Between Israel and Iran- Putin’s Chess Game

Ksenia Svetlova November 2021

Can President Putin be a “great friend of the Jewish people”, as Naftali Bennett called him, and at the same time sell sophisticated weapons to Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel? Bennett’s goal is to understand the complex Russian logic. Analysis

Ksenia Svetlova

The lengthy conversation and the heartfelt warmth described by Housing Minister Zeev Elkin following the first meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett diverted attention from the real question: Did Bennett achieve any progress with Russia on Iran?

Russia is one of the few countries that maintains good relations with both Jerusalem and Tehran. The Russians greatly value this balance to the extent that on the same week that Putin met Bennett, his Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu met in Moscow with Iranian military Chief Mohammad-Hossein Bagheri to sign several important arms deals. The two also declared a “move to a new stage of bilateral relations” and the convening of a military-technological committee soon in Tehran.

Can President Putin be a “great friend of the Jewish people”, as Naftali Bennett called him, and at the same sell sophisticated Russian-made weapons to Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel – even as Israeli-Iranian tensions break previous records and a clash appears more than a theoretical scenario? As far as Putin is concerned, there is no contradiction between the two. He conducts strategic ties with the Turks and the Kurds, with Iran and the Arab Gulf States, with Fatah and Hamas, with Hezbollah and Israel. As long as these ties benefit Russia’s policies of expanding its influence and planting deep roots in the Middle East – Russia is determined to play on this chess board with all its pieces, big and small, black and white.

This is a complex game, as are relations between Moscow and the many actors in the region, including Iran. Russia is interested in continuing to sell its advanced weaponry to the Iranians, but is concerned about Iran’s nuclearization and does not want to be surprised by a daring Iranian move in this regard. At the same time, it also seeks continued cooperation with the Iranians in Syria in order to preserve Bashar Assad’s regime, which enables it to act freely in his country. There are also quite a few other conflicts of interest between Moscow and Tehran, especially over the Caspian Sea and specifically Azerbaijan. Contrary to prevailing views, Moscow’s relations with Iran were never smooth, both due to the ayatollahs’ hostility to the Soviet regime and concern that the Iranians would eventually become a bargaining chip in attempts to improve US-Russia relations.

Israel is also part of these tangled contradictory interests. Different figures in Israel’s political-defense establishment had for several years entertained vain hopes of a Russian, American and Israeli anti-Iran alliance in Syria. However, Moscow-Washington relations kept deteriorating, and despite Russian promises to prevent the Iranians from nearing the Syrian border with Israel, the Iranians continue to operate in the Daraa region and even in the vicinity of the Israeli border. For now, Russia is willing to allow Israel free movement in the skies over Syria, as long as Russian soldiers are not harmed. In case of an accident, whether real or staged by Iran, or accelerated development of Moscow-Tehran ties – the Russian willingness to cooperate could change substantially.

Nonetheless, Putin and Bennett may have found points of mutual interest regarding the continued development of Iran’s nuclear program. Should it choose to do so, Russia could become a key actor in the drama unfolding in recent months between Iran and the US. It would achieve two goals – international prestige (an isolated Russia burdened by sanctions will undoubtedly not object) and preventing a potential clash between Israel and Iran should the Islamic Republic decide to surge ahead to nuclear breakout status or suddenly display a completed bomb.

While the situation in Syria appears static and difficult to change, this arena could provide Israel with an opportunity to become an important link between the US and Russia based on their shared concern over a nuclear Iran. If five hours of talks between Putin and Bennett were devoted to this option, the weekend in Sochi was worthwhile.

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