While political pundits and politicians alike in Washington have been busy as of lately in making predictions about imminent crisis in the Middle East between Israel and Iran, reflecting equally which side the US will stand by if a war does break out between the two rivals, a backdoor channel of diplomacy, with Russia providing the crucial support, has also been working for some time now, proving how Russia, not the US, can be the key to de-escalation in the region, thus showcasing how the Middle Eastern geo-political landscape will no longer be defined by the US. The reason why Russia can be the key to de-escalation is that it has strong relations with both countries. While maintaining a balanced approach to two rivals is in itself a challenging task for successful diplomacy, Russia has been able to perform a fine balancing act during past few years, particularly since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, through a de-confliction arrangement with Israel and also allowing Iran to maintain its presence in Syria to prevent Damscus’ fall to the Jihadis. But will Russia be able to cool down the regional temperature when Israel has claimed to have ‘proofs’ that Iran did try to make a nuclear bomb and that they (Israel) will retaliate if Iran strikes them from Syria? Russian diplomacy seems to be all focused on finding an answer to prevent the region from a war that will be a lot more devastating and heightened than has been the case.
Already, Israel has hinted that they are not averse to making a deal with Russia and that they aren’t against Russian military presence in Syria, and have no specific interests in Syria that may conflict with that of Russia. This was confirmed by Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman during his visit to the US on last Friday. “What is important to understand is that the Russians, they are very pragmatic players,” said Lieberman. Importantly enough, these remarks were made when Lieberman was talking about Russia’s alliance with Iran and Syria in the Middle East. His remarks reflect that Israel has faith in Russian presence and that Russia can help manage Iranian activity in Syria, preventing it from hitting Israel directly or indirectly. “At the end of the day, they are reasonable guys, it’s possible to close deals with them and we understand what is their interest”, he added further.
Russian diplomacy was pro-active during the latest Sochi conference, where Russian Security Council’s secretary held about 40 bi-lateral meetings including those with Iranian and Israeli representatives. Unsurprisingly, these two meetings turned out to be the ones that made headlines everywhere.
While Russian officials have not yet confirmed a Russian mediatory role between Iran and Israel, it is the very nature of Russia’s interests in the Middle East that makes it sensitive to such escalations. On the other hand, it can also not be denied that both Iran and Israel equally need a ‘balancer’ that can somehow stem their aggressive impulses. The US simply cannot perform this role because it shares Israeli rivalry with Iran and because it has always supported Israel’s “right to self-defence” against Iran and Palestine.
Israel or Iran might not be interested in looking to the United Nations Security council for de-escalation because of frequent diplomatic clashes between Russia and the US over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The UNSC, therefore, stands considerably diluted, reducing its chances—if there were any—of playing a mediatory role.
This role, therefore, falls to Russia. Accordingly, Israel has not expressed any concern over Russia’s military presence in Syria, nor have they objected to its expansion. This was, again, confirmed by Lieberman during his talk in Washington when he said that Russian presence in Syria was “not our business. We try only to protect our own security interests.”
This was Israel, trying to cool down Moscow which had expressed its grave concerned over an Israeli attack that killed seven Iranian advisers in Syria. Russia had reacted strongly to this strike and showed how Israel had actually misjudged Russian role and interests in Syria; for, if Israel wants a guarantee from Moscow against Iranian expansion in Syria near Israel’s border, Moscow will be least willing to do this without seeking a guarantee from Israel about not taking any action (read: a massive strike) that may send big destabilizing waves across the region and undo the hard-work they have done to defeat terrorism.
But Russia has shown sensitivity to Israeli’s specific interests. This was explicitly confirmed by Russia’s outgoing ambassador to Israel, Alexander Shein, when he said that “We are, of course, concerned with the state [of] the bilateral relations between Israel and Iran, in light of mutual threats and rejection by both countries. We must also be concerned with Iran’s presence in Syria now. It may lead to a worsening of the situation and a conflagration in the entire Middle East”, indicating that Russia may start talking to Iran about limiting the role it can play both directly and indirectly i.e., through Hezbollah, which, as the Iranian foreign minister recently said, has no intention of maintaining a permanent presence in Syria.
As far as Iran and Israel are concerned—and the reason why they are increasingly looking to Russia—they need to put in perspective Syria’s current ground reality wherein Syria is no longer a conflict zone between two superpowers, in which smaller players can tactfully play their cards to secure their specific interests by aligning with one of the powers. With the US president eager to walk out of Syria, there remains only Russia in Syria that can prevent the outbreak of a new crisis in the Middle East, and both Israel and Iran will have to play by its rules to prevent the outbreak of “first Northern War.” Russia is, therefore, the key to peace in the Middle East.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.