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Iran turns to Russia for support and strategic alliance, Middle East expert says

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now, what steps might the U.S. take against Iran? And would those actions push Tehran closer to Moscow? The State Department spokesman, Vedant Patel, says any arms deal between Russia and Iran violates a U.N. resolution that bars Iran from buying and selling weapons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VEDANT PATEL: We will continue to take practical, aggressive steps to make these weapons sales harder, including sanctions, export control actions against any entities involved.

FADEL: Joining us to talk about the implications is Joshua Landis. He is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Good morning, Joshua. Thanks for being here.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So Russia and Iran cooperating militarily, that's not new, right? We saw it in Syria. Is this moment different?

LANDIS: It is partly different. But the alliance between Iran and Russia really started in the Syrian War over 10 years ago. Both were trying to shore up President Bashar al-Assad against the United States, who was trying to bring him down. And this created a space for Russia in the Middle East to side with Iran in multiple different battlegrounds.

FADEL: So what are the larger ramifications here of this military cooperation between Russia and Iran for the U.S. and the West?

LANDIS: Well, it's clear that it's another state that's going to supply these arms, which we've seen have also - have had an important impact on the fighting and have allowed Russia to destroy a certain percentage of the electric generation in Ukraine. So it makes the war more difficult. We've seen this already with President Biden's demand from the Saudis that they increase oil supplies in order to try to bring down inflation and help President Biden. And the Saudis have not given that. In fact, they've reduced supply...

FADEL: Right.

LANDIS: ...Which is going to raise prices. So it shows that the entire world is not on board with the United States.

FADEL: Is the threat of more sanctions against Iran - the EU is already preparing sanctions. The U.S. is promising aggressive steps. Is that strategy going to pull Iran back from getting involved? Or is it going to push them closer to...

LANDIS: Well, I fear it will push them closer, you know? One of the main reasons that Iran is doing this is because it's already been driven into a corner. The failure to reestablish the Iran nuclear deal that President Trump broke off in 2018, it leaves Iran with very few choices. Its economy is suffering. And that's one of the reasons why this latest uprising has begun in Iran. And Iran has nobody else to trade with. So it has decided that it must turn to Russia for support and strategic alignment.

FADEL: But will this not make the situation worse? I mean, when you think about what's happening domestically in Iran - these mass protests, struggling to recover economically under sanctions, the threat of more sanctions - I mean, why take the risk of making it even worse and angering the West more?

LANDIS: Because Iran is hoping that the world will be realigned and that it will establish greater trade with Russia and China. It's just signed a memo of understanding with Russia that's supposed to increase trade to $40 billion from only $4 billion. We'll see if that's possible. But it's done something similar with China. It's building a important rail link to the Central Asian states, as well as with Russia, to try to improve trade. So Iran has given up on the Iran deal. The West no longer can lure it into not doing these things in the hopes that somehow the West is going to help Iran's economy. It's quite clear that President Biden has a very tough road ahead if he wanted to restart the Iran deal.

FADEL: So really, the end of the Iran nuclear deal. Even European members who are still part of that deal are saying Iran breached it by selling weapons to Russia.

LANDIS: Yes. This is - you know, there are many sanctions on. And I guess America can impose further sanctions. It'll be very hard to do it through the U.N. because, of course, Russia and China are on the side of the U.N. So I don't see many ways that the United States can pressure Iran further without doing something more drastic and perhaps military.

FADEL: Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, thank you so much for your time.

LANDIS: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.