President-elect Donald Trump during the campaign was clear on at least two foreign policy issues: his opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (a.k.a. the Iran deal) and his desire to get along with Russia. We will not know how serious he was about the latter until he takes office. Likewise, we do not know how he plans to disable the JCPOA. Sooner or later, however, he will need to confront an unpleasant reality: Russia and Iran are allies, and both want to displace the United States as the primary force in the Middle East. Put differently, if we want to turn the screws on Iran, Russia will not want to “get along” with us.
Russia is a major supplier of arms to Iran and supports its efforts to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This summer Russian warplanes took off from Iranian bases to strike targets in Syria.
Russia has publicly warned against violating the JCPOA; Trump wants to rip it up. If the JCPOA fell by the wayside, Russia in all likelihood would increase its economic and military support for Iran, attempting to heighten tension between the United States and its European allies, and portray the U.S. policy as a failure. Insofar as Trump thinks he can renegotiate the JCPOA, Russia will likely pose a problem, as J. Matthew McInnis explained:
Trump will also be aware that any major confrontation with Iran over the JCPOA must be considered in context of his policies toward Russia and vice-versa. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not, and still does not, want Tehran to get the bomb. Moscow, however, has used the nuclear deal in part to carve out a much more significant role in the Middle East, including a burgeoning new military alliance with Iran in Syria and elsewhere. These circumstances likely limit the degree of coercive diplomatic or even military power the United States could use in any renegotiation, unless Russia is on board with the White House’s game plan.
If Trump scrapped or forced Iran to scrap the JCPOA, Iran would likely restart its nuclear program. As events unfolded, we inevitably would find ourselves increasingly at odds with Russia, as Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East program at the Center for a New American Security, explained:
As Iran got closer to a nuclear weapon, the likelihood would increase of an Israeli strike or a decision by the Trump administration to use military force against Iran’s nuclear program. We would essentially be back in the days of 2009 to 2012.
In that world, Iran’s most effective tools against the United States would be its surrogates and proxies across the Middle East — especially in Iraq and Syria. In recent years, Iran has pushed its proxies to focus on supporting Assad and fighting ISIL. However, if Iran-U.S. tensions start to rise the priority would quickly shift back to using the groups it supports to exact a cost on the United States and deter American military action. …
Russian-American relations would also suffer as Moscow would view this escalation and the potential of an American-led attack on Iran as another example of American superpower overreach, which it would try to counter and contain. It is simply inconceivable that in this scenario the United States, Russia, and Iran could successfully coordinate in Syria and Iraq. And Trump’s rapprochement with Russia would likely collapse.
Trump will soon find that there are reasons why we don’t “get along” with Russia. Putin supports our enemies (e.g., Iran) and threatens our allies (e.g., NATO). His interests and ours conflict in significant ways. Trump may want, as President Obama did, to withdraw from the world, but he will soon learn that if we leave, Russia “wins” by increasing its influence. Trump’s senior advisers likely understand the contradiction — one of many — at the heart of Trump’s foreign policy thinking. Perhaps he will come to appreciate the problem as soon as he tries to back away from or force Iran to give up the JCPOA, which could come within months of his inauguration. The reality is likely to disrupt his hope (again not too different from Obama’s initial view) that we can embrace the Russian bear.