It was Barack Obama's famous Syrian red line from 2012 – that Syrian President Assad's use of chemical weapons would prompt American military action. Instead, it led to an agreement engineered by Assad's patron in Moscow in 2013 to supposedly end Assad's chemical weapons use. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lauded Russia for being "constructive" in securing the agreement, which was touted as a major success of Kerry's tenure at State. By 2016, Assad was back to using chemical weapons – which he had not actually eliminated – prompting punitive attacks by the Trump administration in 2017 and 2018 (the later in conjunction with the U.K. and France). Assad had never given up chemical weapons, and Russia had helped him game the issue while covering for him before the hapless Americans.
U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov enjoy a laugh in 2021
Less than a decade later, the U.S., according to former Defense Secretary Panetta, is involved in a full-fledged proxy war against Russia over Ukraine. Less than six years after President Obama declared that "Ukraine is a core interest for Russia in a way that it is not for the United States," Ukraine's and Russia's adventurism is now the foreign policy priority of the U.S. This is true to the extent that Washington has stressed already tense relations with China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Israel in order to push for a harder line by those countries against Russia.
And rather than look for some sort of way out, Washington has constantly upped the ante towards Moscow, with $3.5 billion in arms promised for Ukraine since the war began in February 2022. Policymakers have called for tens of billions of Russian funds that have been frozen by the West to be kept that way permanently, and for the Russian leadership to be tried before an international tribunal. Others (including a confused President Biden) have called for regime change, and some even have called for Russia to be broken up.
Amidst such seemingly ironclad enmity, commentators have noted the incongruity of Russia's role in the nuclear talks with Iran, with Russia serving as the go-between between its ally Iran and the Americans, who are not even in the room with the Iranians. As in the case with Assad, the Russians are trying to be "helpful," and America is relying on Russian diplomacy.
Much has been made about how Russia will benefit materially from Western sanctions relief for Iran, and how Russia will use this as a loophole for its own evasion of Western sanctions, potentially reaping billions of dollars for its future role as the storehouse of Iran's enriched uranium and as the builder of new nuclear power plants for Iran. Rather less has been made about the very real potential for outright Russian duplicity.
In accordance with Article 7 of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, Iran's inventory (at the time) of 8.5 tons of enriched uranium was shipped to Russia in December 2015. But in February 2016, Obama State Department Coordinator on Iran Stephen Mull testified before the U.S. House of Representatives that Washington had lost track of the enriched uranium, which was now under Russian control and outside IAEA oversight.
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Somehow, we expect that Russia – out of self-interest – would act in relatively responsible ways on some national security agendas, like the Iran portfolio, while we calmly pursue its downfall elsewhere. Such wishful thinking borders on insanity. The danger is not so much Russian sanctions-busting, but rather Russia looking for a full spectrum of creative ways to undermine American and Western interests in the same way that the West is looking to undermine Russian interests worldwide.
The West may take comfort that it is stronger, certainly in terms of financial coercion, than Russia. But a Putin-ruled Russia (assuming it survives) will – and logically must – find creative and indirect ways to make mischief for the West as payback. It is entirely possible that Western weapons provided to Ukraine and captured by Russia could appear in the hands of anti-West actors worldwide. Likewise, Russia's role in safeguarding nuclear material for Iran will be less the actions of a responsible diplomatic player and more those of an Iranian partner pretending to play the role of international mediator.
The U.S. has sought to drive a wedge between Russia and its various global allies and partners (Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, India, China), but the end result may be, probably later after the Ukraine War, to drive them together. Better to "hang together with Russia, or the Americans will hang us separately," to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin. But working together to avoid Western economic pressure is the least of it. A logical Russian move would be to look for ways to escalate to relieve pressure, dipping the balance in Third-World brush wars, eliminating more individuals globally using nerve agents, arming one ambitious anti-West player after another – the type the West would prefer to marginalize – and raising the price of Western hegemony.
Russia will logically seek to relieve the pressure on it by complicating things for its adversaries, whether by helping regional bad actors like Iran, weapons proliferation, turbocharging destabilizing activities such as mass illegal migration to the West ,or anything else than can cost the West in the voter's pocketbook, the defense budget, or the ballot box. There are no easy answers or quick fixes to such challenges. But Russians making some money off of a potential Iranian nuclear deal is the least of it.
*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI. Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.
 Abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2013/12/john-kerrys-top-accomplishments-and-looming-challenges, December 14, 2013.
 Nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/meet-press-transcript-july-20-2014-n160611, July 20, 2014.
 France24.com/en/20180414-syria-chemical-weapons-red-line-obama-macron-assad-russia-usa-france-idlib, April 16, 2018.
 Politifact.com/article/2017/apr/05/revisiting-obama-track-record-syrias-chemical-weap, April 5, 2017.
 Brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2016/03/18/the-obama-doctrine-and-ukraine, March 18, 2016.
 Fdd.org/analysis/2022/04/12/how-russia-could-earn-billions-nuclear-deal, April 12, 2022.
 Warontherocks.com/2022/03/the-wisdom-of-nuclear-carve-outs-from-the-russian-sanctions-regime, March 17, 2022.
 Globalbiodefense.com/2020/09/11/navalny-chemical-attack-putin-assad-playbook-koblentz, September 11, 2020.
 Gjia.georgetown.edu/2022/04/08/nuclear-nonproliferation-after-the-russia-ukraine-war, April 8. 2022.