Trump’s Iran Tweet in its Geopolitical Context: The Middle-East and Putin’s Russia

CJ Cowan

12 August 2018

Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.


In yet another one of his inflammatory salvos, President Trump recently tweeted in all caps that Iran should, “BE CAUTIOUS” and told them to “NEVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES”. These comments were in response to statements made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in which Trump warned of potential catastrophic war. This is far more complicated than even the tumultuous history between the two powers would have you assume, as it has significance for the whole region and even Putin’s Russia.

Saying that relations between Iran and the United States have been dramatic would be an understatement, to say the least. The 1953 coup is thought to be “the original sin” of the west in the minds of  Iranians. British-American maneuvering culminated in the removal of Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected leader, and the restoration of the Shah, who had overt western sympathies. Mossadegh threatened Anglo-American business interests in Iranian oil.This coup is widely remembered by Iranians, as they considered it as an example of western interference in their affairs. These anti-western ideas would underpin the 1979 revolution. This anti-monarchist revolution rallied by various interest groups, most significantly Islamists removed the Shah from power. It infamously entailed the occupation of the U.S. Embassy which led to a headline-grabbing, 444-day-long hostage crisis. Diplomatic relations between the two powers ended shortly after. Flash forward to 2013, the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani won the presidency and promised to end Iran's isolation and help the economy overrun with sanctions.  Later, President Obama and Rouhani shared a historic phone call, the highest level contact between the two parties since 1979, which was the beginning of what would lead to the Iran Nuclear Deal.

The Trump Administration’s position differs sharply from that of the previous administration. Trump has been very inconsistent, especially concerning foreign policy, but when it comes to Iran he is very much the opposite. Throughout his campaign and into his presidency he has been steadily increasing the volatile rhetoric, as he quipped that the nuclear deal as no better than the paper it was written on. The United States withdrew from it in May of this year and recently brought down new sanctions on Iran, all the while he stacked his cabinet with anti-Iranian, warhawks. Observers often ponder what makes Trump’s approach to Iran different than his approach to North Korea, and the answer is regional in nature. Besides similar rhetoric and nuclear concerns, the situation in Iran is polarly different than that in the Korean Peninsula. This is due to the outlook of regional allies. In Korea, he has the support of regional actors such as China, Japan, and South Korea who fear outright conflict and have vested interests in American-North Korean rapprochement. In Iran, he has powerful interests working against peaceful dialogue such as Iran’s historical rivals- Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Russia’s relationship with Iran is far less dramatic, but also complicated and uneasy. Russia has often styled itself as a superpower comparable to the United States and takes issue with the West's persistent refusal to acknowledge this supposed fact. Russia has used Iran as a “ counterweight”  to balance its relations with the West and the United States. Russia’s strategy in the Middle East is to eliminate instability and prevent American-led interventions, as Moscow believes they create failed states. Russia views its Syria campaign as an opportunity to rebrand itself as a force for collective security, but for Tehran collective security is not their primary objective. Iran is mainly concerned with expanding its influence and containing Saudi power in the region. Often these powers have opposing objectives, and this has threatened their continued cooperation in the Syrian conflict. These divergent aims have become more jarring as the conflict transitions from a military phrase to a diplomatic phase. Iran is unwilling to end it’s military operations in Syria until Assad has completely neutralized all armed resistance, but Russia only wants Assad to have enough control to negotiate with opposition forces from a position of strength, so this difference of opinion has limited the scope of the Moscow-Tehran partnership.

After the widely publicized Helsinki summit, Russia tried to calm Tehran’s anxieties. Moscow sent an envoy to Iran to publicly confirm that the presence of Iranian forces in Syria was legal, and they distinguished Iran’s presence from the illegal militias, which Moscow has continually insisted must leave. This was intended to reiterate that the two powers’ fight against terrorism would continue. Russia's ambassador to Iran, Levan Dzhagaryan, counseled Washington by stating, "Work with Iranians can only be done through persuasion, and pressure on Iran will get you the opposite result".

Russian maneuvering between Tehran and other powers has recently garnered them some diplomatic brownie points. Russia has consistently supported the Iran Nuclear Deal, but the international pressure over Iran’s regional activities has created a geopolitical opportunity to court both Israel and the United States. Trump, unable to ease Israeli concerns, petitioned Putin to ensure the Iranians pull back from the Golan Heights, so they could not maintain a connection between Lebanon and Iran. Putin, showing an unusual level of control over a geopolitical quagmire, did so within a day of the summit. Putin has shown the ability to satisfy the security concerns of competing players in the Syrian theatre, including Israel. By abating Israel’s fears, Putin has challenged the United States’ clout with Israel and while weakening their position on Iran. (Farmanfarmaian).

Russia’s relationship with Iran is currently multifaceted and awkward, but Russia has reaffirmed its ability to use this unique relationship to its advantage both within the Middle East and against the west. Trump would be wise to be more cautious in his dealings with Iran, as Iran is no North Korea and to equate the two in terms of policy and tactics could be a mistake with fatal consequences. With crucial significance to Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Putin’s Russia, Iran could very well be Trump’s most significant challenge to date. There is so much potential to turn this relationship into something that could benefit the region and the two parties involved, but it would be quite unfortunate if it continues to become bittered, retracted bickering. SAD!