By Iran Review
By Afifeh Abedi*
A recent show of willingness by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia can be considered as an extension of Moscow’s new Middle East policy, which was founded when the country’s President Vladimir Putin came to office. Following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, especially since Putin came to office, the Middle East and issues related to it have been in Moscow’s focus of attention in a new way.
When he entered the presidential palace, Putin had three options to choose from for the formulation of Kremlin’s main approach to the Middle East:
1) To ignore the Middle East;
2) To establish relations with both sides of the regional order, one side of which was the United States with the other side being various actors that are against the United States; and
3) Like the Soviet Union, form a strategic alliance with one or a number of allied states in the region.
This is similar to what former Soviet Union did when it formed alliances with former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria’s Hafez Assad, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in order to heat up rivalry with the United States in the region.
For Putin, who dreamt of reviving Russia’s power, it was not possible to ignore the strategic region of the Middle East. On the other hand, it was not possible for Russia to create strategic alliances in the region. After the fall of Nasser, Egypt was run by a U.S.-dependent regime, Saddam Hussein had been targeted by the United States following his invasion of Kuwait, and Gaddafi’s regime was under U.S. pressure for its nuclear activities. Assad’s regime in Syria was the sole reliable ally for Russia and Moscow was trying to not only keep its remaining friends, but also to use its political and economic capacities to gain new friends and allies in the region.
It was then that Russia started to pay attention to the Islamic Republic of Iran, which took anti-American positions. One the one hand, Russia’s political and economic interests called on the country to establish new ties with other regional actors, even Arab allies of the United States in the Middle East. On the other hand, relations with the Islamic world, especially Saudi Arabia, as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, could help Putin repair his image as a suppressor of Muslims in Chechnya. As a result, Moscow under Putin sought enhanced relations with Riyadh and its Arab allies. Up to the domino-like fall of Arab regimes, which started in 2011, Putin could manage relations with both anti-American countries and U.S. allies in the Middle East region in a suitable manner.
The beginning of the so-called Arab Spring developments, however, was both an opportunity for Russia and a challenge. In a deal with the United States, Russia voted for an anti-Gaddafi resolution and even did not oppose the policies of Saudi Arabia and the United States in Bahrain and Yemen. However, when the Syria crisis began, Moscow saw its interests in danger, so that in defending the Syrian regime, it went as far as military presence in the Arab country. Technically speaking, a comparison between approaches taken by Russia and the United States to Syria shows that Russia’s approach has so far had these advantages for Moscow:
1) A big gap has been created between the United States and its Arab regional allies; and
2) Russia has drawn more attention from all sides.
However, the new role assumed in the region by Russia has caused limitations for Moscow. Firstly, the United States, as the most important transregional power in the Middle East is not willing to play its past role in the region anymore. However, conditions in the Middle East, which are very complicated, and the absence of needed capacities, do not allow Russia to fill the gap created between the United States and its allies in a serious way. Meanwhile, the traditional bond between the United States and Saudi Arabia and other allies has not been totally broken.
Secondly, due to its historical relations with Syria and support from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, Russia entered Syria militarily and could introduce itself as an effective actor in the region. Although Russia may not consider Iran and Hezbollah as its strategic allies, it does not have much of a bargaining power without playing Iran and Hezbollah card.
In other words, recent remarks by Sergei Lavrov can be considered as a diplomatic maneuver as Russians know that they lack necessary leverage and conditions to do mediation between Tehran and Riyadh, because:
1) Due to their religious prestige, Islamic countries cannot accept mediation from a non-Islamic country;
2) Arabs do not consider Russia as an impartial mediator due to its relations with Iran; and
3) The shift in the United States’ foreign policy does not mean that Washington has totally given full control of the region over to Russia.
This issue, however, can be considered as a green light from Kremlin to Arabs. During the past two years, Arab leaders have been trying to give concessions to Russia, which has been suffering as a result of low oil prices and the conflict in Ukraine, in order to achieve a number of their goals. Firstly, they want to draw a wedge between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia over Syria. Secondly, they want to send a negative signal to Washington, telling it that ‘if you leave us alone, we will find a new ally.’
Of course, it must be noted that increased tensions in the region has not been in line with Russia’s interests for two reasons. Firstly, increased tensions between Tehran and Riyadh will lead to growth of extremism and violence across the region and this issue will further increase regional instability and push it towards Russia’s borders and its spheres of influence. Secondly, the United States is the sole actor, which can make the most of the existing differences between Tehran and Riyadh, not Russia.
* Afifeh Abedi
Researcher of Eurasia Studies at The Center for Strategic Research (CSR), Tehran