Diario Judío México - Anyone watching the recent developments in the Middle East will note, that despite the Trump administration’s assertive moves to counter Iran’s aggression – through reimposition of nuclear sanctions, as well as imposition of sanctions related to internal human rights violations, and actions by its proxy Hizbullah– , Iran’s behavior has not in fact changed. If anything, Tehran has become more brazen in its disregard for for international consensus on nuclear proliferation, now openly seeking uranium enrichment. Recent reports of two Iranian government agents, likely from the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) assassinated after attempting to procure uranium in Libya after entering the country through Tunisia, likely by Mossad, shows the boldness with which the Iranian operatives conduct themselves across continents, and the extent to which they have been able to use political destabilization in Africa to advance their hegemonic ambitions.

The development of a nuclear weapon is but one tool in the Islamic Republic’s arsenal. While in pursuit of that goal, Tehran has utilized more conventional weapons, such as ballistic missiles, drones, and others to arm and fund its proxies in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, including Hamas, Hizbullah, the Houthis in Yemen, and various Shi’a militias in Iraq, Syria, and various West African States. It has recently engaged with Algeria-backed separatist group Polisario through Hezbullah in an attempt to destabilize pro-Western Morocco.  Many of Iran’s maneuvers, however, would not have been possible if not for the stalward backing of another ambitious autocrat, Russia’s President Putin.

Whereas Iran is looking to reestablish itself as a neo-Persian empire, fueled by a revolutionary Khomeinist version of Islam, with the hopes of colonizing the Shi’a crescent, and beyond and subverting the local populations to serve a few corrupt families related to the ayatollahs, Russia is seeking an international recognition of its legitimacy as a power broker in the Middle East. It uses a variety of tools in its arsenal to make gains, but business ventures, solid backing of state allies, and a limited use of its military in support of its larger goals have effectively solidified its positions in Syria, and are increasingly advancing Russia’s goals elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

To some extent, Russia’s role has mirrored its strategy as a member of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Both countries are internally weak economically, though Russia has managed to elevate the position of the head of state to that of a despot, who uses the corrupt oligarchs, the security and intelligence apparatus, and organized crime as his interchangeable and interconnected henchmen to advance internal agenda as well as foreign relations. To the extent Russia’s arms race with the United States is a fool’s errand, Russia has had to contend with a smarter realignment of its military in the “near abroad”, reallocation of its budget towards pursuit of more sophisticated weaponry at the expense of the population, and a mixture of aggressive outreach to the states ignored, sidelined, or alienated by the White House’s policies, coupled with the traditional destabilization  of vulnerable and strategic regions through client states and partnerships such as Algeria, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

As an exporter of oil, Russia has suffered from recent fall in prices. In recent past it has attempted to work with Saudi Arabia to control oil prices, and, backed by KSA and China, to explore the Arctic in a  bid to supply the Saudis with gas, as well as to advance its own control. Russia has also secured an oil deal in Iraq, has managed to maintain relatiosn with both sides of the conflict in Yemen, and has grown particularly close to Turkey to the effect of a major gas pipeline project in Syria, coordination of Turkey’s violent takeover of Afrin, and Assad’s simultaneous reconquista of the lost territory from the rebels.

Despite being close to Iran and maintaining relations with Houthis, Russia has managed to advance relations even with traditional US allies strongly opposed to Iran, Hezbullah (which Russia has been rumored to supply with weapons), and other such organizations.  Its ability to maneuver the growing Saudi distrust of the WHite House’s ability to stay consisten into its own gain (at a likely expense to the US interests in that relationship, and with regards to oil) should have been a warning sign, which by now is becoming an easily observable geopolitical strategy. Russia’s latest advances include significant gains in Africa – in particular, the agreement with Sudan to build nuclear reactors, its foothold in Libya, again masterfully and openly playing both sides, and a growing closeness with Egypt on a spectrum of issues ranging from arms trade to joint training to mutually agreeable policies in Libya and Syria – should have set off the alarms for the administration.

The pattern here is that Russia is exploiting vacuums of power left by the United States to assert herself as a trusted ally and a forward-looking backer, with little interest in human rights, but with a concerted focus on advancing mutually beneficial goals. Russia’s realpolitik calculation here is multifold.  By taking advantage of Sissi’s apparent sense of betrayal by the Trump administration (in the form of a purely transactional relationship, as well as publicly imposed human rights and North Korea-related sanctions), Russia is looking to return to the field as a geopolitical giant, though the world is now much more likely to be multipolar than bipolar. It also looks to bypass the heavy international and US-imposed sanctions and find a way of recouping the losses suffered under its stagnant market by identifying new customers. It likewise looks to appropriate US allies, and leave the White House isolated, with little international support for any of its security-related measures, much less the vision of a less aggressive world order.

And to advance this strategy, Russia is pursuing the tactic of disrupting, distracting, and distancing the Anti Terrorism Quartet from each other and from the United States. With some influence over KSA and even more over Egypt already asserted, Russia is now working on UAE, with which the US has important financial and military dealings. Russia just entered with the UAE into a strategic partnership, although up until recently the countries had very little common.  This again should be alarming to the US, but instead these agreements passed with little discussion or notice. Much more noticeable is the discussion of UAE’s alleged role in the Russia-related Mueller probe, with the latest developments being allegations of UAE’s own election interference in the 2016 elections, as well as heavy lobbying efforts to direct President Trump’s course on Qatar. Moreover, Russia has been working to engage a close US ally Bahrain for over two years, most recently by having the country take part in the Russian-Islamic World cooperation forum. Simultaneously, Russia is also dealing with the regional rival of the four countries, Qatar, selling it S-400s despite Saudi opposition, just as it sold S-400s to Turkey, despite US opposition.  By exploiting the needs and goals of all the involved parties, Russia has managed to make itself into an indispensable player and an alternative to the US pressure and demands on various fronts, however justified.

Saudi Arabia will not distance itself from business with Moscow over Russia’s transactional relationship with Qatar, although it has been trying to strong-arm Morocco over its warm relationship with Doha. The difference in the approach is important to understand: Russia is not a MENA  or Muslim state; Russia is big, internationally influential, and thus has the optics of not being easily swayed by pressure, and it is needed as an alternative to the United States, which has likewise been unpredictable, and most recently has grown even closer to Qatar with President Trump publicly embracing Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani during his recent visit. There is not yet such closeness between Moscow and Doha for the time being; it’s just business. Additionally, the temporary collusion with Russia over oil related issue may be seen as important for jump-starting Saudi Arabia’s economy,  which is on a five-year deadline for successful reinvestment.

Russia is taking full advantage of this desperation to pull one over the United States. The anti-Terrorism Quartet is a powerful deterrent to Iran’s expansionism in the Middle East and Africa; providing a viable leadership alternative, and peddling hard and soft influence in many of the countries both Russia and Iran are seeking to operate in. Russia’s game here is two-fold:: first, it needs to guarantee continuous business success in the region in the case its partnership with Iran suffers from tensions or otherwise Tehran’s gambit does not work out. Basically, it’s covering all exits and ensuring a diversity of partnerships, without fully hedging its bets on any one actors.

At the same time, it is seeking to curtail the staunch ATQ opposition to Iran (and by extension her own ambitions) by forming alliances with the would-be opponents, all of whom have good reasons to distrust Moscow.  From these basic dealings, the relationship can go several ways. First, Moscow can succeed in exploiting differences between the West and the ATQ, and through maneuvering and diplomacy, convince at least some of the countries to soften their stands on Iran by promising to keep it in check.

It may influence Iran to pull in the reins on Houthis, at least temporarily, or even negotiate some level of compromise with Qatar, just to spite the United States. Alternatively, in the even that this path does not work out, Russia will look to weaken ATQ as a unit, while strengthening its own individual relationship with each country.  It will look to exploit the individual differences and varying interests of the members (most obvious being the differences between Egypt and the others on some of the issues in Syria, where KSA and UAE would prefer not to see Russia at all), to create unmanageable tensions between the countries and make their alliance untenable and ineffective.

It may look to provide alternative protection to Bahrain from Iran’s interference, while undermining UAE and KSA in Yemen by exacerbating differences in priorities between the two countries, and reporting all of that to the Houthis.  It may cause additional issues in Syria, playing off UAE and KSA-controlled rebels against pro-Assad militias and Turkey-backed factions.  Most definitely, it will look to grow the relations with each country at the expense of their closeness to the United STates, paying lip service to President Trump’s seeming successes while at the same time providing a compelling alternative and willingness to engage being purely transactional level with each country. Russia will flatter the governments of these countries, feeding off their desperation to find an avenue to growth and responsiveness to their concerns about threats, while turning them against what they perceive as a somewhat patronizing stand adopted by the United States.

None of these relationships will go very far. The monarchies have very little to do with President Putin, and the governments of the ATQ are fully aware of the autocrat’s inherent untrustworthiness. However, even a temporary engagement between Russia and ATQ threatens the goals of the ATQ vis-a-vis Iran, the hopes for a more visionary and stabilizing leadership in the region, as well as the ATQ’s strong relationship with the United States. The White House should recognize that Russia is looking steadily and stealthily to coopt the US allies all over the World, and act quickly before Moscow is successful in that venture. It should work to deepen its relationships with the ATQ, and to develop a viable strategy for countering common threats and addressing assorted concerns in a tactful, understanding, and respectful manner. It should also keep aware of Russia’s economic maneuvers and work with Saudi Arabia to deny Russia an additional path towards legitimacy and income by finding a different path for KSA to address its financial concerns.  President Trump should be advised that strong relationships with allies require strategic depths, otherwise they are liable to be hijacked by international miscreants with adversarial agendas. Russia is not looking to benefit anyone except her own interests; Putin has plans for deep and meaningful friendship with the ATQ’s leaders. Rather, he will use them for as long as he needs them, and stab them at the back the moment he no longer does. But by that point it may be too late for everyone involved.

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Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.