Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 United States presidential election are irrefutable. Russian hackers were behind attacks aimed at the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Party, and troll farms planted fake stories on social media to prey on existing divides with peripheral attempts to enter voter registration databases in multiple states. Still, discourse of United States President Donald Trump as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s puppet is ill-suited to explain US policy.
The intense scrutiny placed on Trump and collusion has created a political atmosphere in which Russia has effectively become a boogeyman for domestic political ends. The uproar following any Russian policy announcement or White House scandal prompts neglect of competing policy priorities. Iran tops the list. The Russia story provides political cover for the much scarier prospect of war with Iran.
The one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki in July and Trump’s reluctance to explain what was said still offer fodder for those obsessing over collusion. Yet, no policy shifts support the thesis that Trump is giving Putin what he wants or that the United States is going easy on Russia. In fact, the United States released an additional $200 million in non-lethal military aid to Ukraine just after the summit based on advance decisions. Trump even excoriated German Chancellor Angela Merkel for support of Gazprom’s pipeline project Nord Stream 2 (which would transport Russian gas to Germany), saying it was “very bad for NATO”. The Trump administration has multiple foreign policies on Russia.
It took until August 24 for the Senate Democrats from the Foreign Relations Committee to formally request all material related to the meeting. The request feeds into the narrative that the president is acting against national interest behind closed doors. The increased interest in foreign policy is welcome. Unfortunately, a considerable part of that interest is meant to score political points. The problem with the Trump-as-Russian-puppet narrative is that it presumes a level of competence the president has not shown in handling other policy areas. Trump’s daily schedule is reportedly lax, unstructured and noticeably shorter than that of his predecessors. The president is not steering policy on a range of issues, including Russia.
Rise of the Iran hawks
Consider United States policy as set by Congress and federal departments since Trump’s inauguration. The president had a brief window when he could have rolled back sanctions established by executive order between 2014 and 2016. The United States Treasury Department, by and large, continued to increase the pressure, refusing to offer a waiver from sanctions to ExxonMobil and adding 38 individuals and organisations to sanctions lists for activity concerning Crimea and Ukraine in June. Then, Congress approved the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in August 2017 with wide-ranging sanctions against Russia as well as Iran and North Korea. The bill proved somewhat contentious, and the Treasury Department infamously trolled Congress by using lists of officials from Forbes and Kremlin websites to meet obligations for a report per the law. Despite the appearance of the Trump administration undermining sanctions, the story was more mundane. Treasury wanted to assert its autonomy from Congress since executive action is better suited to levy sanctions. Laws enshrining them tend to be difficult to repeal and can hamstring diplomacy.
Congress is now debating newer sanctions to increase pressure on Russia, likely without coherent strategy. Those panicked about Trump selling out the United States and its partners to Russia have had little to fear so far. There is no evidence the president has done much to influence serious policy decisions outside of tweets or musings that go nowhere.
Meanwhile, Trump’s lieutenants – the cabinet members and appointees close to foreign policy issues – present cause for concern. As presidential candidate, Trump was adamant when speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that dismantling the “disastrous Iran deal” was central to his foreign policy plank. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was, in fact, dedicated to keeping the United States in the nuclear deal, worried about an escalation of tension and, eventually, military threats with Iran. Others circling the White House or in the cabinet held a different view. Tillerson’s disagreements on Iran were among the reasons for his dismissal in March.
Subsequent appointments strengthened the hand of Iran hawks. John Bolton – appointed national security advisor in March – had written a 2015 New York Times op-ed calling for the United States to bomb Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Mike Pompeo, the former Central Intelligence Agency director named secretary of state in April, is another prototypical Iran hawk. An open critic of Obama administration policy, Pompeo argued that vital information was withheld from the public because of the nature of agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Trump acknowledged that he and Pompeo were on the same page regarding Iran.
Unsurprisingly, the United States left the Iran deal in May, with Trump throwing his weight behind the re-imposition of harsh sanctions and a more aggressive United States policy stance towards Tehran.
In June, Bolton reiterated that Iran “will pay a price few countries have ever paid” – in short, expressing an aggressive and even violent vision of how national power should be deployed to achieve foreign policy ends. On August 19, Bolton told the press that potential election meddling threats from Iran, China and North Korea were of sufficient concern to justify security measures. Five days later, he reportedly left a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, in Geneva without signing a joint statement. Bolton made it clear that the United States “wouldn’t tolerate meddling in [the mid-term election in] 2018 and that we were prepared to take necessary steps to prevent it from happening”. Six days later, Pompeo was reportedly looking to dial down tensions with Russia as new sanctions bills work their way slowly through Congress.
The timing of these moves suggests that Trump’s interest in improved ties with Moscow is not the primary object of talks. Pompeo has signalled that the upcoming Syrian, Russian and Iranian offensive on Idlib in Syria is an escalation of the conflict. Bolton went further in August, saying the United States would respond “very strongly” if Damascus used chemical weapons in combat.
The threats focus on justifying a US presence in the conflict to challenge Tehran abroad. Talk of election meddling is a useful political pretext to take a more publicly hawkish stance, particularly given how many people forecast after the inauguration that US withdrawal from Syria would somehow be a “win” for Russia. Similarly, the economic pain imposed by the United States is now threatening Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s political support among parliamentarians, right-wing elites and even supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Leaving the Iran deal was a means of forcing Iran to take a harder line in an environment where the United States can find readymade pretexts for action in Syria, Afghanistan and now election meddling. Overtures to Russia may appear to mirror Trump’s campaign talk of better ties, but analysts must scrutinise who is doing the talking. The United States may be preparing for a military conflict and warning Russia that it can minimise its risks. Bolton spoke about West Asia with Patrushev in Geneva, and Pompeo is trying to schedule a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for October.
Iran hawks have figured out how to play on Trump’s policy prejudices for their own political ends. Do not be fooled by rhetoric that Washington is giving Moscow what it wants because of Trump. The truth is much darker.
Nicholas Trickett holds an MA in Eurasian Studies through the European University at St Petersburg with a focus on energy security and Russian foreign policy. He is an associate scholar at FPRI and editor-in-chief of BMB Russia. He is currently pursuing an MRes in International Political Economy at the London School of Economies and Political Science.
This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.