by Mark N. Katz
Looking back over the past year, Moscow appears to have good reason to congratulate itself on the success of its foreign policy toward Iran and Syria in particular, and toward the Middle East in general. Indeed, while they did not necessarily do so at Moscow’s behest, several actors that play an important role in the Middle East have come around to adopting policy approaches that Russian leaders have been urging on them.
The Russian position on the Iranian nuclear issue has long been that while Moscow does not want Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons, it does not want America and its allies to pursue this goal either through the use force or further ratcheting up of economic sanctions against Iran. Moscow has long called for a negotiated settlement to this issue involving Tehran taking steps to reassure the international community that it is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for a relaxation of the international sanctions regime.
In the past few months, this is exactly what has happened. Secret Iranian-American negotiations led to an interim agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue, and to subsequent negotiations for a permanent settlement. The prospects for armed conflict over the nuclear issue, which Moscow has sought to prevent, have definitely receded.
Since the inception of the Arab Spring conflict in Syria, Putin and his associates have claimed that the Assad regime, despite its problems, is better than the opposition forces seeking to replace it, which Moscow has characterized as consisting largely of radical Sunni Islamists whose victory would threaten Western interests as much as Russian ones. While not outwardly agreeing with Moscow on Assad, several other governments that have called for him to step aside have grown increasingly nervous about the nature of the Syrian opposition.
Further, three governments in particular have made policy changes that support the Russian goal of keeping Assad in power. In Egypt, the ouster of the elected Islamist President, Mohamed Morsi, by Egypt’s secular military also resulted in Cairo moving from being sympathetic to unsympathetic toward the Syrian opposition.
After the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its opponents in August 2013, the Obama administration first threatened the use of force against it but then accepted the Russian proposal for an internationally sanctioned effort to remove chemical weapons from Syria. Since this process depended heavily on the cooperation of the Assad regime, the Obama administration’s support for it resulted in tacit American acceptance of its continuation in power — something that the Syrian opposition and their supporters in the Gulf resented bitterly.
In addition, while the Turkish government has previously been strongly supportive of Syrian opposition efforts to oust Assad, recently Ankara launched military strikes against jihadist forces inside Syria — thus signaling it may be coming round to accepting the Russian view that the Assad regime is better than that which seeks to replace it.
Regarding both Iran and Syria, then, policy changes by others have recently become more supportive of Russian foreign policy preferences. There is no guarantee, however, that this will remain the case going forward.
The US Government has recently expressed concern that the Assad regime is dragging its feet on the chemical weapons agreement. If this continues, Russian interests could be hurt. If the US Government comes to believe that Moscow is supportive of the Assad regime’s lack of cooperation in this matter, a decidedly negative image of Russian intentions is likely to re-emerge in Washington. Under these circumstances, the Obama administration might well be unable to resist the likely rise of demands in Congress and by some US allies to seek retaliatory measures against Moscow for having duplicitously led Obama to believe that Assad would cooperate on the chemical accord. But even if Moscow were not blamed for the Syrian government’s recalcitrance, Washington would still come to see Putin as unable to deliver Assad on the chemical issue (as had been previously believed) — and thus there would be no point in further coordinating with Moscow on this issue.
While a deterioration of the situation regarding Syria could serve to marginalize Russia, an improvement of the situation regarding Iran could do so too. If indeed real progress is made in resolving the nuclear issue, then economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted either in whole or in part and Iranian cooperation with the West will increase. To the extent that Iranian relations with the West (especially the U.S.) improves, the less need Iran will have for relying on Russia — with which it has had a prickly relationship up to now despite their common animosity toward the U.S.
Furthermore, reduced economic sanctions on Iran could well result in Tehran producing and exporting far more oil than it does now, thus depressing oil prices and reducing the income of other oil exporters, including Russia. The desire to avoid this may have motivated Moscow to enter negotiations with Tehran over a bilateral exchange agreement worth $1.5 billion per month whereby Russia would reportedly buy up to 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day in exchange for Russian goods. But even if such a Russian-Iranian agreement comes into force, Tehran is hardly likely to forego the opportunity to increase oil exports to the rest of the world if the sanctions regime is relaxed.
So while Russian foreign policy toward Iran and Syria has benefited from recent events going Moscow’s way, its success is highly fragile as it could easily be damaged by the situation in Syria further deteriorating or by the situation regarding Iran improving.