Iran’s en­e­mies strike back

The gov­ern­ment in Tehran made its move. Now, it’s be­ing boxed in

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - WORLD -

An in­ter­est­ing thing hap­pened last week. A Rus­sian re­con­nais­sance plane was shot down by the Syr­ian army, so nat­u­rally Rus­sia blamed Is­rael, claim­ing that Is­rael used the plane to shield its own fighter air­craft, en route to strike Ira­nian po­si­tions in Syria. In­ter­est­ing though that charge may be, it’s far less fas­ci­nat­ing than Moscow’s other quib­ble – that the Is­raelis had failed to give the Rus­sians suf­fi­cient warn­ing that they were en­ter­ing Rus­sia-con­trolled airspace in Syria. This runs counter to an ar­range­ment whereby Is­rael, Rus­sia and the U.S. pledged to in­form each other about air­craft move­ment, so con­gested have the skies there be­come. In other words, the Rus­sians didn’t ob­ject to the fact that Is­rael en­tered Syr­ian airspace – they ob­jected to the fact they weren’t given much of a heads up.

The Rus­sians knew what Is­rael was up to. The air cam­paign against Iran in Syria has been go­ing on for some time. And since Iran tends to be un­pre­pared for these at­tacks, it’s safe to as­sume the Rus­sians aren’t tip­ping off the Ira­ni­ans. The only con­clu­sion is that Rus­sia doesn’t seem to mind it when Is­rael bombs Iran. In the en­su­ing dis­pute over who was re­spon­si­ble for shoot­ing down the Rus­sian air­craft, ac­cu­sa­tions abounded, but the fact that the Is­raelis bombed the Ira­ni­ans never emerged as a sig­nif­i­cant is­sue.

The tec­tonic plates of the Mid­dle East have been in mo­tion re­cently, and this episode is part of that re­align­ment. Rus­sia made a deal with Turkey that seems to have taken a Rus­sialed as­sault on Idlib off the ta­ble, leav­ing Bashar As­sad, who wanted to take Idlib to se­cure Syria’s north­west­ern fron­tier, out in the cold. As­sad may not like it, but he isn’t up­set enough to shoot down the plane of one of his big­gest bene­fac­tors. Even so, Rus­sia’s re­la­tions with Syria are a lit­tle shaky, as are its re­la­tions with Iran, the would-be tar­get of Is­raeli at­tacks.

The re­align­ment may not tell us much we didn’t al­ready know in that re­gard, but it re­veals a lot about how far Rus­sia and Is­rael are will­ing to co­op­er­ate. It also in­di­cates that Rus­sia very much wants to find some ba­sis for a long-term re­la­tion­ship with Turkey, whose stew­ard­ship of the Bospho­rus is one of Rus­sia’s old­est geopo­lit­i­cal im­per­a­tives. The Bospho­rus makes any Rus­sian naval pres­ence in the Mediter­ranean shaky. It can pose a chal­lenge to Rus­sia in the Cau­ca­sus, an im­por­tant Rus­sian buf­fer zone. And when Turkey is al­lied with the United States, as it more or less is now, Wash­ing­ton has the abil­ity to pro­ject air power through­out the re­gion, par­tic­u­larly in the Black Sea.

And so, for Rus­sia, an al­liance with Turkey would be a dream come true. Not so for Turkey, which is his­tor­i­cally sus­pi­cious of Rus­sia, hav­ing fought and con­spired against it for years. The gov­ern­ment in Ankara knows that an al­liance with Rus­sia, with­out a backup plan, would be un­wise. We are far from an al­liance, but with the Idlib agree­ment, at least we know out­right con­flict has been avoided.

Rus­sia is thus co­op­er­at­ing with Is­rael and court­ing Turkey. It has proved what it wanted to prove in Syria, that it is still a global power, un­afraid of the U.S. and the West. As­sad sur­vived.

Rus­sia can claim suc­cess. Iran was use­ful in this re­gard, but when Syria is se­cure, Iran’s value falls. The Turks have no love for the Ira­ni­ans, whose ex­pan­sion in the re­gion was never a mat­ter of great en­thu­si­asm for Turkey or Rus­sia. It was sit­u­a­tional, and the sit­u­a­tion is chang­ing.

The cat­a­lyst for change was Ira­nian ex­pan­sion. The gov­ern­ment in Tehran took ad­van­tage of an op­por­tu­nity cre­ated by the de­feat of the Is­lamic State to as­sert it­self in Iraq, a coun­try that is es­sen­tial to the se­cu­rity of Iran’s western bor­der. It estab­lished a pow­er­ful pres­ence in Le­banon long ago and is sup­port­ing rebels in Ye­men. But it is spread­ing it­self too thin. Iran can pro­ject enough power to be po­lit­i­cally rel­e­vant in all these coun­tries but not enough to hold its po­si­tion against a de­ter­mined for­eign power.

En­ter Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates and Is­rael. The Saudis share with Is­rael a sense that Iran is their pri­mary en­emy. Nei­ther Is­rael nor the Saudis want to see Ira­nian in­flu­ence spread any fur­ther than it al­ready has. It’s lit­tle won­der, then, that Saudi and Emi­rati me­dia have re­ported that Is­rael sold Saudi Ara­bia its Iron Dome mis­sile de­fense sys­tem. (The Saudis and Is­raelis tend to loathe each other pub­licly but co­op­er­ate with each other se­cretly.) If true, the sale means their re­la­tion­ship is now out in the open, cre­at­ing an in­for­mal al­liance from the Per­sian Gulf to the Mediter­ranean Sea. Add to this Egypt, with which Is­rael has en­gaged on se­cu­rity is­sues for some time, and that al­liance stretches to the Red Sea.

It’s a pe­cu­liar bloc, con­sti­tuted as it is by Sunni Arabs and Is­raelis, but al­ready it is tak­ing ac­tion. Is­rael is at­tack­ing Iran in Syria, and it is pre­par­ing for a fight with Hezbol­lah in Le­banon in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture. The Turks are in an un­easy al­liance with the Sun­nis, but they are al­lied nonethe­less. The Rus­sians are es­sen­tially giv­ing the go-ahead to airstrikes. The Ira­ni­ans are be­ing boxed in.

Miss­ing from this nar­ra­tive, of course, is the United States. It has adopted a strat­egy I as­sumed it would, al­low­ing the lo­cal bal­ance of power to deal with mat­ters, and be­ing the last re­course, not the first. The U.S. has not ab­di­cated re­spon­si­bil­ity en­tirely. It con­tin­ues to wage eco­nomic war against Iran, and it main­tains spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces in the re­gion to train and sup­port some of these new­found re­la­tion­ships.

The story of a downed Rus­sian plane, then, is re­ally a story about Iran. It made its move, and now its en­e­mies are fight­ing back. The real bat­tle, whether overt or covert, has not yet be­gun.


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