Perfect Partners – Moscow & Tehran intend to have their own way in the Middle East


Sep 14, 2017 | By Reuel Marc Gerecht  – weekly standard – When he won election, Donald Trump—along with his national security adviser Michael Flynn, his all-purpose counselor Stephen Bannon, and, perhaps, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—was fond of the idea that Russia and Iran, comrades-in-arms in Syria, weren’t natural partners. Flynn was particularly open about his desire to create a new Moscow-Washington alignment against Islamic militants. The pro-Russia, anti-Iran crowd never explained exactly how this strategic jujitsu might be done, except to suggest that the White House might turn a blind eye—blinder than Barack Obama’s—to Russian ambitions in Ukraine and work to reverse American and European sanctions levied after Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

Flynn and Bannon are gone, Congress has passed further sanctions against Russia, the administration has shuttered more of Moscow’s diplomatic posts in the United States, and Trump and his family appear to be enmeshed in never-ending Russia troubles.

Yet the president and others in the White House still harbor the hope that Moscow and Washington can find common ground in confronting Islamic militancy. Trump’s Warsaw speech in July highlighted this transcendent fear of Islam unhinged. Syria consumed much of Trump’s two-hour meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit. His recent Afghanistan speech underscored the president’s intention to work with all parties against Islamic terrorism: “In this effort, we will make common cause with any nation that chooses to stand and fight alongside us against this global threat.” And Putin regularly defends his intervention in Syria as a counterterrorist operation.

Trump’s Russophile inclinations may spring from many sources, but the president’s focus on “radical Islamic terrorism” is surely among the most important factors in his outreach to the Russian ruler. Bureaucrats are obliged to take notice as this desired Russian-American fraternity ripples through the State Department and the intelligence community. As one senior counterterrorism official recently put it to me, “if we can see a possible [pro-]Russian angle, we flag it.”

Although most Republicans in Congress remain skeptical of, if not fiercely hostile to, Putin’s Russia, a growing slice of the populist and realist right appears willing to give Putin the benefit of the doubt, in great part because of perceived common enemies. The Russians have been hit hard by Chechen terrorists. The 2002 Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis in Moscow and the 2004 Beslan school massacre in North Ossetia were, we are often told, searing experiences for Putin. And the Russian ruler regularly highlights the need for a more conservative Orthodox oikoumén to hold its own against a liberal, decadent West—a position that appeals to many American social conservatives (Pat Buchanan loves the idea). This affinity may seem downright bizarre to anyone who has spent time in Moscow and seen how the Russian elite live (Western European leftists are vastly more “conservative”). America Firsters’ flirtation with Russia surely has as much to do with their discomfort with their own society as it does with what Putin and his friends espouse. The right’s anxiety about Islam—and this unease extends way beyond the Firster crowd—feeds the hope for a Russian-American front. For some, modern militant Islam might do what the Crusades could not: heal the Great Schism of 1054, when the Western and Eastern churches became bitter rivals.

Under Obama, a secularized version of this us-versus-the-jihadists vision might have floated in the background of his and Hillary Clinton’s “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations, at least until Russian fighter-bombers started pulverizing ordinary Syrians. President Obama’s outreach to Iran, whose foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, rarely opens his mouth without highlighting the need for a Western-Iranian partnership against the scourge of (Sunni) holy warriors, certainly advanced this new strategic and cultural doctrine. Trump hopefully brought Russia back and returned Iran to the radical-Islam penalty box.

But a Russian-American entente never made a lot of sense because of one overpowering fact: Russia and the Islamic Republic have deeply shared strategic interests that simply overwhelm the carrots and sticks that Washington can toss at Putin. Spiritually, Putin and the ruling elite in Tehran easily dislike the United States more than they suspiciously regard each other. Strategically, diminishing America in the Middle East is an unalloyed good for both. And Russia’s relationship with the Islamic world simply can’t be defined by the kind of Samuel Huntington-esque civilizational struggle that has become the lingua franca of so many on the American right.

Russian-Iranian Symmetry

Iran has never posed a strategic threat to Moscow. The Islamic Republic has never gained a foothold in the Caucasus and Central Asia outside of Tajikistan, the only Persian-speaking country in the former Soviet Union. And even in Sunni Tajikistan, anti-Iranian sentiments are widespread. When the Tajik civil war (1992-1997), pitting Westernized, post-Soviet authoritarian reformers against Westernized, post-Soviet Islamists, tore the country apart, Tehran was at a loss. As the natives started to use heavy weaponry at close quarters, Iranian diplomats and spies retreated to the Hotel Tajikistan in Dushanbe, where Russian soldiers protected them.

Until Syria, the Chechen wars were the bloodiest modern engagement in which a non-Muslim power sought relentlessly to kill large numbers of Muslim civilians. The Iranians kept their distance, only rarely rising to give rhetorical support to Sunni Muslims bombarded by Russian artillery and planes. And in the post-Soviet Armenian-Azeri conflict, the clerical regime has been a de facto Armenian ally, siding with Christians against a secular Muslim regime that is sympathetic to dissident Iranian Azeris and has a barely clandestine intelligence and military relationship with Israel.