One question the new president will have, as he begins planning his outreach to Moscow, will be whether he can persuade Russia to turn away from Iran.
Russia and Iran have grown closer since 2015, when the Nuclear Deal between the US and a group of nations was made with Iran, that lifted many sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.
Lake writes, “Russia sells Iran advanced air defense systems, and Iran provides its officers and militias to conquer the Syrian towns and cities indiscriminately bombed by Russian aircraft.”
He says that Trump administration officials told him that “they will explore the extent to which Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to end this relationship and cooperate with U.S. policy to counter Iranian aggression in Syria and the Middle East.”
Michael Ledeen, who served during the transition as an adviser to Michael Flynn (now Trump’s national security adviser) said, ”It’s important to find out what are the limits of Russia’s willingness to cooperate with us with regard to Iran. Those conversations have to take place.”
Ledeen co-authored Flynn’s “Field of Fight,” a 2016 book that outlined the retired general’s national security vision. The book contends that Iran must be defeated if the war against radical Islam is to be won. Flynn and Ledeen also worry about Russia’s value as a partner in the war against the Islamic State. “When it is said that Russia would make an ideal partner for fighting Radical Islam, it behooves us to remember that the Russians haven’t been very effective at fighting jihadis on their own territory, and are in cahoots with the Iranians,” they wrote. “In Syria, the two allies have loudly proclaimed they are waging war against ISIS, but in reality the great bulk of their efforts are aimed at the opponents of the Assad regime.”
Now, diplomatic efforts of the Trump administration must be aimed at persuading Russia to cut loose ties with the Iranians in Syria, and to end arms sales to the Islamic Republic. As well, there are questions about how the Iran nuclear agreement will be negotiated by Trump. Trump has said he will not withdraw right away from it, but he has been critical of the deal, and some incoming officials have said they would like to see it renegotiated with better terms.
“In this sense, Trump is hewing closely to Barack Obama’s playbook when he came into office in 2009. Back then, the U.S. scrapped a missile defense deployment in the Czech Republic and Poland and did not further pressure Russia on its occupation of Georgian territory following the 2008 war. In exchange, the Russians supported a U.N. Security Council resolution against Iran’s nuclear program and negotiated an arms control treaty limiting long-range nuclear weapons for both countries,” writes Lake.
What the Russians will want in return is unclear. Former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who was an architect of Obama’s first-term outreach to Russia, told Lake he didn’t know what Trump could offer Putin in exchange for abandoning Iran, who has become a key ally and trading partner. “Are we going to buy Russian weapons systems that Moscow can now sell to Tehran? Of course not,” he said. “Are we going to get our Sunni allies to do so? That seems unlikely. I just don’t see what Putin has to gain from such a deal.”
Before the election, the Kremlin announced it was suspending an agreement to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium in October, but said Russia would consider renewing the plutonium agreement if the U.S. reduced its military presence in NATO countries along its borders, canceled sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and compensated Russia for revenue it lost because of those sanctions. According to Lake, this is a hint of what Putin would like to have from the U.S.
Trump has not said specifically what he would offer the Russians, though he stated that he would be willing to lift sanctions on Russia under the right circumstances. He has also said in interviews that he is interested in pursuing new arms-control agreements with Russia.
Still, Iran remains a problem. Former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst on Iran, Matthew McInnis, a who is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Lake: “I see absolutely no way that you drive the Iranians out of Syria. But I could see how you reduce Iranian influence and presence there. That is a goal they could pursue.” McInnis said this means that Russia would need to agree to support rebuilding a Syrian army that would not be under the sway of Iran.
Lake concludes, “Trump could also use the opportunity to play mind games with Iran’s notoriously paranoid leaders. The Romanovs humiliated Iran in the 19th century with punitive treaties. Last summer tensions rose briefly when the Russians acknowledged they were flying air missions out of Iran into Syria. Iranian mistrust of Russia can be exploited with deft diplomacy,” adding, “It will be a balancing act. Trump will have a hard time persuading Congress that any accommodation of Russia these days is worth it, particularly because the intelligence community is now investigating ties between Trump’s campaign and Putin’s government before the election. Meanwhile Russia will have to weigh whether it values a new friendship with America over the one it already has with Iran.”