What Does Putin Think About Trump’s Saber Rattling Against Iran?

On Wednesday, Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn put Iran “on notice” after they tested a ballistic missile. It is now being reported that the administration is planning to impose new sanctions on Iran. As Reuters reports, they are unlikely to have much effect.

The impact of the new sanctions will be more symbolic than practical, especially as the move does not affect the lifting of broader U.S. and international sanctions that took place under the nuclear deal. Also, few of the Iranian entities being targeted are likely to have U.S. assets that can be frozen, and U.S. companies, with few exceptions, are barred from doing business with Iran.

The bigger question is whether or not the recent saber-rattling against Iran is a lead-up to Trump’s campaign promise to get rid of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration. At a speech to AIPAC last March the president said that his number one priority “is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” We know that Congressional Republicans would support that, given their response as the agreement was being finalized. Several of Trump’s inner circle have expressed similar support for nixing the deal, including VP Pence, who promised that Trump would “rip up” the agreement once in office. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s CIA director said, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”

There’s one big hitch to all that. As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote several months ago, “Trump can’t be pals with Putin and stand up to Iran.”

Sooner or later, however, [Trump] will need to confront an unpleasant reality: Russia and Iran are allies, and both want to displace the United States as the primary force in the Middle East. Put differently, if we want to turn the screws on Iran, Russia will not want to “get along” with us.

Russia has long been an ally of Iran and has consistently chosen to side with the Shiite government both there and the minority aligned with Assad in the Middle East proxy wars between Sunni and Shia. Alienating Iran (and potentially Russia) means losing any hope of working with those two countries to deal with ISIS in Syria.

Russia was part of the P5+1 group that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal and has been moving to further strengthen economic ties with that country since its implementation.

“Iran is Russia’s longtime partner. We believe that bilateral relations will benefit from the reduction of tensions around Iran following the comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program,” Putin said in a major interview with Azerbaijani state news agency Azertac released on Friday. He added that Iranian leaders shared his approach.

While Putin is obviously happy that the U.S. elected Trump to be president, he certainly has no love lost for this country. It could be that he would welcome the kind of disruption of our relationships with allies and the chaos that would be unleashed if the Trump administration pulled out of the Iranian deal and/or escalated the tensions with them. But were that to happen, it would mean that all of Trump’s bluster about getting along better with Russia would go by the wayside as Putin would – at least publicly – have to choose sides.

In the end, the Trump administration will have to decide if their friendship with Putin is more important than the enmity they feel for anything accomplished by Obama.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .