His visit to Syria was one such indicator. His follow-on trip to Turkey was another. In Istanbul, he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the two have actively supported opposing sides in Libya — issued a joint call for a cease-fire that is set to begin Sunday. Here was Russia’s president, shortly after the killing of Soleimani, showcasing his role as the real arbiter in the region.
Putin draws much of his legitimacy at home from his apparent success at restoring Russian power on the world stage. Americans and Europeans have largely failed to understand the psychological impact the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of stature and basic identity had on the Russian public and on Putin himself. While he may have restored basic stability, his failure to deliver the economic goods is very gradually eroding his standing. But his effectiveness at boosting Russia’s international prominence counts for a lot to a people who felt humiliated when the Soviet Union collapsed and America emerged as the world’s dominant power.
When America tried to use that power for political effect, however, it proved unsustainable; it also led us to overreach. President Barack Obama sought to shift U.S. global leadership away from the use of force and toward soft power — our convening power, our ability to be a source of attraction so others would identify with and support our objectives. President Trump is not an internationalist. He likes using military power in a one-off fashion. He cares little for soft power and, as a result, we have little. Who embraces our objectives and is drawn to support us today?
It is an illusion to think the rocket attack on the Iraqi base housing U.S. forces was the sum total of what the Iranians will do to exact revenge. They will act through indirection and denial, and for that reason, and Trump’s red line on killing of Americans, America’s friends in the region have good reason to worry.
But so should we. As Iran uses covert means, acts of terrorism or proxy attacks on oil facilities and other soft targets, pressure will build again for the Trump administration to respond. Moreover, Iran’s declaration that it is no longer bound by any of the limits in the nuclear deal may mean that the Islamic republic begins to significantly reduce its breakout time to weapons-grade fissile material. What is Trump going to do then? He pillories Obama for his Iran policy, but the Obama policy extended the Iranian nuclear “breakout” time to one year — even before the attack, experts said the breakout time, or the time needed for Iran to develop weapons-grade material, had shrunk to less than that. Whether through miscalculation or the need to prevent Iran’s move toward a nuclear weapon, the potential for a conflict with Iran remains acute.
Trump clearly does not want a conflict but has little capacity to produce the negotiation that he repeatedly says he wants with Iran. For sure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has no interest in directly negotiating with Soleimani’s killer. And here is where Putin — and his desire to be seen as the central arbiter in the region might come into play.
Ironically, both Trump and Khamenei need an off-ramp. Trump wants to show he ended our involvement in the “endless wars” and did not launch a new one. Khamenei does not want a shooting war with the United States, and the domestic fervor he is seeking to exploit over the killing of Soleimani won’t alter the grim economic reality in Iran. For his part, Putin does not want the region to explode with Russian forces in it.
So Putin could well become the intermediary. Trump would likely leap at the chance to forge a new nuclear deal, and he has only one criterion: He has to be able to claim that he has done better than Obama. Putin would no doubt play on that, telling Trump that if he wants more (such as concessions on the agreement’s expiration date, the so-called “sunset provisions”), he will have to give more to the Iranians in the way of economic relief and investments.
That is a natural for Trump, and given his desire for a deal, especially in an election year, those around the president should provide him with a few simple but clear thresholds that must be met for any deal: extend the sunset provisions at least 15 years, from 2030 to 2045; provide greater transparency overall, especially in respect to undeclared nuclear storage sites; destroy all facilities and equipment used in weaponizing tests; and end Iranian missile transfers and precision upgrades to existing missiles throughout the Middle East.
What an irony it would be, indeed, if Trump’s attraction to Putin could offer a pathway to defusing the Iranian threat.