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Why Iran won’t work as a bargaining chip between Russia, US

Russia and Iran have enough overlapping interests to keep their relationship strong, even if the United States tries to interfere.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani attend a news conference after the talks in Tehran, Iran, November 23, 2015. To match Insight RUSSIA-IRAN/  Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin/File Photo via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. - RTX2BOG5

There's been a lot of talk recently about US President Donald Trump's supposed effort to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran. The idea looks half-baked.

The Wall Street Journal last month cited "senior administration, European and Arab officials involved in the policy discussions" on Syria and the Islamic State (IS) as saying Trump is looking to partner with Russia while pressuring Iran, especially regarding its nuclear status.

Developing a missile defense system has naturally been part of Iran's military doctrine. However, it appears that the date Iran set for its test of a ballistic missile was not chosen spontaneously, coming two days after Trump implemented a travel ban Jan. 27 on nationals of Iran and six other Muslim-majority countries. Yet, even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself probably did not expect Trump to react so quickly and so bluntly to the missile test, putting Iran "on notice" Feb. 1, introducing new sanctions and promising to increase pressure on the regime.

Demonstrations followed in Iran. Some protests coincided with traditional rallies on Feb. 10, the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Crowds also took to the streets in Tehran and other Iranian cities speaking out against Trump's general attitude toward Iran: His outwardly hostile approach is perceived as a harbinger of future attempts to encroach on Iranian policies.

The result of all the protesting was maximum domestic media coverage of the outrage. On the media front, conservative factions, which were warily observing the consequences of the 2015 nuclear deal, attained greater success than they had hoped.

By testing a ballistic missile, Tehran was probably also evaluating the new US administration's temper and demonstrating Trump's inability to prevent such tests. The test also could be considered Iran's notice to the world that its policies will be the same as they were when Barack Obama was in the White House.

Such an underlying motivation would mean Iran is being presumptuous. Tehran is simply adhering to its current doctrines, and some of its priorities happen to coincide with Russia's current view of world affairs. Thus, it would be premature to conclude that the United States is offering Russia another questionable "reset" so Moscow will snub Tehran in exchange for, perhaps, fewer US sanctions. Another popular theory, that Russia desperately needs Iran and their cooperation is strategic, also remains unproven.

Sounding equally unrealistic are two opposing theories. One, by neoconservative writer and historian Michael Ledeen, posits that Washington should target Tehran's regime to gain an upper hand in negotiating with Moscow. The second theory, by international relations specialist Mark Katz, speculates that if the United States were to go it alone in such an endeavor, Putin would fear that Trump would come after him next — which would drive Putin closer to Tehran.

Moscow and Tehran's interactions during the Syrian civil war have showcased the strength of their cooperation in terms of military strategy and security issues. It would be wishful thinking, however, to characterize their partnership as strictly strategic.

Tehran is largely on its own in securing one of its main priorities — preserving and strengthening the "axis of resistance," where the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah play pivotal roles.

Moscow, in turn, has its own priorities and does not care much for Hezbollah outside of those concerns — which include cooperating with Israel. The divergence of priorities between Moscow and Tehran does not prevent the two from successfully cooperating on mutual goals in the medium run — combating terrorist activities and extremism and their spread to Central Asia and the Caucasus. And a very sensitive issue for both is guarding the regions of their strategic interests against outside (read "American") influence.

The Moscow-Tehran partnership does have its own soft spots. One can see that even in military cooperation, the two sides tread carefully. Now there are no more after-the-fact announcements about Russia using Iranian bases, such as the one in August about Shahid Nojeh Air Base in Hamadan. Instead, there are more "politically correct" statements by Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani and Minister of Defense Hossein Dehghan about, for example, the possibility of allowing Russian warplanes to pass through Iranian airspace.

Also, Russian Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin's trip to Tehran was canceled in February, allegedly because Iran publicized the plan when Russia wanted to keep their discussions on sensitive issues, such as the Syrian crisis, confidential. In the best case scenario, there was a miscommunication; in the worst, it may signal that the established communication rules are not always considered a high priority.

It's remarkable that Iranian media have remained silent on the future of the Russia-Iran relationship under the Trump administration. The issue is probably too delicate and too important to stir up with unreliable preliminary forecasts, especially if they disregard the pro-Western orientation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's camp. Besides, the common belief among Iranians is that it will take time for the US political system to show Trump — despite his own ambitious plans — how foreign policy is really shaped and implemented.

Hard-liners, such as former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Yahya Rahim Safavi, have warned about the possible damage Iran could suffer because of Russian-US cooperation in Syria. However, in November, after Trump was elected, Iranian analyst Hassan Beheshtipour provided a meaningful and positive perspective on the future of the Russia-Iran relationship. Beheshtipour believes that Russian-US cooperation, at least as it pertains to fighting IS, could actually strengthen Iran's position in the Middle East.

Besides, as Beheshtipour correctly reminds us, Iran is not the only piece of the complex puzzle that Russia and the United States are considering to assemble. In fact, it appears that Trump's recent "stunts" — such as claiming Crimea must be returned to Ukraine, and US Defense Secretary James Mattis proclaiming that the US will be negotiating with Russia "from a position of strength" — have dented the Kremlin's enthusiasm.

Tehran and Moscow pursue their relationship based not on the abstract concept of "brotherhood," but on their own medium- and long-term goals. That is why Iran should in no way be considered a bargaining chip between Russia and the United States under Trump. It is true that some academics and politicians in Iran are still very distrustful of Russia, believing it would turn its back on Tehran for better deals with the United States, as it has on several occasions in the past.

So, it is not a "blind preference" for Iran over possible deals with the United States that might be expected here from Moscow, but a neat pragmatism that will keep Russia committed to its own priorities and the ways of upholding them.

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