Iran negotiations force Middle East to rethink alliances

As Washington pursues rapprochement with Tehran, Moscow seeks new role in region

December 18, 2013 11:00AM ET
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on Dec. 9.
Pavel Golovkin/AP

The exceeding unhappiness in the Middle East over the “interim” agreement in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) is accelerating the transformation of the region into a game of “enemy mine.”  

The old 20th century map of diplomatic relations linked Washington to Riyadh and the Gulf states, and then, in a separate line of communications, linked Washington to Jerusalem on one hand and Cairo on the other.

The new 21st century map that's forming links Moscow to Riyadh and the Gulf states, and then, in a separate line, links Moscow to Jerusalem and Cairo. Then, too, there is striking evidence that Riyadh and the Gulf states are in conversation directly with Jerusalem as well as Cairo.

In sum, the enemy of my enemy is my friend for capitals that spent the Cold War at gunpoint with the Soviets and each other. They are now discussing strategic ententes against the collective threat of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran.

Examine the evidence of diplomatic engagement:

1. Saudi Arabia and Israel: Shimon Peres, president of Israel, recently addressed via satellite the opening of the Gulf states gathering that included Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Jordan and Qatar. Israeli flags filled the teleconference video screen. No one walked out. There was applause. Additionally, there are repeated, credible reports from the region of substantive exchanges between diplomatic and military liaisons for Israel and Saudi Arabia.  My sources on either side of the Atlantic tell me that the contacts are both in the Middle East and in Europe.

2. Saudi Arabia and Russia: Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan recently traveled to Moscow for the second time in months to meet with President Vladimir Putin. The conversation turned not only on the P5+1 “interim” deal with Iran, but also most decidedly on the Syrian civil war and the upcoming peace conference in January. Riyadh and the Gulf states are adamant foes of the Assad regime. Riyadh sees the Syrian civil war as a proxy battlefield with its profound foe Tehran. According to my sources, while Russia supports the status quo in Syria, the Kremlin is indifferent to Assad and would welcome a new president who can make peace. Also of critical interest to Russia and Saudi Arabia are the needs of Egypt’s hard-pressed military after the U.S. decision to withhold support following the military takeover last July. Riyadh has been clear that it will write the checks for Egypt to upgrade with weapons purchased from the Russian arsenal.

3. Egypt and Russia: The Russians are increasingly prominent in Egypt. This summer, gigantic portraits of Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the leader of the coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, were draped on Cairo buildings alongside a warrior portrait of Vladimir Putin in a Spetsnatz (Special Forces) uniform. Since then, the U.S. has repeatedly scolded the Egyptian government and Sissi for strong-handedness. As Washington has backed away from Cairo, Moscow has come laden with gifts. Forty years after the Soviets were kicked out by the defeated President Anwar al-Sadat, Russian warships are calling at Alexandria. Egypt’s arsenal is reportedly less than half leftover Soviet era weaponry, all in need of updating by the eager sellers in the Kremlin.

What Jerusalem, Riyadh, Cairo and the Gulf states have in common is that they do not trust the
Obama administration’s hopes for Iran’s
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

4. Israel and Russia: In the midst of the Iran talks in Geneva, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to confer with Putin. Afterward, the two leaders stood side by side and appeared to disagree markedly on the pending Iran “interim” agreement. However, the offstage discussion was not at odds, according to my sources, and both sides shared concerns about the Egyptian military, which is battling terrorists in the Sinai along with Israeli help. Also, the two leaders discussed the growing common purpose of Israel and the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia.

Left out of these confabs is Washington. It’s a purposeful rebuke. What Jerusalem, Riyadh, Cairo and the Gulf states have in common is that they do not trust the Obama administration’s hopes for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. None of the threatened capitals have confidence in the words of President Barack Obama or his Cabinet secretaries. Nor do they have patience for lessons in the rewards of peacemaking with practiced deceivers such as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. After 2003, Rouhani headed Iran’s nuclear program while it was building secret enrichment facilities and conducting tests for weaponization. The U.S. attorney in New York has recently linked Zarif‘s tenure as U.N. ambassador to a money-laundering operation to enable Iran to bypass banking sanctions.

Most recently, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal condemned the conduct of the U.S. with regard to the Syrian civil war as “criminal negligence,” and he went on to chastise the U.S. for not only keeping the months of back-channel talks with Iran secret from Riyadh but also keeping Riyadh from the table in Geneva.

For Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states, the turn to Moscow is practical for both armaments and influence. It is definitely not an embrace of Russian values. The Americans have turned cold to Cairo, have turned deaf to Riyadh, have traced out an accommodation with Khamenei and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that badly disappoints the Gulf states. Moscow is their plan B. 

Scrambling to play catch-up, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel traveled recently to a Gulf security meeting in Bahrain, the Manama Dialogue, to speak of how “clear-eyed” the U.S. is with regard to Iran’s reputation. Hagel also recounted the strength of the U.S. deployment in the Gulf and emphasized the “credibility” of Washington’s assurances.

For Israel, on the other hand, the turn to Moscow is part of a larger journey to build useful alliances in the face of Iranian aggression and American disconnection.

For Saudi Arabia and Israel, the outlines of cooperation can begin with mutual worries for the instability in Syria and then quickly move along to their shared mistrust of the regimes in Damascus and Tehran.

The hard-edged expectation from the Middle East is that the “interim” deal in Geneva — with its ambiguities and deliberate incompleteness — is the whole of what can be achieved by consensus diplomacy. Over the next year, Iran will enjoy the lifting of economic sanctions while offering little of substance in its actual conduct.

The new ententes of “enemy mine” under construction in the Middle East are immediately aimed to counter the advantages Iran has gained under the P5+1’s relaunched diplomacy to solve the nuclear weapons threat. 

The next test for the fresh alliances, especially those involving Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, will be at Geneva II in January in order to counter Iran’s efforts to save the battered Assad regime. 

Longer term, the looming worst-case scenario is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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