The Fallout of the US-Iran Confrontation for Russia: Revisiting Factors in Moscow’s Calculus

28 Jan 2021

The Fallout of the US-Iran Confrontation for Russia: Revisiting Factors in Moscow’s Calculus

By Abdolrasool Divsallar, Pyotr Kortunov

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the Middle East Directions Programme of the EUI Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies Report

January 28, 2021

2020 witnessed the peak of military tensions between the US and Iran since the conclusion of the tanker-war in 1987. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign and Iran’s resistance/retaliation policy have worked to generate collision points one after another. Despite both sides’ unwillingness to wage a war, the risk of an all-out conflict breaking out has become a consistent feature of US-Iran tensions. A new president in the White House is expected to bring opportunities for diplomatic crisis management, but it might not be able to swiftly erode the risk of war.

Several factors contributing to the risk of a US-Iran war remain persistent throughout 2021. First, both sides’ violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has complicated the resolution of the nuclear crisis with a face-saving option, raising the chance of failure. Second, while Washington assesses its extended sanction regime as invaluable leverage, Tehran see its nuclear potential and the swift leap of its missile program to intermediate or intercontinental ranges as pressure tools. Both sides' leveraging acts, combined with the trust deficit, have made reaching another deal far more difficult. Third, Iranian internal politics are divided over talks with the US. Hassan Rouhani’s government is leaving office and has become structurally weak, leaving centers of powers to compete over who will lead negotiations and what to negotiate. This situation constrains constructive engagement with the US until a new government in Tehran will be elected on 18 July 2021. Fourth, a heightened anti-American sentiment within the deep state and the Islamic Republic's reliance on its deterrence posture to counter US threats, keeps the risk of accidental collisions high. Fifth, and finally, destabilizing provocations such as the assassination of a top Iranian defense official in November risk a collision between regional actors such as Iran and Israel, ultimately forcing the US to intervene.

The above destabilizing dynamics contribute to bringing about fresh moments of escalation. Besides, if Iran decides to go nuclear, the risk of a US-led strike on Iranian atomic facilities will arise. The history of miscalculations in Washington and Tehran, the absence of deconfliction mechanisms, and international actors’ difficulties in establishing rapid conflict prevention measures provides US-Iran tensions a potential to easily evolve into a military engagement. What would be the implications of such a scenario for Russia? Will the fallout of a US-Iran war in the Middle East push Russia to rush in with a more active mediation effort? Or will Russia prefer to erode US power projection through military assistance to Iran?

This paper attempts to explore the cost-benefit calculations which would drive Moscow’s decisions in a US-Iran war scenario. In the first section, we analyze the possible benefits Moscow might derive from an open conflict emerging between the US and Tehran, while in the second we consider the downsides of such a scenario for Russian interests. The paper analyzes the implications of these benefits and costs on Russian Middle East policy. We argue that Moscow’s losses in such a war would be threatening to Russia’s core interests in the Middle East, and thus is probably the key factor defining the Russian response strategy.