While the Region’s Countries Kiss and Make Up, Israel Confronts the Russia-Iran Coalition (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- April 17, 2023)


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. Relative quiet prevails between Israel and its neighbors since the recent violent flare-up. Netanyahu is dropping so strongly in the polls that he might be backing off from the Likud’s unpopular judicial reform initiative. Perhaps it is time to look at what is happening in the region. Of all the current rapprochements, is the emerging Russia-Iran alliance cause for worry?

A. It is indeed a cause for concern in Israel and the United States and should be in the Arab world as well. But before we look at it, a word about the other regional rapprochements.

And there are many. The Iran-Saudi Arabia reconciliation, concluded last month in Beijing, stands out. It has spawned attempts to resolve additional conflicted relationships in the region. Riyadh and Tehran are contributing to an effort to end the Yemen civil war that they both have meddled in over the past decade. Egypt and Turkey, at odds over the Libyan civil war, are doing something similar. Iran and Sunni-ruled, Shi’ite-majority Bahrain, whose territory Iran traditionally claims, are talking. Nearly everyone has made up with Qatar.

Iran and Russia are trying to facilitate a mending of fences between Turkey and Syria. Saudi Arabia is trying, with Iranian help, to mend its own fences with Syria. Indeed, civil war-torn Syria is the object of efforts by Saudi Arabia and others to restore its active membership in the Arab League, whose leaders the Saudis will host next month. There is even talk of a visit to Saudi Arabia by the pro-Iranian Hamas leadership.

Q. What do all these reconciliations have in common?

A. These dynamics share four unique features. First, the Chinese-engineered Saudi-Iran renewal of relations, though still not finalized, has already--by releasing Saudi and Iranian diplomatic energies--proven a catalyst for thawing relations elsewhere in the region. Second, China and Russia are both helpfully involved, whereas the United States is generally remaining on the sidelines. Here Washington’s anti-Russia stance over Ukraine and its ongoing tensions with Iran are key factors.

Third, Saudi Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman is emerging as a dynamic regional leader. Note that his relations with the Biden administration are still chilly due to the Khashoggi controversy, MBS’s drive to raise energy prices, and the perception that the US is lowering its Middle East profile. But Saudi strategic coordination with Russia and China appears to be flowering.

And fourth, inter-Arab relations are often fragile. Not all these reconciliations will last. Mohammad bin Salman has embarrassed Saudi Arabia with his initiatives in the past, and may yet do so again.

Q. So should these dynamics worry Israel?

A. Note the remark made publicly last week by Prof. Mahmood Sariolghalam, a well-connected Iranian expert on international relations: Through its normalization with Saudi Arabia, “Iran made a complete neutral of Saudi Arabia”. This disparaging boast presumably reflects an Iranian assessment of the Saudi tilt away from Israel and the US and toward Syria and Iran itself. If Iranians see things this way and even brag about them, this should seriously concern the entire Arab world--especially Saudi Arabia--along with Israel and the United States.

From Israel’s standpoint, if relations with Riyadh were continuing to move toward normalization, Jerusalem could conceivably benefit from an enhancement of Saudi influence in Yemen and Syria--even Saudi influence in Iran. But that is hardly the case, largely thanks to the Saudi demand to witness progress between Israelis and Palestinians and the Netanyahu government’s total inability to deliver it--complemented by the weakness and seeming impending collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

Q. But you’re suggesting that Israel and the US should clearly be bothered by what is transpiring between Moscow and Tehran . . .

A. Yes, on several levels, on all of which Iran understands it is a junior partner in the relationship with Russia. One level is an enhanced Russian-Iranian intelligence alliance. Iran apparently feels it is benefiting from access to Russian intelligence sources regarding Israel and the Arab world, where Tehran’s strategic reach is limited compared to that of Moscow.

This could be particularly relevant when 84-year old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei passes from the scene in Tehran. The Iranian security establishment fears attempts, when this happens, to destabilize Iran and influence the outcome of what could be a leadership crisis. It will look to Russian intelligence to help by feeding it Moscow’s assessment of meddling in Iran by the West, Israel and the Arabs, particularly with regard to unrest among Iran’s minorities. Tehran is presumably alarmed by Israel’s hosting this week of Iran’s exiled Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who in some quarters symbolizes opposition to the Islamic Republic regime.

Russia, for its part, sees Iran as a reliable supplier of cheap arms that it needs for its war in Ukraine and, depending on the outcome, perhaps in neighboring countries like Moldova as well. Iranian drones, missiles and small arms ammunition have already made their debut on the Ukrainian battlefield.

When it comes to Russia-Iran strategic collaboration, most important for Israel is the Syrian arena. Iran seeks a freer hand in moving ordnance and military manpower via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. The Israel Air Force has reportedly for years been interdicting these shipments and attacking the bases Iran uses in Syria, while Russian air force and air defense units deployed in Syria stand aside. Could Russia, empowered by its growing alliance with Iran, now get tougher with Israel and interfere with its air and missile attack missions in Syria? For Israel this is an issue of critical strategic significance.

One scenario that Israel fears is Russian military steps against Israel in Syria in retaliation for Israeli arms supplies to Ukraine. This is perhaps the principal reason that Israel has thus far avoided supplying Kiev with anti-missile defense systems and anti-tank missiles. Recently-leaked Pentagon documents hint at possible new American pressures on Israel toward this end.

Q. Well, Israeli concern over its freedom of maneuver in Syria has motivated it to resist these pressures. What could change?

A. For one, the pressures are growing as western tensions with Russia increase and Ukraine readies a spring offensive.

Then too, Prime Minister Netanyahu has watched his government’s popularity rating plummet lately due to mismanagement of his anti-democratic judicial reform initiative. He has also registered Biden administration criticism of both the judicial initiative and tensions with the Palestinians that lately spiraled into brief conflict along several Israeli borders. This raises the possibility that, to get back in Biden’s good graces and thereby improve his standing with Israeli voters, Netanyahu will agree to arms sales to Ukraine, perhaps via a third-party supplier in the hope of avoiding Russian displeasure.

Russia’s response could come in Syria, and/or in the form of restrictive measures regarding the Russian Jewish community. One thing is clear: An Israeli decision to curtail military activities against Iran in Syria due to Russian military interference would have dangerous strategic consequences for Israel’s northern front where it borders both Syria and Lebanon.

Q. Is Iran feeling empowered by its alliance with Russia to the extent of goading Israel into conflict?

A. Iran has recently felt free to further upgrade its nuclear program. It stands to reason that Tehran’s self-confidence, with Russia backing it, will also find expression along Israel’s borders in the form of greater support for Hezbollah and Hamas and more audacity in Syria.

Recently, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that the Israel Air Force would not be able to continue for long to enjoy open skies in Syria. Nasrallah is often a spokesman for Iran in matters like this. There are indications that Hamas’s rocket fire from southern Lebanon into Israel on April 6 was closely coordinated not only with Hezbollah, which controls southern Lebanon, but with Iran as well. Head of Iran’s Quds Force Esmail Qaani visited Beirut just days before the rocket fire.

Q. Bottom line?

A. The recent coordinated attacks on Israel from Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and Syria appear to reflect greater Iranian readiness to engage Israel militarily via its proxies. That, in turn, appears to reflect greater Russian backing for Iran and an Iranian assessment that Israeli deterrence has been weakened by Israel’s domestic dissent and US indifference.

There are many ways for Israel to address this imbalance. Ending internal dissent is one obvious measure. Restoring deterrence, particularly vis-à-vis Hezbollah, is another. A visibly enhanced strategic relationship with Washington is yet another.

Is Netanyahu up to any of these tasks?