When Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, ominously warned the U.S. last week that “war with Iran is the mother of all wars and peace with Iran is the mother of all peace,” he opened himself to the all-capital-letters warning from President Trump of “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”
But Rouhani’s statement also held out a sliver of a possibility that while Iran may not be amenable to that “mother of all peace,” it just might be susceptible to cooling off tensions with the U.S. And if that happens, Trump’s unflinching response to Iran will have been the key to the de-escalation. Just as Trump’s warning to North Korea’s Kim Jung-un that threats against the U.S. would be met with “fire and fury” may have finally convinced Kim to talk rather than fight with the U.S., Trump’s standing up to Rouhani may have gotten the Iranian leader’s attention, too.
Who would have thought a year ago that North Korea would be showing even a glimmer of receptivity to giving up its nukes in exchange for a peaceful co-existence with its neighbors and the U.S.? If, as has been reported, North Korea is in fact now dismantling portions of its offensive satellite production capacity to accommodate U.S. demands that it begin to “denuclearize,” that’s a powerful sign to Iran that it really is better to make peace with the U.S. than war.
Iran today is a nation that, like North Korea, is reeling because of internal economic turmoil and the pressure of U.S. sanctions. Its young population — 75 percent born since the Islamic Revolution propelled the ayatollahs to power in 1979 — is particularly restive, chafing under major unemployment and stifling restrictions on civil liberties, and denied access to the outside world. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has called out the corruption and self-dealing of Iran’s rulers, declaring, “Iran is run by something that resembles the Mafia more than a government.” He assured Iran’s opposition forces, “The United States hears you … supports you … is with you.”
With more U.S. sanctions to come — particularly on Iran’s major revenue-producing oil exports — the pressure on Iranian leaders will increase greatly. As it does, the U.S. may be able to enlist a partner in the effort to de-escalate our confrontation with Iran. That potential partner is Russia, which has a longstanding relationship with Iran. While Trump has taken much grief for trying to improve American relations with Russia, his overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin could open the door to collaboration in the Iranian crisis and the broader Middle East conflict.
Russia and the U.S. have had productive, if shaky, collaborations before in the region — most notably in Syria, with U.S. and Russian forces coordinating ferocious attacks on the remnants of ISIS. Where the U.S. has differed with Russia is on the question of continuing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But that issue is now essentially settled. Assad will likely stay in power for the foreseeable future, as his years-long war against an insurgency appears to be winding down in his favor.
So for Trump and Putin to validate their claim that they want our nations to cooperate rather than confront one another where possible, they should begin by connecting the dots on the Iranian-Syrian situation. A solution could go something like this: The U.S. recognizes that the Syrian civil war is over, concentrates its effort on humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and pushes Iranian forces out of Syria. Russia, in turn, accepts its responsibility to dampen the turmoil in Syria now that its Syrian government ally has prevailed, and uses its considerable military and diplomatic advantage in Syria to help get Iran out of that country.
The other dot that connects to this puzzle is Israel, with which both the U.S. and Russia have strong relations. Yes, Russia, too, is more ally than foe of Israel, and has promised to defend Israel against any Iranian attack. Why? Russian-speaking Jews, who immigrated to Israel from Russia, comprise Israel’s largest ethnic population.
Of 8.8 million Israelis, 1.5 million have Russian roots, so many that Putin has said, “Israel is, in fact, a special state to us.” He and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a strong personal relationship. And Russia is Israel’s largest oil supplier, which further cements their strategic relationship.
All this points to Russia and Israel as the secrets to dealing with Iran.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.