Russia tamps down US-Iran tensions

(Donald Trump signed an executive order for new sanctions against Iran on June 24, 2019)

The US President Donald Trump is learning that Persian is a tricky language and does not easily yield its hidden charms to westerners. The western media attributed to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani a remark during his televised speech on June in Tehran 25 to the effect that the White House is “mentally retarded.” But now folks with grounding in the intricacies of Persian language — who else but the BBC Monitoring in London — interpret differently. 

For the benefit of the uninitiated, BBC Monitoring was originally established in 1939 to eavesdrop on Nazi propaganda and tasked with explaining to the War Office the media messaging — “fake news” — by the formidable apparatus in Berlin under the command of Joseph Goebells, one of Adolf Hitler’s closest and most devoted associates and the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. 

This must be one of the finest hours in the 80-year lifespan of the BBC Monitoring, as it probably averted the Armageddon in the Persian Gulf. Taken together with other straws in the wind, an imminent danger of war has blown over, Trump’s rhetoric of “obliteration” of Iran notwithstanding. 

If anything, the coming weekend may bring some good news. 

Enter Russia. President Vladimir Putin publicly stated a few weeks ago that he isn’t some fire brigade to douse any fires in the US-Iran standoff. But in reality he is doing just that. A highly complex diplomatic pirouette could be afoot on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan on June 28-29 where Putin is slated to hold meetings with Trump — and, curiously, the outgoing British prime minister Theresa May. 

Now, Anglo-Russian relations have been passing through a bad patch in the recent years and May had personally ensured that the so-called Skripal scandal literally made Russia an outcaste from the western world, stymying any scope for Trump to improve relations with Moscow. Against this backdrop, May’s curious request for a meeting with Putin on Friday must be noted carefully. Britain senses that the US-Russia relations are becoming dynamic and feels the imperative need to position itself accordingly. 

The Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said on Thursday, “This (Putin-May) meeting is important. Some tangible issues have piled up in our relations with Britain. If some opportunities for establishing cooperation are found, we will merely welcome this.”

Interestingly, Putin is planning back-to-back meetings with Trump and May. Ushakov said that Putin and Trump will set the agenda of their meeting themselves, adding, “The issues are logical: the general state of bilateral affairs, strategic stability and numerous regional conflicts — Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Venezuela, of course, the Iranian problem and so on.” 

But he flagged in particular that Putin and Trump will discuss the situation in Syria as a whole and the issues of “joint work in the Syrian direction.”

Ushakov’s media briefing needs to be juxtaposed with two exclusive interviews featured by the Russian state news agency Tass on the same day — with Russian Permanent Representative to International Organisations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. The following salients articulated by these senior Russian diplomats must be noted carefully: 

  1. Tehran is justified in insisting on a balanced fulfilment of commitments by all signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal. The US sanctions are hurting Iran and are forcing foreign companies to quit Iran. Nonetheless, Moscow’s advice will be that Tehran should not precipitate matters by invoking articles 26 and 36 of the nuclear deal to step up nuclear activities (although it may be a perfectly lawful act to do so), since such escalation will only annoy Europeans and may not do any good. (Ulyanov)   
  2. The “most optimal variant” will be that the Joint Commission of guarantor states convenes urgently (as provided under the 2015 deal) and “devise a sort of road map” to help Iran tangibly, with the relevant experts fleshing out concrete measures in diverse fields such as financing, transport, insurance and oil procurement. (Ulyanov) 
  3. The Syrian issue “in all its aspects” and Iran figured in the forefront of the “substantive and thorough” discussions in Jerusalem on June 25 at the trilateral meeting of the national security advisors of the US, Russia and Israel. Moscow regards the contacts in Jerusalem to be “crucial”, as they would reduce the tensions in US-Russia relations and will “facilitate the success” of the Putin-Trump meeting in Osaka on June 28. The issues discussed in Jerusalem (on Syria and Iran) will form a basis for further discussion between Putin and Trump on Friday. (Ryabkov) 

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Ministry has issued a strongly-worded statement condemning the latest US sanctions against Iran. It concluded: “Russia stands in full solidarity with the friendly people of Iran and its government. The US government should consider where such a reckless course of action might lead. Not only could it destabilise the Middle East, it threatens to undermine the entire system of international security.” 

In effect, Russia is stepping in to avoid a flashpoint over Syria just as it did once in September 2013 when President Barack Obama was contemplating an attack on Syria. The qualitative difference here is that the leitmotif will be the US-Iranian standoff. The common thread is that both Obama and Trump needed an exit strategy and if Russia is well-placed and has the ingenuity to choreograph one, so be it. 

But then, a major difference today will be the Israeli concerns over Syria-Iran. Iran’s presence and the emergence of any resistance front on Syrian soil poses threat to Israel. Thus the US and Israeli agenda is to bring about the scaling down of Iran’s presence in Syria as the pre-requisite for any easing of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy (sanctions) against Iran. 

Can Russia deliver on such a deal? Arguably, Tehran today may be more amenable than ever before to Russian counselling. This is one thing. 

However, Trump also has to reciprocate by easing the sanctions against Iran. Some backtracking is needed without losing face. One way could be the idea that the Joint Commission of guarantor states devises a mechanism to meet Iran’s legitimate demands to mitigate the effect of harsh sanctions and Washington acquiescing with the process. (Significantly, Putin is also meeting French President Emmanuel Macron in Osaka.) 

Of course, all this requires that Tehran should not do anything to escalate in the meantime as it is threatening to do after July 7. Hence Moscow’s advice to Tehran to exercise self-restraint. 

This is no doubt a complicated game of checks and balance and there is trust deficit all around in the US-Russia relations. But Israel can leverage its influence with the Trump administration to create the ambience where a constructive sustained Russian-American engagement becomes possible. This is what makes the trilateral meeting in Jerusalem at once symbolic and productive for Russia. 

Without doubt, Moscow is pleased with the role of Israel (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu). There is already talk about a visit by Putin to Israel in the coming months. Indeed, it is anybody’s guess if Netanyahu also expects Putin to cajole the recalcitrant Soviet-born Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman to bring Yisrael Beytenu to join a Likud-led government after the forthcoming election to the Knesset in September. 

Trump must be pleased with the tidings from Jerusalem that NSA John Bolton brought to Washington. Trump has repeatedly emphasised that Israel’s security is a core objective of the US strategy toward Syria and Iran. Indeed, an easing of tensions over Iran suits him as his re-election bid in 2020 gets under way.