Opinion

On Iran, Putin Has a Price. Can the U.S. and Israel Pay It?

The first ever trilateral meeting between U.S., Russian and Israeli national security advisers could be a gamechanger on pushing Iran's military out of Syria. What will it cost to get Russia into the anti-Iran camp - and who will pay

Bibi-collage
Alex Brandon/AP, Abir Sultan/AP, POOL/Reuters

Largely overshadowed by last week's political upheaval in Israel was a low-key but highly significant announcement: Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat will host a joint meeting with his American and Russian counterparts, John Bolton and Nikolay Patrushev, later in June.

A meeting of this sort is unprecedented. But so are the regional challenges facing all three countries, and the need to work together to find solutions. 

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Some may see it as a favor from President Donald Trump to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Trump has consistently boosted as he tries to remain in office. But regardless of the political backdrop, the meeting presents an important strategic opportunity, and its originators deserve praise for pulling it off.

The central subject of the meeting will be Syria, and particularly the Iranian military presence there that has drawn dozens, if not hundreds, of Israeli airstrikes.

Image released by Israeli military of strike in Syria early on June 2, 2019.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Russia has acquiesced to Israel's highly accurate and professional campaign against Iranian missile and drone installations, some of which have been used to launch attacks against Israel. But Netanyahu, who has repeatedly traveled to Moscow to press his case with Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeks greater Russian cooperation to eliminate this threat.

Until now, Russia has done little to limit the Iranian presence in Syria. That will be the major demand of Israel and the United States at the joint meeting of the national security advisers. They will insist that Russia, with its dominant position in Syria and massive influence over the Assad regime that it rescued from oblivion, lay down the law with Iran and force the withdrawal of Iranian forces.

The problem is that Russia's motivation and reliability are in doubt. 

At times, the Russians have claimed they lack authority, and that only Assad can dictate which foreign forces are allowed on Syrian territory. On other occasions, Russia reached understandings with Israel that Iranian forces, Hezbollah fighters, and Shia militias would be kept 60 kilometers from the Israeli border.

Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018
\ Aziz Taher/ REUTERS

But despite Moscow taking responsibility for enforcing these rules, they were regularly violated. And Israel has felt compelled to hit Iranian installations, equipment, and personnel at numerous other locations in Syria to prevent the entrenchment of capabilities that threaten Israeli territory.

Can adding the United States to the discussion change the equation? Israel Channel 13's Barak Ravid reported this week that Washington has already made clear to Russia in recent weeks that it fully supports Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria, and that the removal of Iranian forces is an American demand, no less than an Israeli one.

But American leverage in Syria is limited. As the campaign to defeat ISIS wound down, President Trump made it clear that he desired the full removal of U.S. troops from Syria. While some forces remain, Russia may understandably doubt the U.S. commitment. And talks on post-war arrangements in Syria have largely been conducted between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, without U.S. representatives present.

Israel and the United States need to use the opportunity of this joint meeting to create incentives that would persuade Russia to finally curtail the Iranian presence in Syria.

For the U.S., which is edging toward relaunching nuclear talks with Iran, that may include giving Russia a seat at the table, or even a key intermediary role. There is a trade-off in such an offer. Russia does not favor an Iranian nuclear weapon. But it continues to support the Iran nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from, and would certainly seek fewer restrictions on Iran going forward than would either the United States or Israel.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Prime Minister Netanyahu during a press conference in Jerusalem, January 6, 2019.
Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

At the same time, Russia wants to avoid a military conflict between the United States and Iran. The destabilizing impacts of such a clash, or of the collapse of the Iranian regime, are one reason, but not the main one. 

What Russia most wants to avoid is a scenario that necessitates a surge of U.S. forces back into the Middle East. With two consecutive U.S. administrations seeking to limit and decrease American military commitments in the region, Russia, fully invested in Syria, enjoys greater regional influence than it has had in decades. So Moscow will try to use diplomacy, including urging Iranian concessions, to minimize the chance of a U.S.-Iranian conflict.

There are also risks associated with these talks that Israel and the United States must avoid.

One is that Russia would seek to divide the two allies, or indeed, to use Israeli pressure to get the United States to make unacceptable concessions to Russia. Netanyahu, whose last two trips to Moscow sandwiched his March visit to Washington, has positioned himself as something of an intermediary between Trump and Putin, helping advance a dialogue both leaders seem to want but have found hard to conduct.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greet each other during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, February 27, 2019.
Maxim Shemetov,AP

But Israel and the United States could find themselves facing a dilemma. Patrushev might seek, for example, a reduction in U.S. sanctions over Russia's aggression against Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in exchange for Russia agreeing to expel Iran from Syria. 

The United States should not take this deal, which would sacrifice core strategic interests in Europe in exchange for dubious Russian promises in the Middle East. And Israel should not find itself in a position of urging the United States to follow this course. Bolton would be wise to rule out such a Ukraine-for-Syria trade before these talks commence.

One more risk is that Israel could get pulled into high-stakes U.S. domestic politics. Although Trump felt exonerated by the Mueller report, Congressional investigations into his campaign’s relations with Russia, his financial dealings with Russian partners, and his obstruction of all such inquiries are ongoing and could yet lead to impeachment proceedings. 

An Israeli role as the facilitator of what Trump seems to most long for and what his critics view with the greatest suspicion - a normalized relationship with Putin - could cast Israel into the midst of a drama in which it wants no part. 

Israel has every reason to pursue its strategic interests, which include using the warm Netanyahu-Putin channel and this new trilateral format to try to minimize Iranian threats in Syria. But it is better off pursuing those goals without becoming a player in the biggest political showdown Washington is capable of.

Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro