Russian influence rises in the post-Iran deal Middle East

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In the late night hours of Wednesday, July 15, Khaled Mashal, the political leader of Hamas, stepped off a plane and onto Saudi soil. The charismatic former physics teacher and George Clooney lookalike flew in from the Gulf state of Qatar. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Mashal has been stuck between a rock — his Iran backers who are Shiite — and a hard place — his followers who are Sunni and condemn the Syrian regime’s brutal attacks on Sunni rebels. Iran has continued to supply Hamas with money and weapons, although relations remain strained.

Mashal’s motives for the visit are clear. He is shoring up financial and political support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But what on earth would the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — the centuries-old leaders of purist Sunni Islam — want with a group of destabilizing, Islamist upstarts like Hamas?

{mosads}Since its birth as a modern state, the kingdom has carefully maintained its hegemony in the region through an alliance with the West. When Egypt, Iraq and Syria experienced socialist revolutions in the 1950s and 1960s, and realigned themselves with the Soviet Union, the Saudis remained solidly pro-Western.

In the past year, however, the Saudis have been battling an existential threat: the expansion of Iranian-backed Shiite militias that have now reached its borders with Yemen and Iraq.

The kingdom has politely, but repeatedly warned the leader of the Western world, President Obama, that the lifting of sanctions and the implicit acceptance of Iran as a nuclear threshold state will encourage Iran’s expansionism in the Gulf and elsewhere. But Obama has chosen to ignore Saudi concerns.

So Saudi Arabia has acted unilaterally. When the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels advanced and deposed the Sunni president, the Saudis amassed a coalition of Sunni states and launched airstrikes against the Houthis. Seeking to weaken Iran, the kingdom aligned itself with Turkey and Qatar to support Sunni rebels fighting the Iranian-backed Syrian regime.

And last, but not least, the Saudis befriended Russia, a longtime ally of Iran and Syria. The Saudis pledged to invest up to $10 billion in Russia. These funds will help Russian withstand Western economic sanctions intended to counter Russia’s own expansionist desires in Ukraine. In return for the $10 billion, Russia promised to do everything it could to help solve the Saudis’ Iranian problem.

Russia not only agreed to furnish the Saudis with weapons and nuclear technology, but it also agreed to use its influence with Iran. And on July 14, according to Israeli Channel One news, Russia tried to broker the following deal: Saudi Arabia would agree to stop supporting Sunni rebels in Syrian and in exchange, Iran would stop intervening in Yemen. The Saudis agreed on the spot. Iran asked for time to “think about it.”

And with this background, we can now understand what the Saudis hoped to gain from Mashal’s visit.

In Iran today, reformists — like President Hassan Rouhani — are struggling against hardliners, like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). The IRGC trains and supplies the Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen in their fight against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni foes. The hardliners are also the staunchest advocates for supplying Hamas with arms and monies.

So, what did Saudi Arabia gain from Mashal’s visit? The visit embarrassed the hardliners — and strengthened the political position of reformers who are more likely to agree to Russia’s proposition.

Whether or not the Iranians rein in their Shiite militias, this incident illustrates the realities of the “new Middle East” — a Middle East in which the U.S. has relinquished its dominant role and in which Russia is gaining influence. A Middle East in which Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to Qatar to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to ask Russia to convince Iran to help the U.S. battle its much weaker foe, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

One often-asked biblical question is: Why did the Children of Israel wander through the desert for 40 years after leaving Egypt? The trip could have taken 11 days. The answer is this: When the Israelite scouts returned from the Holy Land, they reported the land was inhabited by giants — and the Children of Israel became convinced that they would never be able to defeat these giants. Angered, God decreed that this generation was unfit to enter the land of their forefathers. A new generation would have to arise — a generation that thought of themselves not as a powerless, enslaved people, but as the strong, free nation that the Israelites were to become under the leadership of Joshua.

We may be facing a similar situation today.

In the months before signing the Iran deal, the Obama administration officials often repeated the “I think I can’t” mantra. We cannot get Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Our P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) partners would abandon us. It is unattainable. Or as National Security Adviser Susan Rice eloquently explained, “We cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal.”

In a teleconference on the morning the deal was signed, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes exuberantly divulged that the deal “exceeds what we thought we could get at the beginning of this process.”

When Kerry steps off the plane and onto Qatari soil to plead his case with Russia, he should first journey into the desert and try to recall exactly which great superpower emerged victorious from the Cold War — and which one still has the strongest economy, the strongest military and the strongest commitment to democratic values in the world today.

The United States is a strong, free nation and our fate does not and should not depend on states that are not free and do not have our best interest at heart.

We may, however, need a Joshua to lead us out of the wilderness.

Friedman is an American-Israeli writer and editor in the fields of political science, history and information technology.

Tags Hamas Houthis Iran Iran agreement Iran deal Iran nuclear agreement Iran nuclear deal ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria John Kerry Palestine Russia Saudi Arabia Syria Yemen

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