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By Russia’s standards, its delicate balancing act in Syria’s civil war has been going well. Despite Iran’s increasing presence in Syria, unnerving Tehran’s avowed enemy Israel, Russia has maintained good relations with both. But an overt shooting war between Israel and Iran – Moscow’s worst nightmare – looks increasingly possible as tensions between Israel and Iran mount. And that could test the Kremlin’s ties with Tehran. Despite the way things may appear to many in the West, “Iran has always been a difficult partner for Russia,” says Vladimir Sotnikov, an independent Middle East expert. The Soviet Union supplied arms to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and at Western urging, Russia dragged its feet on arms sales and nuclear power deals with Iran until recent years. But relations have improved as Iran and Russia have become allies in Syria’s civil war. “Their goals don't completely coincide,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “Iran’s agenda is regional; it’s about Israel and Saudi Arabia. Russia’s agenda is global, to strengthen Russia’s position on the world stage. But they are complementary.”
As Israel and Iran increasingly square off against each other amid Syria's multi-dimensional war, it is Russia that finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Russia has managed to maintain good relations with both Iran and Israel, even as the former has increased its presence in Syria in defense of the Assad regime, raising the latter's hackles.
But tensions between the two avowed enemies are rising. Israel has reportedly struck twice at Iranian military assets in Syria in the past few weeks. And on Monday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to publicly pressure President Trump to pull out of the internationally supported Iran nuclear deal. Now, worries are growing that open fighting may break out between Iran and Israel – putting Russia's relations with both, particularly pro-Assad ally Iran, to the test.
An overt shooting war between Israel and Iran, even if it's confined to Syrian territory, would be Moscow's worst nightmare. But if Kremlin mediation can keep the two sides apart, while finding a formula to limit Iran's long-term influence in Syria, then Russia stands to cement its image as the premier Middle East deal broker.
“The standoff between Israel and Iran is one of the most complicated problems Russian diplomacy faces today,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “Russia's relationship with Iran is made necessary by their cooperation in Syria. They need each other. But there is also good understanding with Israel. Until recently, Russia managed to keep some balance between those two, but now it's becoming impossible.”
Underlying the present crisis is a fear of growing Iranian regional power on the part of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US. Since leaving the US orbit after its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Shiite Iran has survived a massively destructive war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and endured decades of isolation and sanctions from the West. Its foes now see it expanding its influence across the entire northern tier of the Middle East all the way to the Mediterranean, including Shiite majority Iraq, Alawite-run Syria, and the Shiite Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah.
“The roots of the conflict are much deeper than issues over the Iran nuclear deal,” says Vladimir Sotnikov, an independent Middle East expert. “Iran views itself as an ancient civilization, the inheritor of the Persian Empire that once dominated the entire region. The present enmity between Iran and the Arab states of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia in the first place, is just the latest incarnation of a very old feud. Iran sees Israel as just a proxy for the US.”
“For its part, Israel fears that Iran wants to become the regional hegemon, and any force that might block Israeli goals is something it will not tolerate,” Mr. Sotnikov adds. “All this animosity is now unfolding on the Syrian battlefield, with Russia caught in between.”
A difficult partner for Russia
Despite the way things may appear to many in the West, “Iran has always been a difficult partner for Russia,” says Sotnikov.
The Soviet Union was Saddam Hussein's chief armorer during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and tilted its diplomatic support strongly in Iraq's favor. Although the USSR also supplied weapons to Iran, the post-Soviet Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin signed a secret agreement with the US in 1995 to halt all conventional arms sales to the Islamic Republic, though it reportedly failed to completely honor its terms.
In 2010, Russia voted in the UN Security Council to back comprehensive sanctions against Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program. Even after returning to the Kremlin in 2012 amid worsening relations with the West, Vladimir Putin repeatedly bowed to US and Israeli requests not to fulfill an earlier contract to supply advanced S-300 missiles to Iran, although it has since done so. Moscow also delayed completion of Iran's Bushehr civilian nuclear power plant in response to Western entreaties, before completing the project and offering to build more atomic power stations for Iran after relations with the US began to sour in 2014.
Trade between Russia and Iran appears to be increasing fast, but total turnover was just $2 billion last year, or considerably less than Russia's trade with Israel. A much ballyhooed plan to help Iran avoid Western sanctions by shipping oil to Russia in exchange for Russian goods appears to have barely gotten off the ground.
“The amount of oil Russia is buying from Iran is very small, and appears to be just a way for Iran to pay for Russian military goods in oil rather than cash,” says Mikhail Krutikhin, a partner at RusEnergy, a leading Moscow energy consultancy. “In general, Russia and Iran are both oil exporters and thus competitors. And Iranian law makes it not at all profitable for foreign companies to invest in upstream oil and gas infrastructure, so prospects there for Russian companies are few.”
But Iran is set to seal a free trade agreement with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union next week. After nearly a decade of being on the waiting list, Iran also seems set to soon join the Russian-and-Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the only large regional grouping of states that neither the US nor any of its allies belongs to.
A balancing act
The dramatic change is that Russia intervened in Syria almost three years ago to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an old Moscow client. That has led to a strong battlefield alliance with Iran, which may carry much wider implications.
“Their goals don't completely coincide,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “Iran's agenda is regional, it's about Israel and Saudi Arabia. Russia's agenda is global, to strengthen Russia's position on the world stage. But they are complementary.”
The other main development is that US-Russia relations have virtually crashed and burned since Russia intervened in Syria. One effect of that may be that Russia will be less inclined to listen to US requests that it not provide advanced weaponry, nuclear engineering, and other critical technology to Iran than it has been in the past.
“Russia has always had one eye on improving its relations with the US, and saw any situation as an opportunity to enhance its hoped-for partnership with Washington,” says Lukyanov. “Now relations with the US are so bad that Moscow may have fewer inhibitions about moving closer to Iran. And if the nuclear deal falls through, and Iran comes under sanctions again, that will only strengthen its dependency on Russia.”
Russia also relies on Iran to help shape a political settlement for Syria in the so-called Astana Process, an alternative to the UN-backed Geneva Process for Syria that Russia, Turkey, and Iran initiated last year. Analysts say that Moscow intends to continue with the Astana track, even if the Geneva talks – which would include the US as a major player – are relaunched in the near future.
But Russian hopes for solving the long-running Syrian crisis on its terms will depend on keeping Iran and Israel apart in the coming weeks.
“Putin is a pragmatist, and he understands that Israel has a point when it complains about Iranian military presence near its borders,” says Lukyanov. “But he also cannot allow the achievements Russia has made in Syria to be destroyed. He needs to maintain the alliance with Iran, so he will also need to show Israel that there are certain limits that Israel should not exceed. Russia would never clash directly with Israel, but will probably enforce its will by strengthening Syrian air defenses in ways that restrain Israel's field of action.”
Moscow will try to be a buffer between the two, but that's easier said than done, says Sotnikov.
“Israel and Iran are archenemies, and they are squaring off. Israel appears to have Trump's full support, and is moving fast. For Russia, it's going to be like trying to sit on two chairs at once.”