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US Global Retreat-Russia and Iran Advance

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There are persisting reports from inside Syria pointing to differences between IRGC officers active in the civil war there and Russian Commanders. In two separate occasions, an IRGC General complained that his officers asked for Russian air forces to bomb specific sites to no vain. The whispers questioning if Russia made a real difference in the battle fields are uttered more loudly in the last few weeks.

We do not think that the mounting Iranian criticism to the Russian military performance in Syria represents a real or serious dispute. It could be merely a method followed by IRGC propagandists to keep a distinct Shia character to their forces and to attribute any progress on the ground only to themselves. The assumption that this criticism is an expression of serious dispute is premature.

It does not make sense that any of the two powers will be willing to have any serious operational differences in this early stage of their joint operations in the Middle East. Yet, each one of them have profoundly different final objectives. That in itself is not sufficient to widen any operational difference if it indeed exist.

However, a careful examination of the two countries regional objectives should lead to a determination of the potential differences between their operational methods and regional tactics. Apart from naïve attempts to tempt the Russians to decouple with Iran through deals and arms sales, a real and smart effort should be given to locating the weak links in the ties between the two. What is to be done after is self-evident. No one believes that the marriage is helpful neither to the region nor to central Asia.

The reality is that both sides understand how profitable their partnership could be to their agendas. More pressure on both will perhaps freeze illicit contradictions in these two agendas that do not match in many points. In the current context, however, each is driven to the arms of the other by the lure of potential gains. Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Tehran November 23 and conducted an important round of talks with the Iranian leaders. The visit left a strong impression that there is no problems whatsoever between the two sides.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has called on Tehran and Moscow to boost their “bilateral, regional and international” ties, lauding Russia for his effective stance vis-à-vis regional issues, particularly those pertaining to the Syrian crisis. Khamenei attacked US regional policies forcefully after his two-hour meeting with Putin. “Americans always want to defeat their rivals but you (Putin) foiled such attempts”, he said while describing US policies in the region as “unfavorable for all regional states, particularly Iran and Russia”.

Putin reciprocated with equal generosity. “We are committed that, unlike some, never stab our partners from the back and we would never act against our friends behind the scenes. Even if we have a difference, we would reach an agreement through dialogue,” he said.

One point of those driving each to the other is the agreement that the less the US is present in the region, the better they are. Khamenei said Americans, in their long-term policies, seek to dominate West Asia, which is a threat to all regional countries, especially to Iran and Russia. This sentence distills all the current dynamics between Iran and Russia in Iraq and the East Mediterranean region. For Putin, Khamenei’s words must have been music. After all the Russian President was in Tehran to participate in the Gas Exporting Countries Forum which is meaningful in and by itself.

Russia has a lot to gain from its alliance with Iran. Not only contracts for more nuclear power reactors and other mega projects particularly in the energy sector, but access to the Middle East albeit through a controversial window.

The motives for each side to forge an alliance with the other are naturally different:

* Russia detected US regional weakness early on. Yet, ties between Washington and Sunni Arab countries were indeed unshakable, not because the Arabs wanted it to be unshakable, but because they are count on the Western World for their own security. Even when the Arabs had deep suspicion about US regional commitments, they were ready to accept Washington reassurances. And even when the Arabs complained loudly about the US moving against loyal allies like Hosni Mubarak, they did not cross the line of complaints.  Moscow’s calculus was that if it opens up to the Arabs, it will not be able to move them far enough from the US regional strategy. The Iranian horse was more convenient particularly during the period when it needed Russian support most-that is during the nuclear negotiations.

* Iran is focused on enhancing its leverage in global relations. Strengthening its ties with Moscow seemed the most likely tool available. Six decades ago, in the Middle East as well, we have seen Nasser of Egypt applying the same logic. However, it did not go exactly the way he designed it. Soon, the momentum of both the regional events and the cold war carried him deeper into the Soviet camp. But the Nonaligned Block formed in the late 50’s was not conceived, at least in plans, to be part of the Eastern Block, rather to chart a middle road enabling many smaller countries to negotiate with both major blocks on favorable terms.

We do not know what will become of the Russian-Iranian alliance. Yet, one thing is abundantly clear by now-it is that the US lacks a grand strategy.

President Obama is naturally the product of his times- that is the post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq and post-2008 crisis. In our view, the President is to be blamed for over-reacting and over-stretching the cautious approach which was naturally expected to follow these major events and blunders. For there should have been a balanced, properly dosed, approach in foreign policy based on a new US global strategy in times of recalibrating US policies dictated by the limits of US power in the world. Instead, we saw this allergic panic and simplified abstention from engaging the US in any crisis overseas.

China is engaged in a reclamation of its surrounding habitat in East Asia. Russia is engaged in Ukraine and Syria and possibly Iraq in the near future. Iran pursues its games in the Middle East. And the US is watching with a sense of amazement and bewilderment.

A grand strategy should be debated now in order to get it ready for the next administration. India, Japan and the traditional allies should be incorporated in a wider perspective about what ought to be done in East, Central and West Asia. Diplomatic, military, economic and information tools should be integrated into a concept that makes sense and towards the objective of preventing others from reducing the US role in these vital regions.

Yet, the start should be from one simple question: Is what we see now represented in the retreat of the US globally the result of an objective trend that could be merely slowed by a counter strategy? Or is it something that could be explained primarily by subjective policies and choices, hence reversible?