Cooperation with Israel threatens Russia’s Iran alliance
Since Russia has taken on a greater role in Middle Eastern affairs, Israeli officials have become frequent visitors to Moscow. The Russian-Israeli relationship is different to the ties linking Israel to the US or Iran to Russia. It is particularly unusual when considering the alliances in the region: Israel and Iran are sworn enemies, while the US and Russia are key rivals in the region.
The improved Israeli-Russian ties of recent months pose a potential threat to the years-old Russian-Iranian partnership. In Syria, both Moscow and Tehran are supporting Bashar Assad’s regime at all costs, and it is no secret that without them Assad might well have been swept from office. However, the Russian-Iranian relationship is no bed of roses. Both countries have different motivations in the Syrian war and divergent views on the country’s future, and every step taken toward Syria’s future being resolved sees Russian and Iranian interests come closer to colliding. Russia considers cooperation with Israel as serving its interests in Syria, while Tehran regards the increasing closeness between Tel Aviv and Moscow as a means of containing its influence in Syria and in the region.
Needless to say, for Russia, Israel is not regarded as an enemy state, which is how Iran perceives it. For now, Israeli-Iranian tension in the region is an issue that the Kremlin is not taking very seriously. However, if tensions escalate and there is the threat of a military confrontation, then Moscow will have to pay attention. Russia would not allow such a confrontation to take place; not out of any concern for its ally, but for its own strategic interests in Syria, which could be the first targets. For Russia, the preservation of its naval base in Tartus and air base in Latakia are very important for its long-term Middle East plans. In contrast, Iran’s strategies in Syria are based on a “zero-sum game” against Israel, and escalation of the conflict there would serve its interests.
Time will tell how long the Russian-Iranian partnership, which seems not to go beyond Syria, will last.
Israel has mostly stayed out of the Syrian conflict, but it has carried out a shadow war against Iran, and Russia seems to turn a blind eye to the Israeli moves that harm its ally in Tehran. Moscow prefers to adopt a passive stance in the face of Israel’s air campaign against pro-Iranian forces in Syria, despite the fact that it has powerful radar and surface-to-air missiles that could easily intervene. Moreover, Russia is still trying to preserve the agreement designed to stabilize the situation at the border between Israel and Syria, which involved pro-Iranian forces pulling back from the area. Also, in order to avoid a direct confrontation between Iran and Israel, Russia has moved to deploy its troops on the occupied Golan Heights frontier, while it also plans to set up observation points in that area.
For now, Russia’s approach to Israel is more favorable than Iran because its stakes with Tel Aviv are higher than with Tehran. Russia wants better control over Syria and is aware this cannot happen without coordination with Israel. It is also in search of new trading partners in the region and Israel appears to be a possibility. Russia could increase its influence in the region as a whole not by confronting a US ally, but by joining with it. Moscow is quite aware that any possible confrontation in the region may bring the Americans back in a bigger way, so it tries to avoid this by containing both Iran and Israel.
On the other side, Israel wants to protect its security interests and create a channel through which to talk to Moscow and convey its concerns regarding Iran. With all of these mutual interests, Iran, despite sharing a significant partnership with Russia, is aware that it cannot count on Moscow’s support in its plans for Syria or Israel.
Given the current uncertainty in the region, it is likely that Israeli-Russian coordination will continue and may even increase, at the expense of Iranian concerns. This will make it even harder for Russia to walk the thin line between the two rivals and the balancing act it is carrying out may collapse. Time will tell how long the Russian-Iranian partnership, which seems not to go beyond Syria, will last.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.