Will Russia back US’ maximum pressure on Iran?

US-Russian cooperation on Iran has its limits.

Putin Pompeo
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi on May 14, 2019. [Reuters/Alexander Nemenov]

The May 14 visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Russia was, without exaggeration, expected in the Kremlin. After the report of Special Counsel Robert Muller released in March seemingly exonerated President Donald Trump of “collusion” accusations, a window of opportunity opened up to re-establish direct communication channels.

These are particularly important to the United States at the moment as it seeks not only to pull off the “deal of the century” in Palestine and find a solution in Syria, but also, more importantly, to corner Iran. To make its “maximum pressure” more effective, Washington needs Moscow to either get on board, or at least to remain neutral.

Although Pompeo’s visit did not result in a significant breakthrough, it allowed the two sides to explore avenues for cooperate, which they will likely move forward in the upcoming trilateral meeting between national security advisers from the US, Russia and Israel to take place in Jerusalem later this month.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin, for its part, has demonstrated it was willing to make certain gestures of goodwill towards the US.

Following his meeting with Pompeo, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Iran should not rely on Russia in its confrontation with the US over the nuclear deal. “Russia is not a fire brigade, we cannot save just anything, which does not fully depend on us. We have played our role … But it does not only depend on us,” the Russian president said during a press conference in Sochi on May 15.

Two weeks later, Bloomberg reported that Russia refused to provide Iran with an S-400 missile system, although this request allegedly came from the very top of the Iranian political leadership. Indeed, given that this weapons system has become an increasingly political issue, it makes sense that the Russians would tread carefully on this matter, especially if there is a chance for a thaw in relations with the US and opposition from other important regional players, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Currently, Turkey is going through a diplomatic struggle with the US over its own purchase of the S-400 and is facing the risk of its acquisition of US-made F-35 fighter jets being blocked. Other countries, like Saudi Arabia, have demonstrated interests in acquiring the missile system to use it as leverage against the US.

All this said, it is also important to understand that Bloomberg’s description of the Russian response as a “rejection” might not be entirely accurate. Apart from political considerations, Moscow also has significant technical difficulties in fulfilling orders and deliveries of the S-400. In this sense, it might simply be unable to supply one to Iran at this point.

At the same time, Moscow might see some benefit from the increased pressure on Iran at least in the short term.

The sudden drop in Iran’s oil exports can give Russia an excuse to insist on increasing its oil production quota within the so-called “Vienna agreement” with OPEC, which limits oil output in order to maintain high oil prices, and in this way heed demands by its energy giants, especially Rosneft, which have repeatedly criticised the deal.

In early July, when OPEC and its partners meet to determine their oil production for the second half of 2019, Moscow could argue that the volume of oil Iran cannot produce due to the sanctions should be redistributed between those who are part of the agreement in order to keep the international oil market stable and avoid further price fluctuations.

Meanwhile, Russia can also take advantage of Iran’s preoccupation with the threat from the US-Saudi-Israeli axis, to make further gains in Syria. Although the two are allied in their support for Damascus, Moscow has recently moved to curb to Iranian influence in certain strategic areas and solidify its own positions in the country.

But does all this mean that Russia would back the US “maximum pressure” strategy or even regime change in Iran? Not really.

First of all, Moscow sees Tehran as an important player in the Middle East and a bulwark against US hegemony. It is in its interest to keep the region “multipolar”.

Second, despite having differences in Syria, Russia also needs Iran to manage the Syrian crisis. The Kremlin is quite aware that any talk of a complete Iranian withdrawal from Syria is simply wishful thinking. Over the past eight years, the Iranians have become so deeply integrated into the body of the Syrian regime and its armed forces that their elimination would entail the dismantling of the whole political and military system – something Moscow is not prepared to do.

Third, the two countries also cooperate in the Caspian region and Central Asia on a wide variety of issues – from energy to security. In the mid-1990s, for example, it was with Iranian help that Russia managed to stop the civil war in Tajikistan. In 2008, while the West was quick to blame Russia for the war with Georgia, Iran de-facto stood by its partner and backed the Russian position. In 2018, Tehran also supported the adoption of a Moscow-sponsored framework agreement on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, although out of five littoral countries that signed this document Iranian interests were least taken into account.

Fourth, the Kremlin tried to trade its backing of Iran for better relations with the West twice before in and both times it failed to get what it wanted; it is unlikely to repeat the same mistake a third time. In June 1995, US Vice President Al Gore signed a secret agreement with then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, calling for an end to all Russian sales of conventional weapons to Iran by the end of 1999. In exchange, the Kremlin expected more active economic cooperation with the US. That never happened and on top of it, the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement cost Russia four billion dollars worth of trade and investment with Iran.

In 2009, the administrations of Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama agreed on a “reset” in Russian-US relations, which required the former to scale down its partnership with Iran. Thus, in 2010, Russia decided not to provide the S-300 missile system to Tehran in spite of previous promises to the Iranian leadership; just three years later relations with the US worsened again over the protests in Ukraine. Both times Russian-Iranian relations were seriously harmed, which created much distrust and suspicion in Tehran.

Fifth, at this time, it is unclear what the US can actually offer Russia. While the Mueller probe re-affirmed Trump’s claim that there was “no collusion”, that by far does not mean that Russia’s image has been normalised on the American political scene. With a bit more than a year left to the US election, there is that much the US president can give Russia that would not cost him the re-election.

Improving relations with Moscow would mean reconsidering Washington’s policies on a number of key issues including the annexation of Crimea, the war in Eastern Ukraine and Russian interference in the domestic affairs of other European countries.

For all these reasons, Russia is unlikely to back the US escalation against Iran. Apart from some minor amendments in its stance or an offer to mediate, it would not support US efforts to isolate its partner.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.