Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Iran and Russia are united despite their differences

Russia has intervened militarily in Syria to prop up Bashar Al Assad’s regime. However, something more profound is occurring in the Middle East. The Russians, with Iran, evidently aim to rewrite power relationships in the region to profit from Washington’s disengagement and ultimately end more than four decades of American domination.

Barack Obama’s commitment to a nuclear deal with Iran was an eye-opener. In showing that the US was eager to normalise relations with Iran after more than 35 years of hostility, Mr Obama also revealed his willingness to accept Iran as a major regional player at the same time as the US was reducing its own regional footprint, alarming its traditional allies.

This attitude fits neatly into the White House’s vision for the region. Mr Obama sees few strategic rewards in the US continuing to be the sole major player in the Middle East. He wants to disengage, leaving behind a balance between the main countries so they can regulate their affairs.

This may appeal to political science students at the University of Chicago, but the void America has created has wreaked havoc in a region that has long relied on Washington to maintain a political equilibrium. Russia and Iran seek to replace what America has surrendered with a new order reflecting their own interests.

Much has been said about Vladimir Putin’s desire to take Russia back to the time of the Soviet Union. But the Russian president is not into nostalgia. Rather, as a true realist, facing difficulties at home, Mr Putin strives to enhance his country’s power abroad and show prospective Arab allies that Russia, unlike America, will intervene to preserve its rule and the status quo.

In the past year, Russia has reinforced its relations with Egypt, once a pillar of American authority in the region. Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s ties with the US president have been strained by Mr Obama’s quick abandonment of an old ally, Hosni Mubarak, in 2011 and Washington’s subsequent opposition to the military intervention that removed Mohammed Morsi.

Mr Obama never made any effort to mend the rift with Cairo, visiting Egypt only once, during his first year in office. The Russians, on the contrary, supported Mr El Sisi early on and he and Mr Putin have met several times

Mr Putin has also opened a channel to the Saudis, another of America’s principal allies. While the relationship is fraught with tensions, especially over Syria, the Saudis, too, see benefits in maintaining ties with both Moscow and Washington.

In the autumn, King Salman is scheduled to visit Russia. Mr Putin knows he may never replace America’s sway in Riyadh. However, as he expands Russian regional power, friendly relations with the Saudis are imperative.

And in Iraq recently, the Russians established a “security centre” with the Iraqis, Iranians and Syrians. The aim, according to the Russian representative in the centre, is to coordinate and exchange information to fight ISIL, and provide this to the military staffs in each country. Russian intervention has been welcomed by Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi.

But the possibilities go well beyond ISIL, with some viewing the project as a counterweight to American efforts to bolster a Sunni anti-ISIL force. Yet Mr Obama’s indecision was again on display last week when the US military suddenly suspended its activities against ISIL in Anbar province. The excuse given was so ludicrous (the hot weather) that no one could avoid linking it to the expanding Russian presence in Iraq.

At the heart of the changes in the region is the Russian-Iranian relationship. While Moscow and Tehran have different priorities, they are united in wanting the Americans gone, and both have a stake in Mr Al Assad’s political survival. Parenthetically, this collaboration also ensures that the nuclear deal with Iran will not marginalise Russia. As a new Middle East takes shape, Moscow wants its place.

While Mr Obama has wound down America’s involvement in the Arab world, other states – Russia, Iran and Turkey above all – have sought to revive previous statuses as regional powerhouses. Not surprisingly, the struggle for Syria, control over which was always a key for supremacy in the Levant, has meant these revivalist impulses have clashed.

What is interesting is that Iran and Russia, both aware of their limitations in a predominantly Sunni Arab world, have opted to work together. Syria will be a major test of their cooperation, as will Iraq. But both have a long way to go before they can successfully impose a new regional order. The Middle East has been notoriously destructive to the hubris of outsiders.

Strangely, only the United States was able to play a leading role for an extended period of time. However, Mr Obama has other plans. He wants to revitalise America by avoiding the Middle East. Mr Putin is wagering the Middle East can make Russia more relevant.

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