Stanislav Ivanov writing for the prestigious Russian state-run Valdai Club recently described ‘Israel and most of the Arab countries’ as viewing Turkey’s military presence in Syria as a counterweight to that of Iran. He also added that Iran and Turkey both waged a ‘fierce struggle’ to install a ‘puppet government’ in Damascus.
The Russian perspective is usually channeled, directly or indirectly, by its assorted major think tanks and media outlets and a very clear cut yet under-noticed aspect of Russia’s views on Iran has been made clear as daylight here.
That ‘Most of the Arab countries’ consider Iran’s presence in Syria as something that requires a ‘counterweight’ is a fallacious notion for a number of reasons. Iran’s key allies in the region are Arabs, such as Hezbollah, the Syrian Arab Army and much of the Iraqi government, clerical establishment and de facto military in the form of the Popular Mobilization Units. The same goes for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups in Gaza.
To describe the Gulf Arabs (GCC) and their consensus on Iran’s ‘need’ to exit Syria as the consensus of ‘most of the Arabs’ is thus disingenuous. Notwithstanding the weakness of that consensus itself, given how the UAE quickly distanced itself from the fiasco in the Persian Gulf through assuring signals to Iran as things heated up there, it is not likely that the author is unaware of these issues with the ‘Arabs’ tag.
Nor is it likely that Russian policymakers are unaware of the illogical, dishonest basis of this classification of ‘most of the Arabs’. It remains, regardless of this vital reality, a key cornerstone of Russia’s current geopolitical approach to the Middle East. This can be seen from the Russian outreach to the GCC it began – together with other extremely important yet under-discussed strategic adjustments – in what can be described the ‘post-ISIS’ scenario in Syria.
The Russian-GCC ‘rapprochement’ was lightning fast, with Russia offering to Saudi Arabia and the UAE what it never did to its Iranian or Syrian ‘allies’ constantly attacked by the Israeli airforce: its much-vaunted S-400 anti-air defence system. As one of the earlier examples of Russian preference for the GCC over their Iranian rival, the clarity of the message Russia was sending was illustrated by the fact that it even pitched the system to the small, militarily-insignificant Bahrain.
Russia has taken clear steps to prop up the brittle GCC whenever it has suffered major setbacks, demonstrating its ties with them are not just cordial but strategic. Saudi Arabia, having last month suffered a deadly missile attack on its Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq, received a boost on 11 October as Russia announced plans to invest $1 billion for a petrochemical facility there.
More than 20 deals were signed between Russia and Saudi Arabia during Putin’s state visit days later, including the purchase of a 30.76% in one of Russia’s leading companies, Novomet, by the two countries’ sovereign investment funds and Aramco.
The economic honeymoon, however, started after Saudi King Salman’s historic visit to Russia in 2017. Its progress since then compares starkly to Russia, contrary to expectations of its ‘Eurasianist’ supporters, having adhered to US sanctions against Iran when they were re-imposed last year.
The strategic element which drove Russo-GCC economic ties did influence the decisions of Russian giants such as Rosneft and LUKoil regarding their Iran investments, but to Iran’s detriment as they withdrew from Iran with Russo-GCC ties being a factor as well.
A team from Russia’s MGIMO university at the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate in November 2018 days after re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran declared in no unclear terms that Russia was not aligned with Iran. The prestigious institution, famed for having top Russian diplomats such as current Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov among its alumni, declared political Islam problematic and Iran to be an expansionist power.
But what are these soft spots Russia tries to hit at in Iran’s geopolitical ‘Resistance Axis’ infrastructure, and is it the GCC’s subsequent empowerment Iran that makes Russia’s ‘contain Iran’ policy dangerous?
The answer lies in Israel and the regional socio-political and military network Iran has forged and sustained since 1979 pivoted around the correct recognition of Israel and Israel Lobby-induced US foreign policy as the premier driver of Middle East wars.
It has, thus, through the chaos of Middle East geopolitics since 1979 performed an important task in countering forces of destabilization. Vital to Iran has been its deep involvement in foreign affairs and disingenuously portraying this as ‘Iranian expansionism’ has been a cornerstone of Israeli and GCC propaganda against Iran.
Nobody knows the ‘start the story from the middle’ game better than the Israelis, be it claiming Israel was ‘attacked’ by ‘the Arabs’ in 1948 whilst ignoring the entire pre-planned ethnic cleansing campaign of the 1940s by the Zionists or claiming self-defense in Gaza. The GCC in recent times have latched onto this narrative as well, but with their own crude ‘Iran seeks to dominate the Arab world’ spin.
Had Iran not intervened, the Shia-dominated Lebanese resistance against Israel’s occupation would have lacked a material supporter against the modern Zionist army and Israel would have consolidated Lebanon for both its Jewish colonies scheme and seized its vital water resources. Such had been Zionist ambition as far back as 1919.
Gaza, where the armed resistance born following the First Intifada in the vacuum left by Yasser Arafat’s inept leadership (and subsequent sell-out during the Oslo ‘peace’ hoax) receives arms from Iran, would have by now been fully swallowed by Jewish colonies. It would have shared the fate of the ‘Iran-free’ West Bank, where Mahmoud Abbas carries on the legacy of Arafat’s surrender.
Instead, Lebanon today is far more stable than at any other time in its history and the bridges Hezbollah has built with other religious parties has helped augment internal cohesion. Gaza has shown in recent times increased capability to deal with Israeli military aggression, with its Iran-backed Sunni Islamist groups possessing improved weaponry and exhibiting greater unity.
It was not international mediation and ‘conflict-resolution’ attempts that stabilized – or, given the capacity of Israel’s cohorts to rig such attempts every step along the way, ever truly even could stabilize – the parts of the Arab world worst hit by war. It was Iran’s support to these states and state-less victims of Israeli expansionism that enabled them to weather the storm inflicted upon them and mount a thus-far successful resistance.
Few pundits would, retrospectively, describe past ‘peace deals’ be they Camp David 1978 or the Oslo process of the 90s as anything other than smokescreens for unhinged Israeli warmongering.
For containing Israel, Iranian forward-presence in countries near to Israel has always been a necessity. Iran’s elaborate supply chains, part covert and part overt in nature, going to allies such as Hamas and Hezbollah are transnational and involve supporters on the ground zealously committed to Iran or even just zealously committed to opposing Israel.
Syria is one such vital node. Without Syria, Iran could not supply Hezbollah. Russia is not unaware of this when it constantly pushes for Iranian withdrawal from Syria whilst passing this off as its ‘principled’ position that all foreign forces must leave the country. This most salient stance of Russia is deceptive, given that Russia has consistently implicitly excused Israel completely from adhering to this principle.
The Russian Defence Ministry right after Israel got a Russian aircraft downed in September last year reminded everyone of how Russia at Tel Aviv’s request had pushed for ‘Iran-backed groups’ to withdraw 140 km away from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel’s behavior since then remained the same, but Russian attempts at Tel Aviv’s request to distance Syria from its Iranian ally only intensified, even including lobbying for the removal of heavily pro-Iran officials from the Syrian military and incorporation of ‘ex-rebels’ into its ranks.
The façade is crystal clear: Israel gets continue its attacks but Iran – who along with Hezbollah contributed to the defeat of terrorism in Syria even before Russia intervened in 2015 – must depart Syria. The constant Russian favours to Israel are here are even more see-through than were the fraudulent regional ‘peace-processes’ of the past which leveraged almost no obligations upon Israel to cease its warmongering yet comprehensively de-fanged and neutralized whatever stood in its way.
Propping up the GCC, working to weaken Iran and looking the other way when Israel attacks its ‘allies’ (or even publicly fawn over the Zionist state at events hosted by financial benefactors of Israel’s military) are all part and parcel of Russia’s geopolitical bigger-picture.
Validating the notion that the GCC – the normalization with whom of Israel’s ties Jared Kushner has fast-tracked since 2016 as an anti-Iran front and plan B following al Assad’s survival in Syria – represents ‘most of the Arabs’ has a specific purpose.
That purpose is to rig the selection of stakeholders for any potential region-wide ‘peace initiatives’ against Iran, sidelining it and declaring the pro-Israel GCC the representatives of ‘the Arabs’. Israel would be the benefactor of any ‘peace deal’ to end the ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’ since both sides would have long ago accepted the need to eradicate longstanding barriers to Israeli hegemony.
What follows next is obvious and has been seen repeatedly in Middle East ‘peace processes’ in the past: no actual reigning in of Israel, but a thorough neutralization of its foes. For resistance-oriented states like Iran, there is no place in Russia’s vision for the Middle East.