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With the Helsinki summit approaching between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the situation on the ground in the Middle East is remarkably different than it was just a very short time ago.
Iran, once well on its way to becoming the hegemon in the region, is rapidly being marginalized. In fact, you could say the regime is on its way to collapse, undermined by forces from within.
Mr. Trump’s help was crucial, of course. The coming U.S. sanctions, according to Secretary of State Pompeo, will be devastating. With the regime having spent all its money on the wars in Syria and Iraq, if oil revenues go to zero, it’s game over for the mullahs.
The killers in Tehran know this. This is why Iran dispatched Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on foreign issues, to Moscow this week to deliver a threat to Mr. Putin: Do not make a deal with Mr. Trump or your forces in Syria may suffer.
Iran and Russia have forces in Syria bolstering the Assad regime. With the Kremlin having wound down the bulk of its forces inside Syria, Iran is resisting growing pressure to give up its firmly entrenched positions in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
But Russia no longer needs anything that Iran has to give. One reason for Mr. Putin’s support of the Iran deal and for the regime itself has been for help in propping up the Assad government, a long-term Soviet/Russian ally. Mr. Putin would understandably like to preserve the Russian navy base at the port of Tartus and its access to the airfields near Latakia.
But the main reason Mr. Putin had sought good relations with Iran had been simply for money, something Tehran will have far less of in the future. The Russian leader may just tell the mullahs, “It’s just not working out.”
It will be interesting to see how this all goes down over the next few weeks. There are reports that Russia has essentially given assurances to Mr. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Moscow will support Iran’s withdrawal from southern Syria — where it threatens the Golan — in exchange for sanctions relief and even a possible U.S. recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Bibi has visited Moscow no less than eight times in the recent past, seeking assurances that the Iranian fighters will not be allowed in positions just across the Syrian border from Israel.
Iranian leaders are scared. Mr. Trump has them in a box, and they know it. The State Department is warning of an uptick in state-sponsored terrorism from Iran, as it lashes out over its new isolation and weakened position. An Iranian diplomat was just arrested in Germany for organizing and equipping a sleeper cell planning to bomb the “Free Iran Gathering” of exiled dissidents in Paris recently.
Mr. Putin will have to make a choice. His economy is still very weak, although higher oil prices have taken off some of the pressure. Growth is still expected to be around 1 percent. Western sanctions are biting. He really can no longer afford an open-ended war in Syria. It is expensive and leaves Russian armed forces overextended.
It was good for a while to show Russia’s new capabilities, but now it’s getting old.
So Russia needs to cut a deal. And Mr. Putin is negotiating with Mr. Trump, the best negotiator in the world.
The mullahs in Tehran should not expect Vladimir Putin to save them.
Originally posted at The Washington Times