WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is exploring ways to break Russia’s military and diplomatic alliance with Iran in a bid to both end the Syrian conflict and bolster the fight against Islamic State, said senior administration, European and Arab officials involved in the policy discussions.
The emerging strategy seeks to reconcile President Donald Trump’s seemingly contradictory vows to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and to aggressively challenge the military presence of Iran—one of Moscow’s most critical allies—in the Middle East, these officials say.
A senior administration official said the White House doesn’t have any illusions about Russia or see Mr. Putin as a “choir boy,” despite further conciliatory statements from Mr. Trump about the Russian leader over the weekend. But the official said that the administration doesn’t view Russia as the same existential threat that the Soviet Union posed to the U.S. during the Cold War and that Mr. Trump was committed to constraining Iran.
“If there’s a wedge to be driven between Russia and Iran, we’re willing to explore that,” the official said.
Such a strategy doesn’t entirely explain the mixed signals Mr. Trump and his circle have sent regarding Moscow, which have unnerved U.S. allies and caught Republican leaders in Congress off guard.
Days after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said a surge in violence in eastern Ukraine demanded “clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions,” Vice President Mike Pence suggested Sunday that Washington could lift sanctions on Moscow soon if it cooperated in the U.S. fight against Islamic State.
Mr. Trump himself spoke again about wanting to mend relations with Mr. Putin in an interview that aired before Sunday’s Super Bowl, saying “it’s better to get along with Russia than not.” After Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said Mr. Putin was a “killer,” the president responded: “What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
But those involved in the latest policy discussions argue there is a specific focus on trying to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran.
“There’s daylight between Russia and Iran for sure,” said a senior European official who has held discussions with Mr. Trump’s National Security Council staff in recent weeks. “What’s unclear is what Putin would demand in return for weakening the alliance.”
But persuading Mr. Putin to break with Tehran would be immensely difficult and—a number of Russian experts in Washington say—come at a heavy cost likely to reverberate across America’s alliances with its Western partners. Nor would Mr. Trump be the first U.S. president to pursue the strategy: The Obama administration spent years trying to coax Russia away from Iran, particularly in Syria, only to see the two countries intensify their military operations there to bolster the Damascus regime.
“If the Kremlin is to reduce its arms supplies to Iran, it is likely to expect a significant easing of sanctions,” said Dimitri Simes, a Russia expert and president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “The Russians don’t believe in free lunches.”
The Kremlin has said it aims to mend ties with the U.S. under the Trump administration but in recent months has also signaled its intent to continue to build on its cooperation with Iran.
Moscow and Tehran have formed a tight military alliance in Syria in recent years. The Kremlin is a major supplier of weapons systems and nuclear equipment to Iran.
But the Trump administration is seeking to exploit what senior U.S., European and Arab officials see as potential divisions between Russia and Iran over their future strategy in Syria and the broader Mideast.
“The issue is whether Putin is prepared to abandon [Ayatollah] Khamenei,” said Michael Ledeen, an academic who advised National Security Council Advisor Michael Flynn during the transition and co-wrote a book with him last year. “I think that might be possible if he is convinced we will ‘take care’ of Iran. I doubt he believes that today.”
Russia, Iran and Turkey have been leading talks in Kazakhstan in recent weeks to try to end Syria’s six-year war. Participants in the discussions, which have excluded high-level U.S. diplomats, said Russia has appeared significantly more open than the Iranians to discussing a future without President Bashar al-Assad.
A Russian-backed faction in the talks has promoted the creation of a new Syrian constitution and a gradual transition away from Mr. Assad.
Moscow has pressed the Trump administration to join the talks at a high-level, an invitation not extended while President Barack Obama was in office. Last week, the administration sent only a lower-level official, its ambassador to Kazakhstan.
Mr. Putin largely has succeeded in saving the regime of Mr. Assad from collapse through a brutal air war in Syria over the past 18 months. But the Kremlin is interested in fortifying its long-term military presence in Syria and doesn’t necessarily view Mr. Assad as an enduring partner, these officials said.
Iran, conversely, is wholly wedded to Mr. Assad as its primary partner for shipping weapons and funds to Iran’s military proxies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, including Hezbollah and Hamas. Any future Arab leader in Syria, even one close to Mr. Assad, is unlikely to tie his position so closely to Tehran.
“Russia is fully aware of the corruption and incompetence of the Assad regime…[and] knows that a stable Syria—a country worth having military bases in the long term—is unattainable with Assad at the helm,” said Fred Hof, a former State Department official who oversaw Syria policy during President Obama’s first term.
He added: “Tehran knows there is no Syrian constituency beyond Assad accepting subordination to [Iran].”
The Obama administration also pursued a strategy of trying to woo Russia away from Tehran. During his first term, Mr. Obama succeeded in getting then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to support tough United Nations sanctions on Iran for its nuclear activities. Moscow also delayed the delivery of antimissile batteries to Tehran, sparking a diplomatic row between the countries.
In return, the Obama White House rolled back missile-defense deployments in Europe that Russia believed weakened its strategic position.
Tensions between Russia and the U.S. flared, though, after Mr. Putin regained the presidency in 2012 and seized the Crimean region of Ukraine in 2014. The U.S. and European Union responded with tough financial sanctions on Mr. Putin’s inner circle.
A number of Russia experts in Washington say they believe Mr. Putin would demand a heavy price now for any move to distance himself from Iran. In addition to easing sanctions, they believe he would want assurances that the U.S. would scale back its criticism of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine and stall further expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership for countries near the Russian border.
Montenegro is scheduled to join NATO this year. The U.S. Senate still needs to vote to approve the bid.
In a report released Friday, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, cautioned that even if Moscow were to distance itself from Tehran, it wouldn’t contain the enormous influence that Iran wields over Syria’s economic, military, and political institutions. “Any U.S. effort to subvert Iran’s posture in Syria through Russia will undoubtedly end in failure,” the assessment said.
Russia delivered its S-300 antimissile system to Iran after Tehran, the U.S. and five other world powers implemented a landmark nuclear agreement a year ago. The Kremlin since has talked of further expanding its military and nuclear cooperation with Tehran.
Mr. Trump, though, campaigned on improving relations with Moscow, a theme that Mr. Putin has publicly embraced. Mr. Trump has suggested he could ease sanctions on Russia if the Kremlin took serious steps to cooperate in fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and addressing other national security threats to the U.S.
Mr. Trump and his advisers have made clear since assuming office that constraining Iran would be among their top priorities. They have also privately acknowledged there is no certainty the Kremlin will cooperate.
Last week, the administration declared Iran “on notice” and the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on 25 Iran-linked individuals and entities for their alleged roles in aiding Iran’s ballistic missile program and terrorist activities. The Pentagon also dispatched a naval destroyer, the USS Cole, last week to police the waters around Yemen.
The Trump administration’s show of force has raised concerns that the U.S. and Iran could stumble into a military conflict. But officials close to the Trump administration said they believed the White House could gain the respect of the Kremlin if it showed a commitment to enforcing its warnings to other governments.
“Iran has a continuing operation throughout the region…that is not sustainable, not acceptable, and violates norms and creates instability,” a senior U.S. official said on Friday. “Iran has to determine its response to our actions. Iran has a choice to make.”