and Kremlin websites to meet obligations for a report per the law. Despite the appearance of the Trump administration undermining sanctions, the story was more mundane. Treasury wanted to assert its autonomy from Congress since executive action is better suited to levy sanctions. Laws enshrining them tend to be difficult to repeal and can hamstring diplomacy.

Congress is now debating newer sanctions to further increase pressure on Russia, likely without coherent strategy. Those panicked about Trump selling out the United States and its partners to Russia have had little to fear so far. There’s no evidence the president has done much to influence serious policy decisions outside of Tweets or musings that go nowhere.

Meanwhile, Trump’s lieutenants – the cabinet members and appointees close to foreign policy issues – present cause for concern.  As presidential candidate, Trump was adamant when speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that dismantling the “disastrous Iran deal” was central to his foreign policy plank. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was, in fact, dedicated to keeping the United States in the deal, worried about an escalation of tension and, eventually, military threats with Iran. Others circling the White House or in the cabinet held a different view. Tillerson’s disagreements on Iran were among the reasons for his dismissal in March.

Subsequent appointments strengthened the hand of Iran hawks. John Bolton – appointed national security advisor in March – had penned a 2015 New York Times op-ed calling for the United States to bomb Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director named secretary of state in April, is another prototypical Iran hawk. An open critic of Obama administration policy, Pompeo argued that vital information was withheld from the public due to the nature of agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Trump acknowledged that he and Pompeo were on the same page regarding Iran.

Unsurprisingly, the United States left the Iran deal in May, with Trump throwing his weight behind the re-imposition of harsh sanctions and a more aggressive US policy stance towards Tehran.

In June, Bolton reiterated that Iran “will pay a price few countries have ever paid” – in short, expressing an aggressive and even violent vision of how national power should be deployed to achieve foreign policy ends. On August 19, Bolton told the press that potential election meddling threats from Iran, China and North Korea were of sufficient concern to justify security measures. Five days later, he reportedly left a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, in Geneva without signing a joint statement. Bolton made it clear that the United States “wouldn’t tolerate meddling in 2018 and that we were prepared to take necessary steps to prevent it from happening.” Six days later, Pompeo was reportedly looking to dial down tensions with Russia as new sanctions bills work their way slowly through Congress.

The timing of these moves suggests that Trump’s interest in improved ties with Moscow is not the primary object of talks. Pompeo has signaled that the upcoming Syrian, Russian and Iranian offensive on Idlib in Syria is an escalation of the conflict. Bolton went further earlier in August saying the United States would respond “very strongly” if Damascus used chemical weapons in combat.  

The threats focus on justifying a US presence in the conflict to challenge Tehran abroad. Talk of election meddling is a useful political pretext to take a more publicly hawkish stance, particularly given how many people forecast after the inauguration that US withdrawal from Syria would somehow be a “win” for Russia. Similarly, the economic pain imposed by the United States is now threatening Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s political support among parliamentarians, right-wing elites and even Ayatollah Khamenei.

Leaving the Iran deal was a means of forcing Iran to take a harder line in an environment where the United States can find readymade pretexts for action in Syria, Afghanistan and now election meddling. Overtures to Russia may appear to mirror Trump’s campaign talk of better ties, but analysts must scrutinize who’s doing the talking. The United States may be preparing for a military conflict and warning Russia that it can minimize its risks. Bolton talked about the Middle East with Patrushev in Geneva, and Pompeo is trying to schedule a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for October.

Iran hawks have figured out how to play on Trump’s policy prejudices for their own political ends. Don’t be fooled by rhetoric that Washington is giving Moscow what it wants because of Trump. The truth is much darker.

Nicholas Trickett holds an MA in Eurasian Studies through the European University at St. Petersburg with a focus on energy security and Russian foreign policy. He is an associate scholar at FPRI and editor-in-chief of BMB Russia. He is currently pursuing an MRes in International Political Economy at the London School of Economies and Political Science.

This article was posted September 11, 2018.

© 2018 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

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