“If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset; not a liability,” Donald Trump averred. Many Americans with only hazy memories of the Cold War might agree. What, they may ask, are the practical concerns that could arise from having a president who enjoys the respect of an increasingly adversarial regime in the Kremlin? The answers to that question are manifold, but they are also theoretical. Rarely are American voters moved by abstract or potential threats to U.S. allies or interests abroad. The presumed rule that Americans don’t care about foreign policy has one exception, however: terrorism.
One concern arising from Trump’s cozy relationship with Moscow is that American allies in possession of intelligence related to the actions of Russia or its associates—notably the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran—will withhold their findings. The fear is that American allies will perceive the administration to be compromised by Russia and that any intelligence they share with the Trump administration will be exposed to Moscow-linked agents.
That fear appeared to receive some confirmation on Thursday. According to Ynet News’ Ronen Bergman, Israeli intelligence officials are increasingly wary about sharing their intelligence with a Trump White House. Bergman revealed details of a meeting that supposedly took place between American intelligence officials and their Israeli counterparts in which the Americans warned of the consequences of providing information to the Trump administration.
“According to the Israelis who were present in the meeting,” the report alleged, “the Americans recommended that until it is made clear that Trump is not inappropriately connected to Russia and is not being extorted–Israel should avoid revealing sensitive sources to administration officials for fear the information would reach the Iranians.”
The Russian-Iranian nexus has been largely overlooked by the incoming administration. Donald Trump’s team may be populated with an unusual number of Russian doves, but the administration is also made up of Iran hawks. Trump has thus far failed to reconcile the contradiction in a foreign policy that prioritizes amity toward Moscow but also pledges to counter the Islamic Republic’s expanding influence in the Middle East. That contradiction has led those who are skeptical, even fearful, of Trump’s conspicuous displays of fealty toward Vladimir Putin to take heart.
Donald Trump will be the third consecutive American president to take office with visions of executing a grand rapprochement with Russia. His two predecessors found their dreams dashed by the reality of Russo-American relations and our inherently conflicting interests. So, too, will Trump discover that Russian national interests as defined by Vladimir Putin clash in an irreconcilable way with American priorities in Europe and the Middle East. One element of that reality is Moscow’s relationship with Iran.
Russia and Iran are working closely in Syria to ensure the genocidal dictator Bashar al-Assad survives the civil war, a conflict which destabilizes the West and incubates radical Islamist terrorist elements. Russia has provided Iran with S-300 surface-to-air missile defense systems, which are believed to be sophisticated enough to deter a first strike by U.S. or Israeli air assets on Tehran’s nuclear program. Last summer, video emerged purporting to show that Russian bombers were utilizing an Iranian airbase to execute strikes in Syria—a controversial move that was not well-received by the Iranian people and prompted Tehran to dramatically revoke Russian access (though it was quietly reinstated soon thereafter).
Russia’s alliance with Iran is an uneasy one. At Tuesday’s funeral for Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, thousands of Iranians took to the streets shouting “death to Russia” and “the Russian Embassy is a nest of spies.” As COMMENTARY’s Michael Rubin has noted, centuries of ideological and territorial disputes between Russia and Iran have left the Iranian public hostile toward their northern neighbor. This unstable alliance may present a tempting target for the Trump administration. It may soon discover that the necessity of countering Iranian objectives in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and around the world require them to isolate Russia or to induce it to decouple from Iran.
Furthermore, the notion that Israeli intelligence officials will balk at sharing actionable intelligence on Iran with Washington for fear that it may find its way into Russian hands is a dubious one. Israel may have developed some beneficial working relationships with a variety of global and regional powers as the Obama administration sought to create “daylight” between the U.S. and the Jewish state, but there is really only one game in town.
Only the United States possesses the capabilities and relationships in the region that can facilitate the containment of the Islamic Republic. In testimony before Congress, Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis said on Thursday that it would be administration policy to publicize Iran’s destabilizing actions and support for terrorist elements as a means of enforcing the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal). That would be a constructive break from Obama administration policy and should reassure nervous members of the Israeli government. America’s allies may be reluctant in the future to share intelligence with Washington as it relates to Russia, but it seems unlikely that the same applies to Iran—particularly if the ally in question is one as uniquely threatened by Iranian operations as is Israel.
The danger posed by allies withholding American intelligence from an administration they do not trust is real, but it is a threat that should not be overblown. The credibility of this administration will be tested; every new administration’s is. Concerns over how the Trump administration will respond to that test are warranted, but that response should not be prejudged before it is formulated. Reality has a way of making itself inescapable.