August 22, 2016 - Russian-Iranian strategic cooperation and its ramifications

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses whether we are on the cusp of a major Middle East power reorientation; why Iran would, when the Islamic Republic has always insisted on “Neither East nor West”, allow Russian bombers to use the Hamadan air base to launch bomber strikes against anti-regime targets in Syria; Russia’s motive; how Moscow’s power plays in Turkey and Iran, neither necessarily a friend of the Arabs, are expanding its influence elsewhere in the Middle East; how all this affects Israel; how he assesses the U.S. response to greater Russian penetration of the region; and if a Netanyahu-Abbas summit, perhaps in Moscow, is likely.

 

 

Q. Last week you discussed the Russian-Turkish rapprochement. Now Russia is bombing Syria from a base in Iran. Are we on the cusp of a major Middle East power reorientation?

A. It’s too early to say how far this may or may not go. But with Egypt proposing that a Netanyahu-Abbas summit be held in Russia and Yemen’s Ali Saleh inviting Russia back to Yemen, that certainly is the current drift. All other things being equal, the use of an Iranian base by Russian air power is a major strategic turn of events for the Middle East, for Israel and for the United States.

 

Q. Let’s break this down. Why would Iran, where the Islamic Republic has always insisted on “Neither East nor West”, allow Russian bombers to use the Hamadan air base to launch bomber strikes against anti-regime targets in Syria?

A. Last week’s bombing runs from Hamadan of Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and Sukhoi-34 fighter-bombers indeed represent a major change of strategic policy direction for Tehran. When Iranian Islamists deposed the Shah of Iran in 1979, one of their major accusations against him was his subservience to America. At the same time, fear of Russian encroachment has been palpable in Iran ever since the era of the Czars and, more recently, Soviet occupation of parts of northern Iran after WWII.

This explains the “Neither East nor West” slogan, which still resonates strongly with patriotic Iranians. Article 146 of Iran’s constitution declares that “The establishment of any kind of foreign military base in Iran, even for peaceful purposes, is forbidden.” Now Iran’s Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, can blithely declare that Russia and Iran “enjoy strategic cooperation in the fight against terrorism in Syria and share their facilities and capacities to this end.” This, then, appears to be the beginning of a foreign military base. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck . . . 

The regime in Tehran had to have extremely persuasive reasons for doing this and incurring domestic criticism. The most obvious motive is Iran’s determination to do whatever is necessary to maintain the Assad regime in Syria as a key link in its drive to establish Shiite or pro-Shiite hegemony from western Afghanistan via Iran, Iraq and Syria all the way to Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon on the shores of the Mediterranean. If Russian heavy bombing runs from Hamadan (the Russian air base at Hmeimim on the Syrian Mediterranean coast does not have a long enough runway to accommodate the bombers) make it easier to overcome surprisingly strong Syrian rebel resistance in and around the key northern Syria city of Aleppo, and if the Russian effort reduces Iranian losses in Syria (to which Tehran is surprisingly sensitive), then the Islamic Republic will swallow its pride.

A second Iranian motive could be to signal Washington that insufficient progress in delivering the financial payoff Iran expects from last year’s JCPOA nuclear deal is liable to generate a major shift in Iran’s orientation, away from tacit cooperation with the US in Iraq and perhaps elsewhere in the Middle East. This is a particularly sensitive issue for President Rowhani, who is up for reelection early next year and has staked his political legacy on the deal.

A third motive may be Turkey. If Ankara has repaired its relations with Moscow, Tehran does not want to lag behind. Last week, Turkey and Iran reportedly agreed on “general lines” for a solution to the Syrian crisis that preserves Syria’s territorial unity and guarantees representation to “all ethnicities and religions”. While the anti-Assad Turks and the pro-Assad Iranians could hardly agree to anything more specific, it’s difficult to imagine this having happened without Moscow’s mediation. Indeed Mikhail Bogdanov, a key Russian diplomat specializing in the Middle East (and a former Russian ambassador to Israel), visited both Ankara and Tehran to make this happen. So if Russia is playing an ever larger role in and around Syria and scoring points on Tehran’s behalf, Iran may have had little choice but to oblige the Russian Air Force, which needs an Iranian base in order to shorten its bombing runs into Syria so it can carry less fuel and more bombs.

 

Q. And Russia’s motive?

A. More power and influence in the Middle East, more ways to keep the Assad regime in power in Damascus, more blows against the Sunni Islamist movements that threaten Russia itself and threaten Russian interests in the Middle East, the prospect of an alliance with Iran, more trump cards to play against the West in the Ukraine-Crimea arena, and more reasons for Turkey to distance itself from NATO and the European Union.

Note that, in flying from Iran to Syria, Russia presented the US with a fait accompli regarding passage through Iraq’s air space with barely a word of protest from Washington. Last week, Russia also fired cruise missiles from its ships in the Mediterranean against targets in Syria--another first in the current campaign. While Russia and the US continue to dialogue regarding a solution for Syria and a ceasefire in Aleppo, Russia’s increasingly assertive military attitude tends to cast doubt on the possibility of agreeing on anything in Syria (e.g., Assad’s future, Kurdish ambitions, the political goals of the more moderate US-backed rebels) beyond the shared objective of weakening the Islamic State.

 

Q. How are Moscow’s power plays in Turkey and Iran, neither necessarily a friend of the Arabs, expanding its influence elsewhere in the Middle East?

A.Here are three examples from recent days. First, on Sunday Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, now allied with the pro-Iranian and anti-Saudi Houthi camp that controls much of north and central Yemen, talked on Russian TV of reactivating old Yemeni agreements with the Soviet Union and offered Russia “all the facilities” of Yemeni bases. A Russian base on Yemen’s Red Sea coast (the Houthis do not control Yemen’s Indian Ocean port of Aden, hence cannot offer Moscow the superb basing facilities it enjoyed there prior to the collapse of the USSR) would radically expand Moscow’s Middle East maneuverability and influence.

Second, last week a top Chinese official visited Damascus and announced a readiness to enhance military cooperation in Syria with both Russia and the Assad government. In recent years, China and Russia have substantially tightened military cooperation, and the Chinese visit and gesture appeared to be coordinated with Moscow.

Third, last week the Iranian military commander in Syria, General Mohammed Ali Falaki, reportedly told the media that Iran was consolidating its military efforts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen under the umbrella of a new “Shiite Liberation Army”. Here too, it is hard to imagine this happening, particularly in Syria, without coordination with the Russians.

 

Q. How does all this affect Israel?

A. Israel continues to maintain close operational coordination with Russian air units in Syrian air space. Israeli-Turkish relations continue to mend apace. As for Iran, it presents itself as Israel’s mortal enemy with or without close strategic coordination with Russia. Ostensibly, then, Russian bombing runs over Syria launched from Iran do not immediately affect Israel’s relations with Moscow, Ankara or Tehran.

There is even a plus side for Israel in Russian-Iranian military cooperation in Syria: strategic relations among all those in the Middle East who oppose the entire package of Iran, Assad and ISIS--meaning Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE--are now likely to be further enhanced.

Yet Israel must be concerned with possible long-term ramifications. Will Russia reward Iran for the use of the Hamadan base by offering Tehran sophisticated weaponry that could endanger Israel? Could Iranian-Russian cooperation in Syria and possibly Yemen and elsewhere at some point jeopardize Israeli interests? What does Russia’s growing Middle East penetration mean for US interests and US-Israeli strategic cooperation in the region? Could Moscow at some point demand that Israel take sides in Russian-US tensions in the region?

 

Q. Indeed, how do you assess the US response to greater Russian penetration of the region?

A. There are two ways to view the response, or relative lack thereof, of the Obama administration. One is that this is classic lame-duck behavior, avoiding any serious strategic response at almost all cost, in order not to become entangled again in the Middle East as President Obama closes out his term, even if this comes ostensibly at the cost of Russian strategic gains. Why meddle with the president’s unusually favorable public approval ratings and endanger the Clinton campaign?

The other is that the US still legitimately sees nothing to get worked up about. It’s all about paper tigers. Despite augmented Russian and Iranian support, the Assad regime still cannot liberate Aleppo and Idlib in Syria’s north. The Turks still cannot prevent US-backed Kurdish gains just south of their border with Syria. Indeed, Ankara’s cozying up to Russia reflects Turkish isolation and weakness that only the West can help Erdogan alleviate. And Iran’s Russian-backed flexing of muscles in the region is still confined to Shiite or quasi-Shiite areas where Shiites, Assad’s Alawites and extremist Sunnis are grinding one another down in pointless warfare that the US had best remain clear of. Besides, Russia is broke: its economic situation is worsening day-by-day, apace with its desperate efforts to save Assad. Meanwhile, slowly but surely, ISIS is being defeated on the ground in the Levant, at minimal cost for Washington.

As for Israeli-US relations, they have already been damaged by the Iran nuclear deal, PM Netanyahu’s reckless and pointless opposition to it and the Netanyahu government’s needless slights and insults aimed at Washington, to the extent that the next US-Israel ten-year military aid deal is still on ice and in any case will reportedly be less generous than Obama had initially intended. How Russia’s latest moves affect this state of affairs should be a topic for close and immediate Israel-US strategic consultation, yet this may not take place in the coming months. Meanwhile the Obama administration still holds out the option of presenting its own set of guidelines for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement before leaving office--a prospect not relished by Netanyahu.

 

Q. Earlier you mentioned talk of a Netanyahu-Abbas summit, perhaps in Moscow. Is this likely?

A. No. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas reportedly insists on preliminary contacts to discuss Israeli gestures like prisoner release and a settlement freeze. Netanyahu reportedly wants mainly a photo op to demonstrate he is working on the issue, thereby hopefully persuading Obama to shelve the guidelines and the French to shelve their international conference initiative. Neither side is in any way close to making the compromises needed just to sit down and talk seriously.

Meanwhile, with the same PR objectives in mind, Defense Minister Lieberman has announced a series of “carrots and sticks” to reward peaceful West Bank Palestinians with building permits, including in Israel-controlled Area C, and punish villages that harbor violence. All this has been happening in “salad (and Olympics) season” when there is generally not much to report on the Israel-Palestine front. Even a single rocket fired from Gaza at Sderot in Israel on Saturday and a fairly massive Israeli response from the air (again, a Lieberman initiative to punish aggressive Palestinian behavior more than his predecessors did) had not, at the time of writing, broken the August doldrums.

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