Tricky tri­an­gle of Iran, Rus­sia & Is­rael

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION -

ALI Lar­i­jani, Iran’s par­lia men­tary speaker, has long been an ad­vo­cate of bet­ter re­la­tions with Rus­sia and his re­cent in­ter­view with TASS, in which he spoke of Iran’s “east­ern ori­en­ta­tion, first of all to­wards Rus­sia… [as] the coun­try’s strate­gic choice”, is no sur­prise. But Iran’s re­la­tion­ships with all in­ter­na­tional pow­ers are be­com­ing more nu­anced as the re­sult of changes in the re­gion. Last July’s nu­clear agree­ment with world pow­ers, in­clud­ing the ‘Great Satan’, has helped pro­duce a diplo­matic palate with many shades of grey. There are few stead­fast al­lies or im­pla­ca­ble en­e­mies.

For Iran, Rus­sia is a strate­gic ally in sup­port­ing Syria’s president Bashar al-As­sad, and Rus­sia is also a po­ten­tial part­ner in shap­ing the global gas mar­ket as the two coun­tries with the largest re­serves. But there are still im­por­tant dif­fer­ences be­tween Moscow and Tehran. Even though Rus­sia is con­tracted to Iran over nu­clear en­ergy – the provider of Bushehr, Iran’s only op­er­at­ing sta­tion, and in talks over eight more – it blocked nei­ther Iran’s re­fer­ral to the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in 2006 nor the sub­se­quent sanc­tions.

In 2005 Lar­i­jani be­gan his first of two years as sec­re­tary of the Supreme Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil pur­su­ing a ‘tilt to Moscow’ that he be­lieved could stop both re­fer­ral and UN sanc­tions. In Jan­uary 2006, as the prospect of re­fer­ral to the se­cu­rity coun­cil loomed, Lar­i­jani told me in an in­ter­view in Tehran that Iran was ex­plor­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties with Moscow for en­rich­ing ura­nium on Rus­sian soil. Lar­i­jani was in typ­i­cal good form, with the quick wit of a man who had stud­ied Kant.

Ex­press­ing dis­dain for the western coun­tries’ request for a doc­u­ment sup­pos­edly from the net­work of Pak­istani sci­en­tist AQ Khan show­ing a weapons de­sign, Lar­i­jani quipped: “If you can find any­one in the world who can make a bomb with one and a half pages, we will cover their whole body with gold.” Lar­i­jani’s sharp­ness didn’t, how­ever, make the ‘tilt to Moscow’ suc­cess­ful. I was later told by a regime in­sider that Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, the leader, felt badly let down by Lar­i­jani when Rus­sia backed UN sanc­tions, and one can sur­mise this was a fac­tor in his re­place­ment in Oc­to­ber 2007 by Saeid Jalili.

A decade later, the Geneva nu­clear agree­ment has made pos­si­ble closer ties be­tween Iran and Rus­sia, with Moscow now say­ing it will sup­ply the S300 mis­sile de­fence sys­tem it deemed blocked un­der UN sanc­tions. Rus­sian com­pa­nies are itch­ing to win con­tracts in Iran. Tehran and Moscow are also on the same side in Syria back­ing president As­sad, with Ira­nian ad­vi­sors from the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps and Rus­sian air strikes and a more lim­ited troop pres­ence. But even in Syria, there are nu­ances – and one im­por­tant dif­fer­ence be­tween Iran and Rus­sia is rooted in Moscow’s close re­la­tion­ship with Is­rael, a state Tehran says it will never recog­nise.

When Rus­sia be­gan bomb­ing groups in re­bel­lion against As­sad in Septem­ber, there was a real dan­ger of a flare-up with Is­rael, which has it­self hit tar­gets in Syria on the other side of the con­flict, given its con­cerns over As­sad’s al­liance with Hezbol­lah, the mil­i­tant Lebanese group with whom it last went to war in 2006. Yossi Alpher, a for­mer Mos­sad an­a­lyst and op­er­a­tive, re­cently told me that “co­or­di­na­tion” be­tween Rus­sia and Is­rael over Syria and been a suc­cess and rep­re­sented “a ma­jor strate­gic de­vel­op­ment in the Mid­dle East”.

“When the Rus­sian air-force be­gan set­ting up in the Alaw­ite coast of Syria, the first for­eign leader to go to Syria, who rushed to meet Putin, was Bibi” Ne­tanyahu, Is­raeli prime min­is­ter, said Alpher. “[Ne­tanyahu told them]: ‘Okay we’ll have our armies co­or­di­nate. You’re bomb­ing, we oc­ca­sion­ally bomb to in­ter­dict arms trans­fers to Hezbol­lah’.” The big­gest po­ten­tial flash­point be­tween Rus­sia and Is­rael has been in Rus­sian planes fly­ing over Is­raeli-held ter­ri­tory in the Golan – but both sides have been pre­pared to take the action nec­es­sary to prevent the kind of in­ci­dent in which Turkey downed a Rus­sian plane in Novem­ber.

“We shot down Syr­ian planes that flew over the Golan, but not Rus­sian planes,” said Alpher, adding that co-or­di­na­tion had been done “very ef­fi­ciently” given that re­ac­tion time in such in­ci­dents might be only sec­onds. Alpher has a long stand­ing in­ter­est in Iran’s role on the wider regional chess board. His book Pe­riph­ery, pub­lished last year, looked at a doc­trine ac­cord­ing to which Is­rael has long sought al­lies in the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing Iran be­fore the 1979 Revo­lu­tion: in it, he re­called his pres­ence in a discussion in Mos­sad in 1979 over whether to kill Aya- tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini. Alpher’s com­pelling new book, No End to Con­flict, fo­cuses on the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict in an at­tempt to re­store the cen­tral­ity of an is­sue he feels is be­ing ne­glected, and in it he looks at Is­rael’s grow­ing re­la­tions with the Arab states, in­clud­ing Saudi Ara­bia, that are born in part of a shared fear of Iran. “We have never had the present de­gree of strate­gic co­op­er­a­tion with our Arab neigh­bours – with Egypt over Gaza and Si­nai; with Jor­dan with re­gard to Syria and Iraq; with the Saudis with re­gard to Iran and Daesh [ISIS],” he told me. “They’re not pres­sur­ing us on the Pales­tinian is­sue, which makes the is­sue less ur­gent.”

Un­like many of the Is­raeli right, Alpher is un­happy with this. He be­lieves de­mo­graphic change in the oc­cu­pied West Bank is un­der­min­ing the chance of a two-state so­lu­tion with Is­rael re­main­ing a demo­cratic, Jewish state. “[As] we swal­low up the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and do noth­ing about Gaza,” he told me, “we are push­ing our­selves down this slip­pery slope to­wards be­com­ing some­thing that is no longer a Jewish, Zion­ist, demo­cratic en­tity.”

Like Lar­i­jani, Alpher has his eye on Rus­sia, and plans his next book on Is­rael’s re­la­tion­ship with Moscow go­ing back to the Soviet pe­riod. His “for­mer bosses” in Mos­sad have told him it will have to be a novel. “They said, ‘You wanna write about this? Only as fic­tion’.” The writer works for Tehran Bureau, an in­de­pen­dent me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tion, hosted by The Guardian.

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