US can exploit fault lines to drive wedge between Iran, Russia
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The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that senior White House officials are looking for ways to put a wedge between Russia and Iran in order to weaken their cooperation.

This is a worthy policy goal and, actually, not that difficult to accomplish, since Russia and Iran are naturally strategic competitors.

The main common interests shared by Moscow and Tehran are their conflicts with the United States and their shared isolation from the rest of the world. Given that neither state has a significant ally, the two nations forged a loose alliance.

A look at the map reminds us that Russia and Iran are neighbors that both border the Caspian Sea. Bordering states are more likely to have conflicting interests than nations located far away from each other.

In the last 150 years, Russia and Iran have fought a variety of wars, most of which resulted in Iranian territorial losses. During World War II, the Soviet Union occupied most of Northwest Iran and supported the independence of two short-lived Kurdish and Azerbaijani states in these territories.

Today, Moscow carefully monitors Iran’s activities and impedes Tehran’s moves to widen its influence in the Caspian region. Moscow’s firing of cruise missiles in October 2015 from the Caspian Sea into Syria  — some of which dropped on Iranian territory — surely rattled the Iranian leaders.

Russia and Iran are also strategic competitors when it comes to energy interests. With respect to new production in oil and gas, Tehran and Moscow compete for foreign investment. Iran’s immense gas reserves could, at some point, challenge Russia’s dominance in several markets.

In multiple official publications, European Union officials have promoted the idea of Iran acting as an alternative gas supplier to Russia. Moscow would likely take steps to block Tehran's entry into European markets, as it has done in the past.

In 2007, when Tehran launched gas supplies to neighboring Armenia, Russia's Gazprom immediately bought up the pipeline within Armenia and built it with a small circumference to preempt its future use for transporting gas to European markets.

Moscow and Tehran could also find themselves competing for gas market share in neighboring Turkey. Russia and Iran’s interests do not overlap on most issues in the Middle East, despite their projection of a united front in Syria.

Russia’s deployment in Syria usurped Iran’s dominant position there. Moscow has taken advantage of the vacuum created by the Obama administration to deepen ties with several US allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel — Iran’s top Middle East rivals.

The recent unprecedented cooperation between Russia and OPEC on an oil production cut was made possible due to the newfound positive relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Moscow aspires to deepen its ties with other traditional U.S. allies in the region, like Egypt. 

The Trump administration’s decision to improve relations with Russia will contribute to a weakening of Russia’s cooperation with Iran. Russia generally cooperates better with the U.S. on a variety of regional issues when bilateral relations between the two countries are solid.

However, Washington will need to adopt a holistic approach toward Russia for this to work.  For over a decade, the U.S. has tended to compartmentalize its policies toward Russia; directing separate policies toward specific Russian activities in different parts of the world.

Moscow does not work that way. It views U.S. policies toward Russia in different contexts as part of one overall relationship.

U.S. policies in one arena effect Moscow’s use of levers in other arenas. Integration of U.S. policies toward Russia is a necessary first step to weakening the cooperation between Tehran and Moscow. 


Brenda Shaffer is a specialist on energy and foreign policy. She is a visiting researcher and professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. She is the author of  several books, including "Partners in Need: the Strategic Relationship  of Russia and Iran" and "Energy Politics". 


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