Russia’s position on the US-Iran confrontation. Watching from the sidelines

The escalation of tensions between Iran and the USA in January 2020 has once again raised the question of what positions will the influential actors take. Meanwhile, the international community perceives the US-Iran confrontation within the context of two key topics – the state of the “nuclear deal” and the regional policies of these states in the Middle East. What is Moscow’s policy towards the US-Iranian confrontation?

US withdrawal from the “Nuclear Deal” as a starting point

Washington’s desire to “update” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), through a policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, failed to capture explicit support even from the American allies. The EU trio “E3” (the UK, France, Germany) remained politically committed to the “Nuclear Deal”. Nevertheless, in obedience to US sanctions, E3 showed their inability to oppose the United States or lobby for a solution which would satisfy Brussels. With the re-imposition of large-scale US economic sanctions, including the secondary sanctions initiated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), conducting business relations with Iran has become economically meaningless and toxic. Consequently, Iran was deprived of the opportunity to receive its dividends from the signing of the JCPOA and attempts to incorporate itself into the global financial system. INSTEX, advocated by the European leaders, proved to be just a symbolic tool used by the EU for rhetoric. All EU actions do not allow Iran to achieve the main goal for which it sought in the framework of the JCPOA – the ability to sell its oil and take advantage of interaction with the world community.

The escalation of US-Iranian relations has steadily intensified. The Americans continued to threaten the Iranians with war, while exerting “maximum pressure” and stifling the economy of the Islamic Republic. According to the IMF, Iran’s GDP fell by 9.5% in 2019, while oil production was more than halved. This US policy regarding Iran has negatively affected US-Iraqi relations. Iraq, being dependent on the dynamics of the US-Iranian confrontation, was caught between a rock and a hard place. It was the territory of Iraq where a number of key events took place, specifically, the US airstrike ordered by D. Trump against K. Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who arrived in Baghdad.

The killing of an official representative of the Iranian leadership by the United States was an emergency measure, but the timing is important. Americans could assassinate K. Soleimani from the moment he took up his post 20 years ago (he was moving freely throughout the region), but it was in January 2020 when an important political decision was made. Moreover, American policy began to tighten with the inclusion of the IRGC in the list of terrorist organizations in 2019. In response to this, in April 2019, Supreme National Security Council also officially recognized United States Central Command (CENTCOM – responsible for operations in the Middle East) as a terrorist organization and after the assassination of Soleimani, the Iranian parliament voted to recognize Pentagon as a terrorist structure.

Regional dimension. Iraq: between a rock and a hard place

For the Americans, the situation in Iraq was aggravated by the fact that they killed not only K. Soleimani, but also about ten Iraqis. Among them there were the Iraqi deputy commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) or the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, the influential Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the head of Protocol, Muhammad Rida al-Jabri. Both came to Baghdad airport to meet General Soleimani. After numerous violations of Iraqi airspace, which began with Israeli attacks since the summer of 2019, officials in Iraq reiterated the need to review the conditions for the presence of external forces. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi sent a letter to Parliament asking it to convene a meeting and take a unified position on the specific conditions for the presence of American forces in the country. In his letter, in an apparent reference to Soleimani and al-Muhandis, Abdul Mahdi noted that “the two martyrs were huge symbols of the victory against Islamic State.” In addition, he claimed that the Americans violated the treaty with Iraq and highly condemned the actions of the American administration.

During the voting in the Iraqi parliament, most MPs expressed support for the withdrawal of foreign forces. Parliament’s decision is not binding, although some of its provisions were implemented, such as filing of a complaint to the UN Security Council. Nevertheless, the United States have officially pledged to renounce the withdrawal of its troops. In response to a request of the Prime Minister of Iraq to send a delegation to Iraq for the discussion of the withdrawal of US troops, the American leadership refused again. Moreover, D. Trump said that if the Iraqis make a final decision, he will “charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever.” The threat itself is substantial for ordinary Iraqis who survived the destructive sanctions of the United Nations and the United States under Saddam Hussein from 1991 until the American invasion and occupation of the country in 2003. In addition, the threat of Americans strikes a vital element for the functioning of Iraq as a state, since its budget is almost completely filled up with dollar revenues from oil exports. In such circumstances, obviously, Iraq cannot take a decision to withdraw American troops from the country, which means that it will continue to serve as a physical platform for the US-Iranian confrontation.

The Iranians promised to take a violent revenge on the Americans for their actions. After the funeral processions in honor of Soleimani that brought together hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Middle East, Iran exercised the promised military response to the Americans. On January 8, Iran launched surface-to-surface missiles at bases with American soldiers in Iraq, hitting the Ain al-Assad base in Anbar province and a military base near Erbil. It later turned out that the Iraqi Prime Minister was warned of the attacks in advance and transmitted the information to the Americans. This, along with the accuracy of Iranian missiles, made it possible to avoid casualties, which was later reported by Trump. Thus, the Iranians inflicted – to use the words of the Iranian leader A. Khamenei, a “slap in the face” to the Americans. Indeed, a few countries could dare to make a direct and unconcealed attack on the position of “global hegemon”. Iranian officials said they would not continue the attacks if the United States did not undertake a military response.

The world kept waiting for the decision of D. Trump, who in the end did not initiate full-scale fighting. By promising additional sanctions against Iran and calling on the states still remaining in the nuclear deal to withdraw, in effect, Trump returned to the status quo. The US is once again cutting off the Iranians oxygen with sanctions, while Iran is once again exploring the possible areas to “tweak” the United States.

The escalation did not lead to a general détente but demonstrated the unwillingness of the parties to start large-scale hostilities and an unnecessary war. One of the key motives for de-escalation for Trump is the US presidential elections in November 2020. He certainly did not want to start a potentially prolonged war that bears enormous risks and could weaken Trump positions in the elections. In addition, a system of linkages with different non-state actors in the Middle East, built by Iran for decades, increases the risk of an asymmetric Iranian response and threatens US allies in the Persian Gulf and Israel.

Such a war would have affected global markets, given the importance of the Middle East to world’s oil trade. Any escalation threatens the safety of navigation through the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. 20.7 million barrels per day pass through this strait, which makes up about a third of the world’s oil supplies. More than a quarter of the global LNG supply also passes through the strait (mainly from Qatar). It has been argued that Iran could respond to impose by Americans sanctions by blocking the Strait of Hormuz – Iran has all the military capabilities to do so. Then it would intertwine with the interests of the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf and would lead to vulnerable oil price. But it would be a just Iranian response to the unfair and stifling US sanctions, at least perceived as such by Iran. Nevertheless, for Iran itself, the Strait of Hormuz is – to use the words of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic – “lifeline”. This situation within the framework of the US-Iranian confrontation leads to the articulation by companies of alternative ways of oil transportation and naval escort to tankers, which has a negative impact on the market.

Russia: watching from the sidelines

For Russia, the US withdrawal from the “nuclear deal” can be perceived in the context of the course of the administration of US President D. Trump to relieve itself of obligations under international agreements. Starting with George W. Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty), the Americans have consistently withdrew from other treaties, like the INF Treaty under Trump’s presidency, which shows a clear trend. In general, today we are witnessing the precariousness of strategic stability and a degradation of the whole system of the world security architecture. Russia proposes to extend the last legally binding agreement limiting nuclear arsenals of Russia and the US – START III. The EU has welcomed this proposal. Nevertheless, the Americans have decided to bide their time. In this respect, both for Russia and Iran, this US withdrawal from the JCPOA is not an exception, but one of the elements of Washington’s system policy. Moreover, this characteristic of American politics means that it makes no sense for Iran to make a new deal with such an inconsistent actor as Washington.  Even if new international agreements are signed, parties should be prepared that Washington could simply withdraw from them at any time.

In 2019, Russian Ministry in Foreign Affairs proposed a Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region. This Сoncept should be seen as a proposal to the Gulf countries to engage in security issues on an inclusive basis. In many ways, states have shown interest in it in due to the failure of the American idea of MESA (something like an Arab NATO), which implied a bloc approach. While when Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about his position on the situation around Iran in May 2019, he replied: “Russia is not a fire brigade, we cannot save everything that does not fully depend on us. We have played our part. We are ready to play this positive role again, but it does not depend on us, it depends on all the players including the US, European countries and Iran.” This position says a lot about Russian approaches. Moscow is ready to be involved and even play the role of mediator, but only if that is the desire of the parties to the conflict. In addition, Moscow does not see the need to be involved in this conflict of two powers (global and regional).

Russia certainly considers scenarios and political risks, but calculations may suggest that any aggravation of the situation around the United States and Iran will not lead to large-scale consequences for Russia. In the scenario of direct US military aggression against Iran, the Americans will be faced with the issue of Iranian response. And even if all goes well for the US they will need to control over the territory. However, the Americans will not be able to fully ensure it. Despite the possibility of a flow of refugees to the Caucasus and Central Asia from Iran, which is certainly among the key risks for Moscow, Washington itself will be in an uncomfortable position and will be faced with a number of problems, which will, eventually, force them to leave.

The region continues to be dependent on the dynamics of the US-Iranian confrontation. In many ways, the destruction of the JCPOA has led the parties to the current level of tension. At the same time, the Gulf monarchies strive to prevent the situation from slipping into the abyss. Gulf monarchies are not prepared for the risks that could arise in case of a war between the United States and Iran. And this will continue to stop the military and politicians in Washington from making decisions that will have devastating consequences. Moscow builds on these realities in shaping its policy in the regions. Moscow will continue to promote the idea of inclusiveness in the Middle East region to create stability and security. While Russia does not see the need for itself to “rescue” others where the Europeans and the monarchies of the Gulf should themselves be interested to step in.