Russia-Iran Rapprochement: A Convenient Partnership or a Desperate Move?

02/23/2015 06:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2015

In light of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East: civil war in Syria, ISIS, the Charlie Hebdo attack, the death of Saudi King Abdullah and the anarchy in Yemen, what is one to make out of the potential agreement in which Russia will provide Iran with S-300 air defense missile system? The answer is one of great concern and alarm.

This agreement comes at a very critical time as Western capitals continue to debate two main issues. First, does the West have a strategy in place in case the upcoming negotiations with Iran due on March 24th over its nuclear program fail? Secondly, will the West, headed by the U.S. impose additional sanctions on Russia? While the diplomatic stand-off between the U.S. and Russia does not seem to be headed toward a resolution, insiders within the Iranian establishment believe that the road to victory (whatever it might consist of) goes through Moscow.

In light of these dynamics, Iran wants to take advantage of the rift between the West and Russia. Be that as it may, the visit of the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to Iran recently suggests the possibility of a military cooperation between the two countries. Does this visit imply something strategic is in the works between Russia and Iran? Security analysts suggest that it is premature to think so; however, given the fact that rapprochement between the two nations could serve their interests in the Middle East; an area considered by many to be a volatile stew of conflicting passions and ideologies, might be a plausible assumption.

The timing could not be better for Iran to receive the long-overdue delivery of S-300 air defense missile system which Moscow cancelled in 2010 at the request of the West. It was the United States and Israel who lobbied Russia to block the missile sale, arguing it could protect Iran's nuclear facilities from air strikes. Fast forward, relations between Washington and Moscow are at their lowest point since the end of the cold war. Given the ongoing economic sanctions, Russia will most likely move forward with the delivery of this defense missile system. I'll also argue that given the turmoil in the Middle East (political vacuum in Yemen following the takeover of the government by the Huthis and internal discord within the royal family in Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah), Iran is in a better position, strategically, to influence the political landscape in the region.

In light of these developments, questions are emerging as to whether Iran is counting on Russia to change its policy position vis-à-vis its nuclear program. My argument is that Russia's reservations about Iran's nuclear dossier stem from Moscow's own anxieties rather than aligning and supporting a Western compromise. Given the current political climate between Russia and the U.S., I predict Russia's position vis-à-vis Iran's upcoming nuclear negotiations wouldn't be in lock-steps with other major powers.

What is important to understand is that U.S. domestic politics, especially the political squabbling between Republicans and Democrats, have a direct influence on this rapprochement between Iran and Russia. Of interest is how Republicans are adamant about challenging President Obama regarding additional sanctions on Iran. This discord highlights a schism within the U.S. government, and a lack of future cooperation between republicans and democrats. In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Obama threatened to use his veto power if republicans, supported by some democrats like Senator Menendez, vote in support of additional sanctions on Iran. His argument is that any form of sanctions on Iran will have a negative impact on the ongoing negotiations; thus, could push Iran into ending its cooperation with the West vis-à-vis its nuclear program.

Equally important, many international observers argue that Congress' invitation of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to speak to a joint session without informing the White House or State Department, as the protocol suggests, highlights ongoing tensions between the President and the Republican-controlled Congress. I am certain that Iran is following these developments closely. Should the U.S. decide to implement additional sanctions on Iran while at the same time Moscow delivers the S-300 missile system, I do not see any incentives for why Iran will want to continue negotiations with the West.

The United States is in no position to engage in yet another military conflict in the Middle East. American people are fed up with Washington being used and abused by warmongers, foreign governments and special interests groups. Further, engaging Iran military will certainly be very different and challenging since Iran's military capabilities are much more developed than those of neighboring countries: Iraq, Syria, Jordan and so forth. For this reason, the U.S. should not allow itself to be deceived as it did before the invasion of Iraq when Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi politician sold a lie to the Pentagon claiming that Iraq had biological weapon. Analysts including Paul R. Pillar, a former CIA officer, argue that the U.S. should not allow Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to drag America into bombing Iran and reassert a direct U.S. combat role in the region. Doing so will not serve U.S. interests in the Middle East.

As high level officials from Iran and Russia continue to exchange visits, conventional wisdom suggests both countries would benefit from ongoing conflicts: Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen, among others. The turmoil in these countries will certainly pull Iran and Russia for a much stronger partnership; one that could challenge the West on many fronts. Let's hope the U.S. government can learn from past mistakes and let history be its guide this time around.