Between the Tug of War and the Tightrope in the Russian-Iranian-Israeli Relations

Russia’s diplomacy is walking a tightrope between Iranian pressures aiming to force it to backtrack from the major shift happening in its Israel policy – most recently going as far as committing to Israeli security – and Israeli pressures querying Russia’s intensions with Iran, which in turn could determine Israel’s handling of Russia. Yet the issue has less to do with publicized statements meant for political consumption, and more to do with the Kremlin’s ultimate strategic choices. Syria is the bottom line but there are secondary lines that include the strained Russian relationship with NATO and the implications for the efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. US President Joe Biden is at the heart of these implications and could find himself forced to reconsider many of his policies, amid Iranian-Israeli escalation and Russian repositioning.

Moscow and Tehran have said they are drawing a roadmap to conclude a ‘strategic cooperation’ agreement. In reality, the existing relationship already goes beyond cooperation and is closer to being a strategic alliance, especially in Syria where Russia, the power really in charge, still direly needs Iran and Hezbollah.

Syria remains a strategic priority for the Kremlin and President Putin wants to ‘close’ the Syrian dossier next year and declare the war there over. His vision requires ‘liberating’ what remains of Syrian territory, not from Iran – as some believe – but from the United States and Turkey. The deal he wants with the Biden administration seeks to extract US recognition of Assad’s legitimacy. Assad is the key to maintaining Russian forces in Syrian bases, which the Kremlin will never relinquish. And if the price for this is to accept the reality of strong relations between the Assad regime and the Iranian regime, the Kremlin is willing to pay it.

Yet the Israeli dilemma in this equation is not secondary. Moscow has managed to strike a covert deal with Israel in Syria, where Israel refrains from conducting operations that weaken the Assad regime, in return for Russian (and American) consent to Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. There was until recently a ‘balance of silence’ in this regard: Russian silence vis-à-vis Israeli actions in Syria. Syrian silence vis-à-vis repeated Israeli military operations on its territory. Iranian silence vis-à-vis the Russian-Israeli deal. Israeli silence regarding Iranian and Hezbollah influence in Syria. And Iran and Hezbollah’s silence over Russia’s consent to the Israeli annexation of the Golan, which includes denying them the ability to activate ‘resistance’ against Israel from the Syrian front.

The balance of silence continued until Russia’s foreign minister, in a joint press conference with his Israeli counterpart, declared that Russia is now fully committed to guaranteeing Israel’s security. This was a real game changer. The Iranian leadership was not impressed, as it made it appear to be part of regional and international secret deals that undermine its claim to be the spearhead of resistance against Israel, a claim it deploys to mobilize loyalist armies across the Arab countries led by Hezbollah. After all, silent accords are one thing, and overtly declaring Russia’s commitment to Israel’s security is another.

Thus Russia’s diplomacy was caught in a bind. During the visit of the new Iranian FM Hossein Amir Abdollahian to Moscow and his meeting with Mr. Lavrov, Abdollahian warned that the region could not tolerate any more escalation and provocation. He said Tehran would not accept any geopolitical shifts in the region, and will not accept a strengthened terrorist and ‘Zionist’ presence across it, citing the Southern Caucasus where tensions are increasing between Iran and Turkish-Israeli backed Azerbaijani government. According to informed sources, Iran is willing to use military force in Azerbaijan, if necessary, given the importance of strategic land corridors there.

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