Hard Questions, Tough Answers- Confronting the Russia-Iran Alliance (October 24, 2022)


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.

Q. Iran is supplying kamikaze drones to Russia, along with Iranian trainers for Russian crews. The two countries have for years collaborated tactically in Syria. Has this become a military alliance?

A. It is at least a limited alliance, based on expediency for Iran and desperation for Russia. We are not talking about the two countries fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against a common enemy. Yet deploying Iranian UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle; drone) operators in Crimea to train their Russian counterparts is a step in that direction.

Q. But didn’t Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, proclaim “neither East nor West” as a guiding strategy?

A. He did indeed. Back in 1979, “neither East nor West” was Khomeini’s first strategic guiding principle as leader of the Islamic Republic. That policy reflected centuries of Persian/Iranian resentment at great power occupation by Russia and Britain, usurpation of territory by Czarist and then Communist Russia, and most recently manipulation by American and British intelligence.

But lately, Iran’s response to American-led sanctions has been to look north and east toward Russia and China. Closer military coordination with Russia has been developing apace. It began in Syria. There, it was Iran that summoned Russia in 2015 to intervene and save the Bashar Assad regime, Iran’s ally, from defeat by a variety of rebel groups.

Now Iran can reciprocate by selling Russia its Shahed-136 drone (unit price approximately $20,000). Iran and Russia are both diplomatically isolated and severely sanctioned countries. Never mind that opinion polling among Iranians projects a majority supporting Ukraine, not Russia--Iran’s traditional enemy. The drone deal paints Iran as an exporter of sophisticated weaponry, while reflecting Russia’s astounding ordnance and manpower failures in its war on Ukraine (some drones produced recently in Russia reportedly rely on speed-trap cameras stolen from Sweden, Russia’s neighbor).

Q. Iran is Israel’s enemy, Russia is not. So how does Israel deal with this alliance?

A. Here Israel shares a dilemma with many Arab countries in the Middle East that strongly distrust Iran yet court Russian tourism and economic cooperation. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others all prefer to avoid condemning Russia over its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

So does Turkey, which emerges as the only Middle East country that has proven capable of actually mediating between Russia and Ukraine--enabling grain shipments to the world, along with prisoner exchanges. What does Turkey’s Erdogan know that Israel’s Naftali Bennett did not grasp last March and April when he tried his hand at mediating? Does being a dictatorial autocrat like Vladimir Putin help? Perhaps its more a real estate issue: Turkey sits astride the Bosphorus, which is a vital waterway for both Ukraine and Russia, and it shares the Black Sea with them.

Q. Since Russia began attacking Ukrainian power stations with Iranian drones, there is growing sentiment among Israelis to offer defensive systems like Iron Dome to Ukraine. What is stopping Israel?

A. The Israeli political leadership, across the spectrum, is increasingly condemning Russia and encouraging Ukraine. This reflects Israeli public opinion along with pressure from the US and Europe. But Israel’s security leadership is balking at offering military aid that could be seen by Moscow as aggression. The Israel Defense Forces, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, argue that antagonizing Russia could cost Israel dearly in the Syrian-Iranian arena. Russia could retaliate by actively opposing Israel’s attacks on Iranian shipments of arms and personnel to Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Were that to happen, Israel would then find itself at war either with Russian forces or with highly sophisticated Russian air defense systems (S-300 and S-400) delivered to Syria and operationalized. Alternatively, Israel might have to cease impeding and intercepting Iran’s expansionist drive into Syria, which is aimed ultimately against Israel. For the IDF, this strategic dilemma is much closer to home than Ukraine. Since 2015, Russia is militarily Israel’s next-door neighbor.

Meanwhile Russia, its back to the wall in Ukraine, has actually withdrawn ground forces and S-300 air defense units from Syria in order to redeploy them in Ukraine. In other words, Russia has at least temporarily rendered it less complicated for Israel to attack Iranian forces and ordnance in Syria.

Besides, Iron Dome batteries are in short supply in Israel itself. If delivered to Ukraine, Israeli operating crews would be required for some time, placing the IDF in the midst of the Ukraine war. And Iron Dome is best suited for narrowly defined zones of missile or drone attack--the opposite of Ukraine’s geography.

Meanwhile Israel is reportedly supplying Ukraine with intelligence about the Iranian drones (which have been used against Israel), presumably in return for updated intelligence regarding Russia’s tactics for using them against Ukraine. Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared last week that Israel is offering to develop for Ukraine an enhanced early warning system to defend against threats from the air.

Still, there are Israeli strategic thinkers who argue that these relatively limited and hesitant Israeli efforts on behalf of Ukraine, which frustrate and anger both Kiev and Moscow, are dangerously out of sync with the US and the West, Israel’s natural allies. The threat from Iran and possibly Russia in the north can be dealt with; Russia is in no position internationally to start firing missiles at Israeli aircraft over Syria. And Israel’s initial attempts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, thereby rationalizing its neutrality toward the aggressor, Russia, spluttered and failed many months ago.

Now that Iran and Russia are allies, these critics argue, there is no excuse for not lining up with NATO and helping Ukraine more actively. In short, Israel should position itself “on the right side of history”. As Alon Pinkas wrote in Haaretz on October 23, “You need a lot of talent . . . . to do what Israel has done since the war began in Ukraine: create Ukrainian hostility, Russian anger, American disappointment and frustration--without advancing a single Israeli interest.”

Q. Are Israel’s November 1 elections a factor here?

A. Looked at from another angle, the emerging Iran-Russia alliance brings together the two countries from which cyber attacks on Israeli infrastructure have been launched. The fear of cyber interference is especially pronounced at election time. It must be assumed that both Moscow and Tehran would like very much to discredit the Israeli democratic process and sow discord. Yet the morning after Israel’s November 1 elections may not bespeak a change in Israeli policy, if only because more elections--or at a minimum political instability--are a very real possibility.

In recent months Israel has welcomed a wave of Jewish immigrants fleeing Ukraine and Russia. Virtually all condemn Russia and favor Ukraine in this war. All adults who arrived before September 8 are eligible to vote on November 1. Their number is nearly the equivalent of one mandate. Accordingly, both Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu are wooing them with promises to offer more military aid to Ukraine.

But beyond election promises, and at least until November 1, any international or domestic initiative that could embarrass the Lapid government in the eyes of any voters at all, e.g., by producing a nasty and escalatory Russian military reaction, is temporarily out of bounds for the Lapid government. That clearly includes the Russia-Ukraine war.