Russia’s Middle East Presence Trips Up U.S. Policy

It’s no great secret that in recent years, Russia has sought to enlarge its role in international affairs through a diverse array of energy, arms, and political deals, from Brazil to Iran to Japan. This renewed assertion of power on the world stage was bound to raise some hackles among U.S. policymakers, who have seen their ability to influence events thwarted by a number of factors. Today the Wall Street Journal is running a longer piece focusing on how Russia’s economic and political presence, in the Middle East specifically, is creating a considerable clash of interests in the region. middleeast.gif From For as much as the United States is deeply entangled with complex problems in the region, from the military commitment in Iraq, the confrontation with Iran, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the dependence on Mideast oil supplies, Russia similarly has critical issues at stake and equally complex relationships. As an energy producer, Russia needs to coordinate with Iran and Qatar, and encourage the Saudis not to increase oil production (the Saudis are also considered the key to the Chechnya problem). The Russians are also keenly aware that the influence in the Middle East is one of the critical pressure points to use against the United States, and so with support of Hamas, debt forgiveness to Syria, and major arms deals to Iran, Russia has significantly increased its clout in the UN Security Council and demonstrated the rewards of its friendship to other countries in the region. The Wall Street Journal reports:

For four months last autumn Moscow used its U.N. veto power to fight successfully against U.S. and European efforts to impose tough sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. Russia finally agreed in December to a much more narrowly tailored resolution that targeted only parts of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. In January, while the U.S. and Europe were working to isolate Iran and U.S. forces were detaining Iranian officials in Iraq, Mr. Putin reacted warmly to an Iranian proposal for Russia and Iran, two countries with the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, to form an OPEC-style alliance. The idea drew a swift negative response from Washington and Europe. Earlier this month, in a speech in Germany that raised fears in the West of a new Cold War, Mr. Putin said American military aggressiveness was the reason countries like Iran are seeking nuclear weapons. “Russia is a huge problem on the Iran front,” says John Bolton, who frequently wrestled with Moscow as President Bush’s ambassador to the U.N. until December. “When it comes to Russia and Iran, it is hard to say who is whose client state.” Current administration officials who work closely with Russia aren’t quite so harsh, but concerns over Moscow’s intentions in the Middle East — as well as its overall foreign policy — are rising. “When it comes to Iran, the Russians want to have their cake and eat it, too,” said one senior U.S. official. “They want to look tough in working to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons, while also standing in as Iran’s friend and weapons provider.” … Russian officials from Mr. Putin on down barely disguise their relish when they highlight setbacks for U.S. policy in the Middle East and recount Moscow’s prewar warnings that the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea. “Today, America is viewed as the great loser in the eyes of the Russian establishment,” says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. At the same time, years of careful courting of Iran and the Arab countries of the Middle East are paying off for the Kremlin as political and economic ties to the region flower in a way not seen even during the Cold War. Russia is unencumbered by the communist dogma that made the Soviet Union anathema in large swaths of the Middle East. “There are no countries in the Arab world left that we have any differences with,” Mr. Putin told al-Jazeera before his recent trip to the region. As on his other visits, his delegation was packed with representatives of big Russian companies looking for deals in areas like energy, arms and nuclear power. While Western capitals routinely criticize the Kremlin for rolling back democratic institutions, Middle Eastern leaders have publicly called for Mr. Putin to defy a constitutional ban and remain in office when his term ends next year. “There’s no more ideology, there’s just business,” says Mr. Satanovsky.

“A Graveyard of Ambitions” A recent Stratfor report on Russia in the Middle East also puts things in perspective, pointing out the region has historically been a “graveyard of ambitions” – not just American ones:

In sum, the Russian position in the Middle East is at least as complex as the American one. Or perhaps even more so, since the Americans can leave and the Russians always will live on the doorstep of the Middle East. Historically, once the Russians start fishing in Middle Eastern waters, they find themselves in a greater trap than the Americans. The opening moves are easy. The duel between Saudi Arabia and Iran seems manageable. But as time goes on, Putin’s Soviet predecessors learned, the Middle East is a graveyard of ambitions — and not just American ambitions. Russia wants to contain U.S. power, and manipulating the situation in the Middle East certainly will cause the Americans substantial pain. But whatever short-term advantages the Russians may be able to find and exploit in the region, there is an order of complexity in Putin’s maneuver that might transcend any advantage they gain from boxing the Americans in.