Russia is the real winner in any US-Iran conflict

Russia is the real winner in any US-Iran conflict
© SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP/Getty Images

The beating of the war drums between the United States and Iran is music to the Kremlin’s ears. As a crisis looms between Washington and Tehran, Moscow is poised to reap the benefits — as long as it can limit the damage.

Russia already is benefiting from the resumption of stringent U.S. sanctions against the sale of Iranian oil. Not only are Russian companies poised to gain additional market share as customers such as Japan, India, Korea and Italy reduce their purchases from Iran, Russia also emerges as a more reliable, dependable provider of energy to global markets. U.S. partners that reluctantly agreed to accept U.S. restrictions on Iran are thus far less incentivized to also impose penalties on Russia.

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Indeed, we are seeing the latest iteration of the law of inverse sanctions results. Western allies were more inclined to go along with stricter sanctions on Russia following its 2014 intervention in Ukraine, in part because the Iranian nuclear deal offered new opportunities to obtain oil and natural gas. Now, with Iran in the sanctions crosshairs, and despite increases in U.S. production, Russia re-emerges as the supplier of last resort.

Meanwhile, the collapse in Iranian oil exports kills two birds with one stone: It allows Moscow to continue its partnership with Saudi Arabia to manage global oil markets, but allows for Russian producers — who have been laboring under a production freeze personally ordered by President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinJuan Williams: GOP in a panic over Mueller A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Overnight Defense: House approves 3 billion defense bill | Liberal sweeteners draw progressive votes | Bill includes measure blocking Trump from military action on Iran MORE — to increase sales without torpedoing the understanding with Riyadh.

Turmoil in the Persian Gulf also increases the attractiveness of Russia’s northern sea route as a replacement energy and trade corridor. Last month, at the Belt and Road summit in China, Putin showcased the importance of the Arctic sea lanes to global growth and prosperity, describing it as a “global and competitive route that connects northeastern, eastern and southeastern Asia with Europe.” His invitation to other countries to pursue further investment and development in a region that he believes will only grow in significance for the Russian economy starts to look more attractive if the Middle East seems on the verge of war.

Having the United States become embroiled in a new Middle Eastern crisis also suits Russian strategic plans. A U.S. that pivots its attention back to the Gulf, while also dealing with an unresolved and destabilizing crisis in Venezuela, a looming trade war with China and ongoing political turmoil at home, is a Washington that is far less inclined to interfere in Russian plans for the greater Eurasian space. With no U.S. ambassador in Ukraine after a momentous election campaign and strained U.S. relations with key allies — in part over the Iran crisis — Moscow is perfectly happy to see the United States be drawn into a more prolonged “cold war” with Iran.

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At the same time, U.S. pressure on Iran, and apparent European acquiescence to that pressure, has shown Tehran that it can never dispense with its Russia connection. Tehran has always had a wary partnership with Moscow, and the two are often partners of convenience rather than conviction. After the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, and sanctions lifted, Iran signaled its preference for dealing with Europeans in business and commercial matters, even if Iran continued to coordinate its efforts in Syria with Moscow. To deal with sanctions, and to salvage at least some of the income it is losing from U.S. efforts, Iran may have no choice but to concede to business arrangements with Russian entities — particularly those already under sanction from the U.S. — at terms far less advantageous to Tehran.

Despite language in the media that suggests Russia and Iran are allies, Moscow has no binding defense commitments with Tehran. Russia therefore has no obligation to respond to any U.S. strike against Iranian targets and no credibility to jeopardize by appearing unable to defend its “red lines” since, when it comes to Tehran, it has not declared any. Iran, of course, is a major customer for Russian military equipment, although it is unclear whether any clashes between U.S. and Iranian units would serve as selling points for Moscow’s arms exports or highlight their deficiencies in coping with U.S. weaponry. Increased U.S. pressure on Iran, however, may compel Iran to spend even more of its diminishing reserves to obtain capabilities to blunt or thwart U.S. actions.

As my colleague Jim Cook has pointed out in these pages, the United States is currently not postured to engage in a major military operation in the Middle East while sustaining a longer-term shift for great power competition with China and Russia in Europe and Asia. To gear up for a major conflict with Iran, the U.S. would be forced to de-emphasize Europe’s eastern flank, allowing Russia more time and breathing space to consolidate its position. On the other hand, a U.S. campaign that is defined more by bellicose rhetoric and less by action will buttress Russia’s claim, already seemingly validated in Syria and in Venezuela, that the U.S. talks a good game but has no real stomach for projecting its power.

But given America’s track record in other Middle Eastern conflicts, where tactical victories become political quagmires, Russia isn’t particularly worried about the possibility of the United States unleashing some sort of massive transformation of the region that would undercut Russia’s interest in the region or pose a threat to Russia itself. We can expect Russia to use the threat of an Iran-U.S. conflict to insert itself as the responsible mediator, and to position Russia, as it has done in Syria, as the indispensable mediator.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump's Iran policy proves the primacy of US power — but to what end? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke State Department raises concerns about Sweden's treatment of detained American rapper MORE will be traveling for consultations with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and possibly Putin himself when he makes a previously unscheduled visit to Sochi, Russia’s de facto southern capital, on May 14 — following in the footsteps of the Iranians, Saudis, Israelis and Turks who have gotten to know the route to Sochi quite well in the past two years. No matter how those talks pan out, Russia is positioning itself to benefit from whatever happens in the Gulf.

Nikolas Gvosdev is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy’s staff college in Newport, R.I., and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed are his own. Follow on Twitter @NavalWarCollege.