The new ‘Great Game’ just saw another roll of the dice as Russian President Vladimir Putin joined hands with embattled Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to declare that they would conduct joint military drills in the Strait of Hormuz – the current flashpoint in the standoff between the U.S. and Iran.
While Iran-Russia naval drills are nothing new – they have had them before in the past – the fact that they have been announced at a time when the U.S. has increased its ‘maximum pressure’ policy by applying sanctions on Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif suggests that Moscow wants to play a more active part in the region.
The Russian ‘intervention’ which is ostensibly to come to the aid of an old friend is also being done to safeguard its own interests. Moscow wants to push itself as an ‘honest mediator’ between the Iranians and the Americans – a role that it hopes will gain even more currency after the sanctioning of the Iranian foreign minister to wrangle much need concessions from the Americans.
A breakthrough would mean that Moscow would finally be able to get some much-needed fuel from the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant project – a joint Iran-Russia project – and also win it some much needed concessions from the west on sanctions levied against it for its annexation of Crimea.
Though President Putin put on a brave face on national television in June this year stating the sanctions were ‘hurting Europe more than Russia’, economists believe the sanctions has led to the devaluation of the ruble as more and more Russian companies have traded in their rubles for dollars.
The idea of Russian mediation may sound far-fetched but in a scenario where anything can happen, it may be the only feasible option. Also, given the fact that U.S Senator Rand Paul was sent by President Trump to hold secret talks with the Iranians suggests that the president, unlike members of his cabinet – Defense Secretary John Bolton and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – is looking for a face-saving exit from a policy which is failing to yield results.
So far, despite the emotional rhetoric of President Rouhani on state television, Iran has indicated that they would be willing to compromise on two things – they would be willing to formally ratify the Additional Protocol of the JCPOA and allow the IAEA unhindered inspections anywhere for the immediate lifting of sanctions. Clearly, there is scope for middle ground and perhaps Russia would be the best nation to find it.
On Moscow’s side, Russia believes it has proved its credentials as a mediator – a role which it believes is serving its interests. The successful bid to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up chemical weapons in 2013 – at a time when Moscow-Washington hostilities were at a high – and then the hosting of the Afghan talks in May this year where ‘decent progress’ was made after representatives of the Taliban met with members of the Afghan government conveyed two messages that Russia wanted the U.S. to hear.
First, that even during a time of great hostility between the two nations Russia could be looked upon to help mediate an international crisis. Second, that it could serve as a conduit between groups the U.S. might find difficult to talk to directly. This is a message that Moscow clearly feels is worth reiterating in the case of Iran.
On Washington’s side, there are those who feel that U.S.’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy is only a few months old and it is only a matter of time before Tehran comes to the table to ratify its non-negotiable concessions. But so far the signs are not encouraging. The recent talks between the UAE and Iran, suggests that the U.S.-led coalition against Tehran may be crumbling. This divide among GCC countries, a wait and watch attitude amongst European nations, and the support of China and Central Asian nations, suggests that the U.S. may soon have to consider alternatives to its current Iran strategy. When it does that it will soon find that other major players are waiting in the wings to ‘help’. One of them is more than likely to be Russia.