US President Donald Trump’s coming to office has been marked by an acute shift in US foreign policy towards West Asia. Together with the new president’s warm posture towards Moscow such a shift could mean a rapid departure from the ‘never-engage, keep-off’ doctrine of the previous US administration.
Already a change in the Syrian civil war can be observed. On January 26, Lt General Alexander Zhuravlev, commander of Russian forces in Syria, acting on instructions by Moscow, ordered the Iranians, the Hezbollah and the Syrian army to remain stationary in their positions. No new battlefronts were to be opened and the movement of jet fighters between bases were to cease. Reportedly the Russian move came in the wake of a tacit agreement on Syria between Trump and Putin in an extended telephone conversation. This order appears to have been obeyed fully to date.
The change is also visible in White House’s new policy on the Islamic Republic of Iran. On February 1, General Michael Flynn, the National Security Advisor, publicly announced “as of today we are officially putting Iran on notice”. His remarks came in the wake of Iran’s testing of missiles that allegedly breach United Nations Security Council resolution 2231. The general expressed in very clear terms the new US government’s position that unlike its predecessor it would not shy away from taking military measures against Iran. The Iranian government insisted that the test was defensive in nature and rejected claims it contravened Security Council resolutions.
Wary of the rapprochement between Washington and Moscow, Tehran is anxious to reemphasise its strategic value to Russia. President Rouhani is reportedly planning to pay an official visit to Moscow while Tehran just celebrated 511 years of Iranian-Russian relations (apparently for the first time ever) to highlight its appreciation of Russian support of the Islamic Republic ever since its establishment after the 1979 revolution.
Fully aware that losing the backing of its powerful northern neighbour would leave it vulnerable on military and political fronts, the Islamic government in Iran is eager to remain close to Moscow. Many Arab states in the region, not to mention Turkey and Israel, are lobbying the Trump team to adopt a much tougher line on Tehran that could ultimately trigger the changes they would like to see coming out of Iran. The unforeseen and rapid change of policy in Washington appears to be accommodating at least some of those demands, which is catching Iranian policy makers by surprise.
The Moscow-Washington cooperation and horse-trading could decide the short to medium term future of West Asia and North Africa. As the White House in its response to Tehran hopes to separate Russia from Iran, Moscow will want to assess its overall position in the region and internationally before making any concessions. Will the Western sanctions on Russia imposed after the Crimean crisis be lifted? Or will and how Nato forces in Russia’s neighbouring countries be rearranged? Answers to these questions could potentially bring the two capitals closer to a deal in this region.
Farid Mirbagheri is professor of international relation and holds the dialogue chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Nicosia