February 14, 2017 | The Wall Street Journal

To Break the Moscow-Tehran Alliance, Target Iran’s Regime

Putin may not like the Islamic Republic, but it serves his interests in important ways.
February 14, 2017 | The Wall Street Journal

To Break the Moscow-Tehran Alliance, Target Iran’s Regime

Putin may not like the Islamic Republic, but it serves his interests in important ways.

Want a deal with Vladimir Putin in the Middle East? Then start with the real questions: Are the Russians prepared to abandon Iran and Bashar Assad’s Syria? If so, what would it take to pull it off?

Start by reminding yourself that Russia entered the Syrian battlefield upon Iranian request. The Iranians were losing the fight on behalf of Mr. Assad’s regime, and a significant number of Iranian fighters were killed in Syria (the Islamic Republic usually recruits Arab and Afghan proxies to fight for it).

Ergo, an American deal with Russia that pulls the plug on Mr. Putin’s alliance with Mr. Assad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatens the Iranians. Without Russian bombers and special forces, Iran would face defeat, as would Mr. Assad. Without Syria, Hezbollah—an integral part of the Tehran regime—would at least be seriously threatened, and could function no longer, along with the military pipeline from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

Does President Trump want to help the Iranians? It is unlikely. Mr. Trump’s top national-security appointees—Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly—are all very tough on Iran, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson concurs. The odds are that the president wants a deal with the Russians that will focus on Islamic State.

If Mr. Assad falls, and Iran is severely weakened, that is good for the U.S. but not very good for Russia. The Russian-Iranian embrace is very tight. Virtually the entire Iranian nuclear program—whatever isn’t North Korean—is Russian, from the reactors to the air-defense systems that protect them. The Iranians have committed to purchasing billions of dollars worth of weaponry, including advanced Russian torpedoes to attack the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf.

Moreover, there is a powerful Russian and Iranian interest in increasing oil prices, and defeat of Iran in Syria and Iraq might drive petroleum prices down. Again, good for the U.S., but bad for Mr. Putin.

On the other hand, an Islamist republic next door to Russia with a strong military and nuclear capabilities can’t make Mr. Putin very happy. He knows that Iran produces a significant number of radical Islamic terrorists, both Sunni and Shiite. He also knows that the Iranians smuggled Qurans into the Soviet Union and supported separatist Muslim movements in the ’stans and Chechnya. Mr. Putin would be happier with a nonjihadi Iran that didn’t aspire to become a nuclear power.

But Mr. Putin isn’t likely to join the U.S. in changing the nature of the Tehran regime, because a non-Islamist Iran with warm U.S. relations wouldn’t be in Moscow’s interest either. At the moment, Mr. Putin is arguably the most influential external force in the Middle East, and it is doubtful he wants to compete with Mr. Trump for that role. Thus, he’ll try to cope with his Iran problems on his own.

Given these conflicting geopolitical interests, is there a way for the Russians and the Americans to collaborate in the Middle East? What if the U.S. offered Mr. Putin a regional condominium? This would allow the two countries to collaborate in Iran and Syria, strengthening the American position and solidifying Russia’s by debilitating the Islamist threat and gaining some degree of control over the vast oil and gas supplies. The problem is that the U.S. isn’t in a position to make that offer because it lacks the credibility to propose redrawing the Middle Eastern geopolitical map.

What, then, is the best American strategy? Iran continues its campaign against the U.S., and it won’t end so long as the regime endures. Therefore American policy must rely on dismantling the Khamenei regime as peacefully as possible, perhaps from the inside out.

Antiregime demonstrations erupt in Iran all the time, and most experts believe the vast majority of Iranians detest Mr. Khamenei and his henchmen. With U.S. support, these millions of Iranians could topple the Islamic Republic and establish a secular government resembling those in the West.

With the Islamic Republic gone, the Trump administration would be in a much stronger position to strike a deal with Mr. Putin. The road to Moscow runs through Tehran.



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