The law of unintended consequences is an unforgiving master to those who specialize in predicting the course of international relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 surprised most international observers and the Biden administration. Not many, if any, in the ranks of veteran diplomats, think-tank denizens and journalists who make up the foreign-policy establishment thought that the illegal act of aggression would turn into an increasingly bloody stalemate into which much of the rest of the world would be drawn.
The question now facing these supposedly smart people is what will be the implications of a decision on the part of the United States and its European allies to escalate the already destructive war by giving the Ukrainians tanks, jets and any other high-tech armaments they want in order to give them a chance to achieve the complete defeat of the nuclear power with which they are locked in combat. Another factor that must be taken into account is the increasing likelihood that China will think it is in its interests to seek to balance the massive American commitment to Ukraine. Beijing may be coming to the conclusion that it is necessary for it to come to the aid of its ally in Moscow by sending arms that will ensure that the fighting will continue indefinitely.
But another issue is at play: What is the effect of this great power proxy war on Iran?
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With the Biden administration treating support for Ukraine as its foreign-policy and security priority, many of its critics have questioned whether the territorial integrity of that country is really a U.S. national interest, let alone the most important thing going on in the world. That decision is defended as the only way to prevent further Russian acts of aggression. It’s also seen as a way to deter China, which remains America’s most potent potential enemy. But it’s unclear whether the laser focus on Ukraine and the stripping of U.S. armed forces of armaments in order to feed Kyiv’s insatiable demand for supplies to keep fighting Russia—with no serious effort underway to increase military spending or to start a new American arms buildup—is actually undermining American efforts to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan.
Even less attention is being paid to whether one of the unintended consequences of the West’s obsession with Ukraine is the help it may provide to Iran.
Iran’s role in the war
Though the despotic regime in Tehran is beset by a protest movement that it hasn’t been able to completely suppress, it, too, has become part of the drama in Ukraine by supplying Moscow with drones and the personnel to train its forces to use them. More than that, it has apparently become even more closely allied with Putin after a decade in which Russia played a largely equivocal role in the world’s efforts to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon—sometimes aiding the theocratic regime and supplying it with weaponry, and sometimes seeking to restrain it.
Even in Syria, where the two countries were allies in a joint war to preserve the barbarous regime of President Bashar Assad, the Russians played both ends against the middle.
Russia used the horrendous civil war in that country to reassert its status as a Middle Eastern power after former President Barack Obama famously punted on his “red line” threat to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people and deputized Putin to deal with the problem. That enabled Russia to further establish itself in Syria with air and naval bases that they used to aid Assad and the Iranians in their bloody efforts to suppress the rebels. But Moscow also was careful not to let the Iranians have a free hand there, signaling their acquiescence to Israel’s repeated airstrikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria.
Some may see Iran’s decision to throw in its lot with Russia as the act of a desperate regime on the wrong side of history, as well as a mistake that will result in it becoming further isolated and ultimately weakened. That would be a possible development since Iran’s push for regional hegemony in the Middle East via its terrorist auxiliaries and its long-term effort to attain nuclear status make it a uniquely dangerous and destabilizing force in the world, not to mention an existential threat to Israel.
However, the scenario by which Iran loses as a result of its growing ties with Russia requires a belief that the escalating Western involvement in Ukraine will lead to Russia’s complete defeat and collapse, in addition to striking a blow to China’s ability to exercise its increasingly potent influence on the world stage.
Those who are pushing for America to go all in on an effort not merely to defend Ukraine’s right to self-determination, but to defeat Russia and topple Putin, believe they are trying to make the world a safer and better place. Still, they need to take into consideration the very real possibility that this massive spending and arms-aid project will fail to accomplish those goals. And that the ratcheting up of the fighting will both needlessly worsen the humanitarian disaster that Putin unleashed and create an even bloodier stalemate that will make Russia’s allies stronger.
Rather than falling, as some thought would happen when the protests began last fall, the Iranian regime is still in place and now receiving high-profile support from China, an emerging superpower that the United States is still not truly taking seriously or willing to stand up to, as the recent farce with Beijing’s spy balloons demonstrated.
The international community’s focus on aiding Ukraine, treating its President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the second coming of Winston Churchill and embracing the cause of driving the Russians out not just of all territory they seized last year but to restore the borders of the country to what they were in 2014 before Putin took parts of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, has pushed every other foreign-policy issue to the margins in the last 12 months.
The nuclear threat remains
Prior to the invasion, President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy priority was his effort to entice Iran to re-enter the nuclear deal that his old boss had struck with Tehran in 2015. His diplomatic team offered terms that would have created an even weaker pact that—rather than stopping Iran’s nuclear quest—would have guaranteed its eventual manufacturing of a weapon. But sensing Biden’s weakness (a factor that also emboldened Putin to launch his invasion) demonstrated in his disgraceful retreat from Afghanistan, the Iranians stonewalled him.
With the Iranians aiding the Russians, even Biden knows that there will be no new nuclear deal with Iran. And while the administration understands that Tehran is closer than ever to being able to build a bomb, officials like CIA director William Burns remain unprepared to fully acknowledge the threat or talk tough about it, let alone join the Israelis in posing a credible military threat to ensure that such a nightmare scenario never comes to pass.
Biden spent the week of the one-year anniversary of the war patting himself on the back for rallying the West behind Ukraine and putting Zelenskyy in a position to at least avoid defeat, if not outright win the war. That position has considerable support in his party, most of whose members have finally found a war they can love because they identify Ukraine with their hate for former President Donald Trump and have become convinced that Putin is not just a terrible and dangerous dictator, but another Adolf Hitler. It’s also supported by the Republican Party’s Washington establishment that sees the conflict through the lens of outdated Cold War or Bush-era “War on Terror” perspectives.
What if America can’t buy a Ukrainian victory?
What they are not taking into account is the very real possibility that escalating the war in Ukraine will have troubling unintended consequences that will allow Iran, as well as China, to emerge from this disaster in an even stronger position than they were a year ago.
Biden could choose to push for a compromise solution that, while falling short of Zelenskyy’s ambitions, will mean Ukrainian independence, and end the suffering and devastation visited on his country. By choosing instead to back the Ukrainian belief in “victory” over Russia, he is not just risking an Armageddon World War III scenario with a nuclear power that has no intention of being toppled or defeated; by choosing to continue a war whose outcome he can’t control, he’s also laying the foundations for an endless and unwinnable conflict that will increase Beijing’s influence in Russia. That might also enable Iran to survive its current domestic trouble and, with even more help from a Chinese regime eager to weaken the West and its friends, become even more powerful in the Middle East.
The anniversary of the war in Ukraine is a moment when all decent people should be focused on ending the suffering there, not just venting their outrage at Putin. But the longer the war continues without a decisive result, powers like China and Iran will move to fill certain vacuums and up their ante as they seek to profit from the spoils.
Well-meaning Americans should ponder the ramifications of their crush on Zelenskyy and a belief that this is a “good war” that should be relentlessly fought to ensure Russia’s collapse, no matter how high the price for that might be. Just as a stronger Iran was an unintended consequence of America’s invasion of Iraq, the same might be the result of Washington’s blind commitment to a forever war in Ukraine. U.S. leaders need to ask themselves if they are thinking seriously about whether this policy will not only not fail to accomplish those goals, but make the world a more dangerous place in which Putin will survive, while China and Iran grow more powerful.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.