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Home » The Russian’s Playing on A Thin Rope Game

The Russian’s Playing on A Thin Rope Game

by Grayson Henderson
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When Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership late last year, some observers questioned the prospect of a rapprochement between Israel and Russia despite the Russia-Ukraine conflict, thanks to Netanyahu’s longstanding personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, this matter seems unlikely in light of the efforts of Moscow and Tehran to consolidate their relations at the expense of Ukraine, while Iran is close, more than ever, to the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Recently, international inspectors were reported to have found uranium enriched to 84 percent, just short of the 90 percent needed to produce a nuclear weapon. It is true that Iran condemned these statements as a “conspiracy”, but they may constitute a wake-up call for Israel. Netanyahu indicated that his country would respond by launching a “significant military operation” and holding high-level meetings with Israeli military officials on February 22. Two days later, on the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen reaffirmed that “Israel supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

On the same day, Israel joined 140 other countries in voting in favor of a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly demanding that Russia withdraw its forces from Ukraine. It is noteworthy that Israel is also considering providing Ukraine with the “David’s Sling” air defense missile system, which constitutes a sharp contrast to its previous position, through which it sought to achieve a balance in its relations with both Russia and the United States, as it refused to join Western countries in imposing sanctions on Russia, satisfied with the provision of humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Russia is thus hostage to a triangular relationship with Iran and Israel, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to maintain a kind of balance between the interests of these different countries. Israel places at the center of its foreign policy priorities thwarting Iran’s nuclear program and limiting its regional influence. The best evidence of this is the 2023 Basalt Oaks maneuver, which is the “most important” joint US-Israeli military exercise between the two countries, and included exercises simulating an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Russia’s priority is to ensure the success of its “own military operation” in Ukraine and to prevent NATO from expanding eastward. Moscow, which suffers from political and economic isolation, turned its attention to Iran in its search for allies to help it achieve this goal. Russia’s “focus on the problem of NATO expansion” has turned into a political and military battle based on an all-or-nothing approach in the Ukrainian file. However, unlike the 2014 conflict that led to the annexation of Crimea to Russia, Moscow today is waging a war that has reshaped the regional and international security system. It is unlikely that Putin will stop there, given that his goals are no longer limited to disarmament in Ukraine and the “liberation” of Donetsk and Luhansk, but also the “liberation” of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, where two formal referendums were held last September.

Over the past year, Iran has been among the few countries that have publicly supported Russia. Even China had to walk a fine rope, trying to reconcile the support of its well-established strategic partner on the one hand, and being careful to avoid its isolation from the global market on the other. But Iran’s steps were less ambiguous. On July 19, a few days after reports emerged that Russia had purchased Iranian drones for use in Ukraine, Putin visited Tehran and met Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, and discussed with them ways to expand bilateral cooperation. This included the start of the Tehran Currency Exchange to deal in the Iranian riyal and the Russian ruble, the signing of bilateral banking agreements to promote trade through the use of the two local currencies, and the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Russian company Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company to invest about $40 billion. The two countries allegedly intend to launch a gold-backed cryptocurrency called Stablecoin to facilitate trade exchanges.

Previously, Iranian officials had criticized Russia for its delay in delivering the S-300 air defense systems and for supporting UN sanctions against Iran. However, the uprisings of 2011 in the Arab world breathed new life into Russian-Iranian relations when the two countries supported the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In addition, Russia’s foreign policy strategy in the region throughout this period maintained a balanced position on all political forces, in light of Moscow’s pursuit of its interests, which enabled it to deal with several parties sometimes at odds with each other.

Based on this approach, Russia walked a very fine rope in its dealings with Iran and Israel, as it cooperated with Iran in Syria, but Moscow and Tehran did not conclude a strategic partnership based on a common and long-term understanding of goals, threats, and interests. At the same time, Russia has built good relations with Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy, and has allowed Israeli planes to target Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria.

Today, however, this balancing game is threatened, especially with regard to Israel and the Gulf states. For example, Saudi Arabia announced $400 million in aid to Ukraine during the visit of Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan to Kiev on February 26. Moreover, this February, all Gulf states voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution that called on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory. And while Putin is focused on achieving victory in Ukraine, which makes his relations with Iran more important, Russia will have to maintain its relations with the countries in the Middle East that see Iran as a threat to it. But Moscow is in fact deepening its military ties with Tehran amid reports that it will soon provide it with advanced Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. Iran is not about to back down in its regional ambitions, as it has continued to enhance the capabilities of its regional proxies and support them. It is reported that it is studying the possibility of providing Syria with air defense systems after the air strikes that Israel launched against it in February.

It is also unlikely that a nuclear deal with Iran will ease tensions in the region. US President Joe Biden has declared that the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is “dying,” which means that Russia will face an even greater challenge in reconciling its relations with both Iran and Israel at a time when the possibility of conflict between these two parties is becoming more likely. Russia will likely continue to implement its foreign policy strategy and try to resolve its differences with Israel. But Putin will not be able to achieve the impossible if Israel launches an attack on Iran, and if this step is welcomed by several Arab countries. In this case, Russia will not be able to remain in the center where it would like to be, but rather will be on the periphery.

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