While Moscow hopes to balance its relationship with Tehran with its ties to Tel Aviv and Washington, premature gloating about the Kremlin abandoning Iran outright — in some “deal” beggared by Netanyahu and Trump, no less — remain mere wishful thinking.
TEHRAN, IRAN – Little of real substance seems to have resulted from the infamous Helsinki meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, with even a joint communiqué from the two heads of state failing to materialize.
Yet much of the talk about a possible “Helsinki pact” discussed between the two leaders has focused on potential trade-offs affecting the proxy conflicts being waged across the Middle East and Russia’s borders.
Reports alleging a supposed “grand bargain” between the White House and the Kremlin have circulated since Monday. The deal would see the two cooperate to protect Israel’s security by preventing Iran and its Shia allies from establishing a permanent presence on the border of Israeli-occupied territories, or even throughout the whole of post-civil war Syria. According to this theory, Russia would also pressure Tehran to curb its missile development programs.
In exchange, Moscow would be given a freer hand in Ukraine while sanctions against Russia would be loosened.
These reports appear to be far more sizzle than steak, to put it gently. Trump and Tel Aviv hardly have the skill to dictate such terms to their counterparts, and Congress is hardly likely to let up in its frenzied push to ensure that Russia-U.S. ties remain at sub-zero temperatures.
Throughout the week, Israeli media and pro-Israeli outlets like Breitbart have trumpeted the claim that Trump managed to score “a very significant win: namely, an agreement to avoid a war in the Middle East by restraining Iran in Syria.”
Saudi state newspaper Al-Arabiya even featured a column from Heshmat Alavi – a supporter of the Iran-derived, Western-backed cult Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) – who enthused that Helsinki has left Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “watching in agony as world powers decide Iran’s future,” portending the impending collapse of “Iran’s regime.”
As many observers have noted, even if Moscow was inclined to do Israeli or U.S. bidding, it scarcely has the clout to restrain Iran. This appears to be lost on Donald Trump, who has been eager to score a significant foreign policy victory of some kind. U.S. allies have been more realistic in their outlook. As one European official told HuffPost:
We don’t believe that [the Russians] have so much influence on Iran … Maybe the Americans believe it. It’s easier for them to believe it and say let the Russians do the job. But we are quite doubtful.”
Iran and Russia have had a complicated and tense relationship in the recent past, as illustrated by Moscow’s years-long hesitancy to fulfill contracts signed by Tehran for the S-300 missile defense system.
Incidents like this, accompanied by Russia’s warming ties with Saudi Arabia, have led to lingering fears in Tehran over being back-stabbed by Moscow.
Discussions about potential deals meant to peel Moscow from its relationship with fellow oil giant Tehran and provide an “off-ramp” out of Russia’s “Syrian quagmire” have long been in vogue in Washington, dating back to the Obama era.
Yet, as analyst Shoaib Bahman wrote on Monday for Iranian website Fararu:
The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia … have employed diverse tactics to create a schism between Tehran and Moscow to advance their own interests in Syria. Proposals by Americans, channeled to Russians via Israel, implies a tradeoff: In return for pushing Iranians out of Syria, Russians will see sanctions imposed on them after annexation of Crimea revoked, Bashar Assad will remain in power … . Russians are well aware of Iran’s strategic influence in the region, and Tehran will not leave Syria under pressure from Moscow. Kremlin also knows that if it squeezes Tehran, it will eventually see a significant portion of its influence in the Middle East lost.”
Russia Reassures Tehran
Reports of the “grand bargain” began to emerge following the Helsinki summit. In an interview with Fox News, Trump was scarce on detail but bubbled over with his belief that he and Putin “came to a lot of good conclusions, a really good conclusion for Israel – something very strong.”
During a press conference, Trump said:
President Putin also is helping Israel. And we both spoke with Bibi Netanyahu, and they would like to do certain things with respect to Syria, having to do with the safety of Israel.”
He also stressed the need to counter Iran’s “terror” in the Middle East, and particularly Syria, stating that Tehran can’t “benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS.”
During the press conference, Putin himself spoke of the Syrian army campaign to retake Deraa in Syria’s southwest, adding that he and his counterpart agreed to cooperate to secure the adjacent border with Israeli-occupied territories and restore a peaceful status quo in accordance with the 1974 disengagement of forces deal that paused the conflict between Syria and Israel.
Israeli occupation forces seized the strategic 500-square-mile Golan Heights from Syria in its expansionist war of 1967 prior to outright annexing it.
In the past several months, Israel has lobbied hard for Russia to force Iran-aligned groups fighting alongside Syrian forces against Israeli-backed extremist groups to withdraw from the southwestern border region abutting the Golan by tens of kilometers – or even to abandon Syria’s territory altogether.
Iranian senior officials have, for their part, stressed that they would “immediately leave if Iraqi and Syrian governments want it, not because of Israel and America’s pressure.”
Judging by statements from relevant Russian officials, Moscow intends to demand an end to Iran’s overall presence in Syria.
On Thursday, Russia’s presidential envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, briefed Iranian officials in Tehran on the Helsinki summit and assured them that cooperation would continue, commenting:
There has been no pause in the determination and will of the Russian government in the continuation of mutual cooperation to fight terrorism, and this path will continue until the establishment of complete stability and security in Syria.”
The envoy’s message is consistent with comments by Russia’s ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, who told Russian daily Kommersant on Wednesday:
“First of all, I would like to remind you that the Iranian military presence in Syria is legitimate. The Iranians are there, as well as the Russian military, at the invitation of the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic and are participating in the operation to destroy terrorists.
… Iran is not a country that you can put pressure on.”
While Moscow is clearly hoping to balance its relationship with Tehran with ties to its enemies in Tel Aviv and Washington, premature gloating about the Kremlin abandoning Iran outright — in some “deal” beggared by Netanyahu and amateur statesman Trump, no less — remain mere wishful thinking.
Top Photo | Russian Vladimir Putin arrives to attend a meeting with Russian ambassadors to foreign countries in Moscow, Russia, July 19, 2018. Sergei Karpukhin | AP
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.