Una breve analisi made in Stratfor.
Over the past several weeks, STRATFOR has picked up rumors from several different sources describing Russia’s deepening relationship with Iran.
One Iranian source with ties to the regime says there is growing suspicion that Russia’s intelligence network provided information to Iran’s security apparatus on moles within their ranks and that a major purge is under way. Our sources in Azerbaijan say Russia recently clamped down on Azerbaijani opposition parties that were allegedly supporting Iranian protesters and facilitating a so-called “green revolution.” We also have heard from several independent sources that a Russian intelligence tip-off to Iranian intelligence on Israel’s spy network in Lebanon led to a spate of arrests targeting Lebanese agents working for Israel over the past several months. A nearly identical story on Russian-Iranian intelligence cooperation on Lebanon emerged in the media in recent days.
At this point, any intelligence organization, including STRATFOR, would have to take a step back and examine these bits of information to distinguish the absolute truths from the half-truths and the flat-out lies. We find it particularly curious that the story on Russia’s intelligence tip-off to the Iranians on Lebanon made its way to multiple sources of very different backgrounds and was disseminated at approximately the same time. This is usually a good indicator that a deception campaign is under way. In this case, the campaign would be designed to exaggerate Iran’s relationship with Russia.
The next step is to figure out who is deceiving whom. There are multiple contenders in this situation. The Russians are extremely dissatisfied with the current state of their negotiations with the United States. Whether it involves halting Western support to Ukraine and Georgia or freezing U.S. missile defense plans for Poland, Washington simply is not taking Moscow seriously on the issues the Kremlin deems critical to Russia’s national security. If Moscow intends to reshape the U.S. perception of Russian power, it can do so by highlighting the immense damage it can do to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf through a bolstered relationship with Iran. This could result in Russian arms sales to Iran that destabilize the Strait of Hormuz, a vital chokepoint for Gulf oil exports.
The other leading contender is Iran. While coping with an intensifying political power struggle at home, the Iranians also are hearing the steady beat of war drums from the United States and Israel, as pressure increases for Tehran to enter serious negotiations over its nuclear program. The Iranians therefore need a great power backer like Russia. They know the Russians are playing their own game with the Americans, but if Iran can signal to the United States that Russian support for Tehran is greater than meets the eye, it might give Washington some pause when planning any punitive — particularly military — measures against Iran.
The beauty of a deception campaign is its ability play on basic human vulnerabilities in order to influence the behavior of one’s adversary. Both Russia and Iran are old hands at deception operations. The Iranians, for example, have been employing deceptive tactics to conceal their nuclear activities from the West for years. Maskirovka, the Russian concept of deception, is regarded as an art form in Russian political and military circles. From exaggerating Russian military strength to placing nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba, the Russians have fooled the United States several times through elaborate deception operations.
A country’s emphasis on deception operations is rooted in its geopolitics. Countries like Iran and Russia are inherently geopolitically insecure. Russia has the flat steppes of the northern European plain to worry about while the Iranians, despite their mountainous surroundings, are obsessed with threats emanating from their western border — and now have the world’s most powerful military force deployed to both the west and the east. A country like the United States, however, is geopolitically sheltered by oceans and is economically and militarily capable of projecting power far beyond its shores. The United States is thus sufficiently powerful and geographically secure that its adversaries must make elaborate efforts to influence U.S. decision-making through deception campaigns. Whereas Iran and Russia will put a lot of work into such operations, the United States usually needs to nudge its adversaries just a little to get action. That nudge, in this scenario, could take the form of sending a warship to the Black Sea, sending the U.S. secretary of defense to Israel or moving a carrier to the Persian Gulf.
Since the United States is the global hegemon, any of these moves would carry huge psychological weight, sending the Iranians and Russians scrambling to figure out U.S. intentions. Meanwhile, Iranian and Russian deception operations require them to expend a great deal of energy just to catch Washington’s attention. Not only does the diffuse nature of U.S. democracy mitigate the damage from hostile deception campaigns targeting key decision-makers, but the United States also has a tendency to explain away or even ignore signals from its adversaries. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden illustrated this point when he waved away the Russian threat in a recent media interview: He noted that Russia is economically and demographically disadvantaged, to the point that it no longer poses a real strategic threat to the United States.
Both the Russians and Iranians have a strategic interest in getting Washington to take their growing entente seriously by systematically spreading rumors through various channels, including STRATFOR. But it is important to remember that all deception campaigns carry an element of truth. Talk of a Russo-Iranian relationship might be exaggerated at this point, but there are still a lot of moving parts to U.S. interactions with the Iranians, the Russians, the Israelis, the Germans and others, and those parts could shift the balance.
This is when analysis becomes the critical link between the intelligence collectors and the policymakers. Our Geopolitical Intelligence Report this week discusses the strategic imperatives of Russia and Iran, which could explain a bolstered Russo-Iranian alliance and the implications of such a relationship. The conclusions are by no means definitive, but when rumors are flying and deception operations appear to be under way, the time comes to stop, think and analyze these bits of information in the appropriate geopolitical context.
Deception operations can be a silver-bullet tactic for geopolitically vulnerable countries seeking to influence a far more powerful adversary like the United States, if that adversary is listening. Even if Washington begins to take stock of these rumors, the real challenge the United States faces is determining Russia’s true intentions toward Iran.