The Multipolar World: Partnering with Russia to Stop Iran

The "unipolar moment" that the United States enjoyed following the end of the Cold War is, for the most part, over.  We have entered into what international relations scholars refer to as a "multipolar world" – a world of many powers seeking balance against each other.  Gone are the days (at least for now) of Washington dictating terms to the rest of the world because the United States was the global hegemon.  Today, China, Russia, and others have a say in how the United States can best exercise its power in their respective regions.

This multipolar reality has been especially felt in the ever shifting geopolitical sands of the Middle East.  The Middle East has been dominated by extreme ethno-religious tribalism for centuries and has long been the focus of great powers.  The region has always been important because of its geostrategic position as a crossroads of civilization: it connected the civilizations of Europe and Asia (as well as Africa).

The Mideast is also the source of much of the world's oil and natural gas.  Over time, other oil- and natural gas-producers have started competing against the Mideast (particularly we here in the United States as well as Russia).  Despite this, the region basically remains the world's gas station.

The Mideast in Flux

The goal of U.S. foreign policy for the region has centered on keeping the region's energy sources available to the world.  Because of this, Washington has not been able to rest: the region is constantly faced with the forces of modernity clashing with those of traditionalism – and within that framework, various ethno-religious groups jockeying for dominance over one another (as well as over powers like the United States) – which could close the region off to the world.

This is especially true today, as the intra-religious rivalry between the Sunni Arab world and Shiite Iran crescendos.  Iran is poised to obtain a nuclear weapons arsenal that will fundamentally alter the already precarious balance of power in the region.  With the believable threat of their nuclear weapons, the Iranians intend to shatter the axis of resistance in the Sunni Arab world while threatening their great rival, the Jewish state of Israel.  In so doing, Tehran hopes to force America's withdrawal from the region, thereby leaving Iran as the strongest power in the Mideast.

Beginning with Desert Storm, the United States spent the last 30 years running the biggest (failed) social experiment in the world: trying to democratize the Middle East to create long-term "stability."  Unfortunately, all of America's military interventions there – each one escalating in size and scope – have done little to quell the unrest.  In fact, American interventions have only worsened the instability in the region.  With the old order broken, the region appears to be transitioning away from the Sunni- and Israel-dominated balance of power toward a new Iranian order inimical to American interests.

To further the cause of regional hegemony, Iran has aligned with Russia, Turkey, and even China.  Washington fears that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will solidify Iran's claim on the region.

Putting Pressure on Iran through Russia

Iran, like North Korea, has long been considered a rogue state with malicious nuclear weapons ambitions.  Despite their continual calls for "Death to America!" and "Death to Israel!," the Obama administration made an ill advised executive agreement with the mullahs of Iran that effectively allowed Iran a path to acquiring nuclear weapons.  The Obama deal then normalized the country with the outside world.  Basically, Obama legitimized the virulently anti-American, revisionist regime in Iran – at the expense of American allies in Israel and throughout the Sunni Arab world.

While President Trump has (rightly) shredded the horrible Obama agreement with Iran, it remains to be seen if an Israeli-Sunni Arab concert can contain the growth of Iran.  Despite his tough talk on Iran, Trump appears disinclined to repeat the mistakes of his Republican presidential predecessor, George W. Bush, by invading another Muslim country.  Trump has even intimated over the last year that he'd be willing to meet with Iran's leadership (without preconditions) and make a deal – just as he has done with North Korea.

What few acknowledge is that the North Koreans came to the negotiating table because of the increasing pressure that the Trump administration placed on China.  Trump used tripolar diplomacy (among the United States, China, and North Korea) to bring North Korea to heel.  Just as China is North Korea's most important partner, Russia is Iran's most important ally.  Thus, Trump must replay his strategic gambit of using tripolar diplomacy to prevent a seemingly implacable rogue state – this time Iran – from threatening the world.

Welcome to Multipolarity!

Reaching out to Russia is something the president has been prevented from doing, thanks to the partisan hackery of Trump's opponents in Washington.  According to these partisans, Trump colluded with Russian intelligence to steal the 2016 election (a claim that remains unproven), therefore any diplomatic overture to Russia is politically toxic for Trump.

The Russians want to make a deal with Trump; they continue engaging in hostile rhetoric as part of their overall program of "escalating to de-escalate" world crises.  Yet Trump has not gotten the message because the Democrats are preventing him from picking up the phone.  As with all negotiations, there is a window of opportunity before the negotiations cannot be had...and that window is closing fast.

Without making a great geopolitical deal with Russia (which would mean creating a real peace over Ukraine and better defining NATO's eastern borders) – and soon – the chance to do for the Iran threat what Trump has managed to do with the North Korean threat will evaporate.  And, absent any meaningful diplomacy alongside Moscow, the region will slide into a terrible nuclear arms race that will eventuate in a larger gruesome war.

Russia has taken on the characteristics of its autocrat, Vladimir Putin.  As Fiona Hill observed at The National Interest, Russia wants respect more than anything else.  The Russian Federation wants to be viewed as a world power equal to that of the United States – a fact that was codified in Russia's 2002 national security strategy document.  Such desires on the part of Putin explain why Moscow has been calling for a multipolar world for years.

While it might harm Washington's ego to treat Moscow as an equal partner in world affairs, the only way to mollify the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program – without a major war against Iran (and absent another silver bullet to use on Iran, like the Stuxnet cyber-attack) – is to grant Russia the respect Putin believes he and his country deserve.  Thanks to the restrictive sanctions regime that President Trump has imposed on Russia, the United States has leverage.  By dangling the prospect of a grand bargain between Moscow and Washington over key disagreements, the United States would likely be able to get Russia to work with it on ending the threat posed by Iran.

Life in a multipolar world order is complex; often enemies must work together to balance against greater, shared threats (such as the case with Iran) while, at times, pursuing shared opportunities.  Let's not miss this opportunity out of moral squeamishness, pride, or misplaced partisan rancor.

Brandon J. Weichert is a geopolitical analyst who runs The Weichert Report, is a contributing editor at American Greatness, and is a contributor at The American Spectator.  His writings appear often in Real Clear Politics and RealClearPolicy.  He can be reached on Twitter at @WeTheBrandon.

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