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Russia and the GCC within the regional power constellation after the Iran nuclear deal (Russian perspective) Featured

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Russia's relationship with the Persian Gulf and the independent Arab monarchies, which have formed in the region over the past century, is proving complex and malleable. It ebbs and flows, characterized by significant political differences, which are related to various aspects of regional and global politics and are ultimately also a function of internal political transformations, both within Russia itself and the states of the region.

However, it should be pointed out that – all disagreements and heated discussions about the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear deal notwithstanding – Russia and the GCC have never been such close partners, as they are during this current complicated and painful turn in Middle Eastern history, in that they share a wide range of common interests and understand each others' concerns. There is a mutual impact between, on the one hand, prolonged regional destabilization, multiple sources and theatres of violence and the loss of governability in the region, and the internal processes within the GCC member states, on the other. The GCC, a political-military alliance with great financial and economic potential, has - in Russia's view - transformed into a real power centre, exercising leverage on the overall situation not just within the region.

Everything is relative, so the mutual appeal between Russia and the Persian Gulf is best understood in its historical context. Let us take, for instance, the longstanding relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which plays a leading role in the GCC:

The Soviet Union was one of the first states to recognize, and establish diplomatic relations with, the Saudi Kingdom in 1932. The Soviets viewed the momentum towards integration on the Arabian peninsula as a progressive development, especially against the backdrop of the colonial policies of Western powers, which had competed to divide the spoils of the Arab world amongst each other. The Saudis never forgot that Moscow, in those difficult initial years of the Kingdom's development, provided Riyadh with oil products, especially gasoline. This interesting historical fact must appear amusing and paradoxical today.

Later, after the Russian Ambassador was recalled from Riyadh, bilateral relations were frozen for a protracted period. The reason was not any foreign policy disagrement, but rather the internal political repression arising within the Soviet Union, which claimed many respected diplomats as victims.

During the post-World War II period of bipolar confrontation, the Soviet leadership viewed the Gulf region as a sphere of Western preponderance. This view was reflected in Soviet ideology at the time, which divided the Arab world into states characterized by a Socialist orientation and perceived as acting compatible with Soviet foreign policy doctrine, and into the «reactionary» oil monarchies, considered US satellites. This artificial distinction was also fuelled by Nasserist Egypt, which at the time was ambitious to spread Arab nationalism across the region, especially towards the Arabian peninsula with its significant oil resources. Soviet Middle East policy was then undoubtedly driven by apprehensions about Cairo's intentions, and it was occasionally difficult to establish, who was exercising the greater influence on whom.

A reinstatement of relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the end of the 1970s – a period when conditions seemed ripe for reconciliation – was complicated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which caused great damage to Moscow's position in the Muslim world. It was not until the 1990s that both countries established diplomatic representations in each other's capitals, though bilateral relations were overshadowed by a whole range of irritants, such as the conflict in Chechnya and events in Kosovo. While the Saudi perspective on these conflicts prioritized the need to protect the Muslim population, the Russian leadership, urging the reestablishment of constitutional legality in Chechnya and refusing to recognize Kosovar independence from Serbia, looked at the situation through the prism of international legal norms, such as the sanctity of territorial integrity and the principle of noninterference in internal affairs.

Russia's internal problems in the 1990s, causing it to reduce its political activity and economic ties in the Middle East, additionally complicated relations with Saudi Arabia, as well as the other GCC states. To many in the world, Russia appeared to have turned its back on the region. This impression was reinforced by the fact that Moscow, against the backdrop of rapidly unfolding democratic changes inside Russia, embarked on an increasingly pro-Western oriented foreign policy course. Hence, the Persian Gulf was not so much looked at from Moscow as a region that ties should be fostered with bilaterally, but its importance was rather assessed within the overall context of Russia's partnership with the US, which was to provide the framework in which to devise a reliable Middle Eastern regional security system[1].

Russia's return to the region from the early 2000s then occurred under very different circumstances. There was a change in the very paradigm of Russian-Arab relations, which became mutually beneficial and evolved in different spheres. Purely pragmatic considerations assumed priority: the support of a stable political dialogue, whatever the disagreements, the strengthening of economic ties, as well as regional security. On this basis, Russia started building relations – rather successfully – not just with traditional partners, but with all Arab Gulf states, which were gaining in political and economic weight at the time.

During the same period, the GCC underwent a process of increasing institutionalisation internally, for instance in the spheres of common defense, coordination of actions on the international stage, coordination of oil policies, as well as economic integration. Given the emergence of this new, more integrated center of power in the Gulf, relations with Russia acquired an additional dimension.

From 2011, a Russian-GCC dialogue started to develop in parallel to the nurturing of bilateral relations; the former was aimed at the convergence and coordination of the participants' positions on regional and global problems of common interest, as well as the development of trade and economic relations. Five rounds of talks between all foreign ministers were held in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Kuwait, Moscow, as well as New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Regional security, especially the fight against international terrorism and a political solution for the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen – both intended to stabilize the Middle Eastern situation more broadly – became the central item on the Russia-GCC agenda. In this context, the Gulf participants emphasized, in particular, Iran's regional role and its relations with Russia, since they viewed Tehran as the main threat in the region.

The extent to which questions related to Gulf security are of utmost priority to the Arab states of the region is well understood in Russia. These questions already acquired heightened significance in 1990 during the First Gulf War. At that time, the priority for both the GCC and, by the way, Russia was to neutralize the threat emanating from Iraq. Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the GCC started to view Iran – a state with substantial military might and wide-ranging possibilties to influence the Gulf states through its support for their Shiite communities – as their main enemy.

As a result of this development, the challenges of Gulf regional security acquired a new, more complex character, especially considering the heavy legacy of relations between these two centers of power in the region, a legacy that has its roots in the emergence and spread of Islam as a world religion.

The destruction of the old state foundations and the social and political upheavals, which afflicted the entire MENA region with the beginning of the «Arab Spring», forced the GCC to adapt to changing circumstances and to seek additional resources, in order to forestall the spillover of destabilization into the Persian Gulf at a time when power relations between major regional players were in flux. Egypt, living through two revolutions and suffering from their disruptive consequences, was temporarily weakened. Syria and Iraq have been torn by internal strife between groups close to either Saudi Arabia or Iran. And Turkey, which claimed the universality of its model of «Islamic democracy», has ceased to be regarded in the Arab world as a role model, given its growing domestic and external problems.

Unlike Jordan and Morocco, which swiftly embarked on a path of political modernization, the Saudi kingdom decided for more gradual development, starting by introducing economic reforms. And this is understandable: Saudi Arabia, as the guardian of the holy sites of Islam, carries a particular responsibility for the maintenance of stability, especially at a time when it found itself, as officials in Riyadh argued, caught between two perils: that of revolution and acts of terrorism, on the one hand, and that of surging Iranian regional ambitions, on the other. It should be noted that, while these worries shared by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies were not entirely unfounded, they were in some instances overexaggerated, according to most Western and Russian experts.

It is certainly true that Shiite Iran has enhanced its position in Iraq over recent years, paradoxically enabled by the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which changed the sectarian balance in positions of power in favour of the Shia, a fact that Iran has used in its favour. Saudi hopes that the Assad regime, close to Iran, would be swiftly overthrown did not materialize. Iran's influence in Lebanon, exercised through the militarily well-equipped Hezbollah movement, also increased. And at the same time, the Shia opposition in Bahrain became more active, as did the Houthis in Yemen, which are considered an outright product of Iran, though this is well known to be a stretch of logic.

Developments North to the Gulf, where a Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis was perceived to form, as well as South, where the Houthis overthrew a legally elected President, were seen by the Arab Gulf states as a real threat to both their security and very existence. A new strategy, comprising a whole range of political, military, financial, economic and propagandist counter-measures, had to be devised. Changes at the top echelons of power in the Saudi kingdom hastened this strategy, which was ultimately intended to contain Iran, into action.

Given these assessments of developments in the Middle East, which are prevailing among circles in the Gulf, the US' changing regional policy, especially in relation to Iran, and its possible impact on regional relations, has been of particular concern. Should recent US policy be understood as the manifestation of a new regional strategy, aimed at rapprochement with Iran and the creation of a new regional equilibrium, or rather as a tactical feat? Especially Saudi Arabia viewed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak as resulting in the loss of a trusted ally and, even worse, as evidence of the unreliability of American patronage. America's flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood, ascending to power at the time, caused yet more suspicion, which was then further exacerbated by President Obama's decision to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. The not unfounded Saudi allegations that the US' policy of supporting Shia authoritarian leaders in Baghdad further allowed Iran to enhance its sphere of influence in Iraq, became an additional irritant in Gulf-US relations. The two sides also differed sharply on how to deal with the conflict in Syria. US policy in Syria was regularly criticsed in the Gulf as weak and inconsistent. As a result of the above-discussed irritants, and for the first time in history, US-Saudi relations were seriously tested, a development which reached its apogee in Riyadh's renouncing of the strategic partnership and heralding a «sharp turn» in its foreign policy[2].

Worries about losing the US as the traditional security guarantor in the region also precipitated the GCC's activisation of political contacts with Russia, including at the senior level. The Saudis figured it wise to assess the extent to which Russia could play a moderating role with respect to Iran, as well as to broaden their foreign policy ties in the international arena, given the new system of flexible and self-regulating balances in the region. Russia, in turn, had already from the early 2000s adopted a balanced foreign policy course intended at the levelling of relations with states of the «Arab bloc», which it viewed as an increasingly influential player and serious partner not just in the region, but also on global political and economic issues.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran and the «P5+1» on July 14, 2015, generated a whole range of commentary and prognoses. Two opposing camps, each assessing the deal in terms of its likely global ramifications for the nuclear non-proliferation regime, as well as its impact on Iran's regional politics, emerged.

The JCPOA's opponents in the US, like those in the region itself (including Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states) are far from convinced that the deal will lower Tehran's nuclear ambitions and moderate its regional strategy. Some even fear a regional nuclear arms race, driven by Iran's apprehensive neighbours[3]. The Gulf States do not hide the fear that the financial resources released to Iran post-sanctions relief will be used by Tehran to support the pro-Iranian forces and movements within the entire so-called «Shia crescent». The JCPOA's supporters, on the other hand, argue that the deal will not lead to a distortion of the region's military balance and that the US remains committed to its security guarantees in the Middle East. They also hold that the deal will strengthen moderate elements in the Iranian leadership, which compete with those who continue to support a harder line, especially on Syria. According to the supporters' logic, an Iran emerging from international isolation will act more responsibly, be ready for compromises, and the other Gulf states, having received guarantees that they will be protected against possible Iranian expansionism, will equally conduct a more restrained foreign policy in the region.

The agreement with Iran did not have any negative impact on Russia's relations with the Gulf countries. There is even reason to argue that – the disagreements regarding Iran and the Syrian crisis notwithstanding – meetings and conversations at the heighest political and diplomatic level became more frequent and assumed a more pragmatic outlook.

 President Putin, for instance, met with King Salman in Antalya in November 2015, and with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud in June 2015 in St. Petersburg, as well as in October of the same year in Sochi. Of course, in view of the complexity and multifaceted nature of the situation prevailing in the region, it was difficult to expect any major breakthroughs. Nonetheless, the two sides agreed on those issues, on which they differ most acutely and agreed to continue the political dialogue and cooperation in the trade and economic sphere. A mutual understanding prevailed that differences, whatever they may be, should not become a pretense for breaking relations. Both sides were cognizant of the fact that their disagreements were outnumbered by their converging interests and approaches on a wide range of issues on the regional and international agenda, including the Middle East peace process, regional security (including in the Persian Gulf), the promotion of a dialogue among civilizations, the fight against terrorism, extremism, piracy and drug trade. Such agreements, if carried out by both sides, would in themselves be a good achievement, if compared with the ups and downs in the history of relations between the two countries.

It is possible that the change in the very style of negotiations – from emotional outbursts to candid, business-like conversations – occurred precisely because both sides recognized their own and  their respective partner's important role in averting the materialization of worse-case scenarios in the region. This is especially true after Russia called for a broad antiterrorist coalition and started supporting the Syrian army decisively with airstrikes.

It is also worth pointing out a special relashionships between Russia and the Kingdom of Bahrein which are on the rise in all spheres – political, economic, banking, scientific, cultural etc. The relationships of the kind are based on close personal ties on the highest level between President Putin and His Majesty the King Hamad who had been visiting Russia four times during the last six years.

The Russian side, in the context of bilateral and multilateral (with the GCC) consultations, has been eager to convey to its Arab Gulf partners which regional and global considerations drive its policy in the Middle East. This has concerned, in particular, Moscow's relations with Tehran and its views of Iran's regional role, as well as Russia's perspective on international cooperation in the fight against ISIL and other terrorist organizations, which instrumentalize Islam to hide their political objectives.

It is critical to pause and discuss these issues, which take a central place in the Russian-Arab common agenda, in somewhat greater detail – especially given that mutual mistrust and mistaken interpretations of the respective other's intentions and motivations prevail in both the Gulf countries and Russia. From time to time, distorted ideas about Russian strategy in the region circulate in Gulf political circles.

For instance, before the Moscow meeting between the Russian and GCC foreign ministers in May 2016, the Al Hayat newspaper alleged that Iran assumes «the central place in Moscow's system of regional and international alliances», that «whoever rules Iran, be it radical or moderate mullahs, or even the Revolutionary Guards, Moscow views its bilateral ties with Tehran as of overriding concern, whether the Gulf Arabs like it or not» [4]. It is also no secret that, besides those who support building a constructive relationship with Russia, there are also those in Saudi Arabia who believe that an «either-or» choice – being with the Saudis or with Iran – will be inevitable for Russia[5].

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed these questions, which appear of particular concern to the Gulf, during yet another round of the Russian-GCC strategic dialogue in Moscow. At the joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir, Lavrov noted that any country has the right to develop friendly relations with its neighbours and to strive to grow its influence beyond its borders. He also emphasized that this has to be done with full respect for the principles of international law, transparently, legitimately, without pursuing any hidden agendas and without trying to interfere within the internal affairs of sovereign states. The Russian side has also always warned of the dangers associated with portraying disagreements between Iran and the GCC as reflecting a split in the Muslim world. Russia believes it is unacceptable to further provoke the situation exploiting sectarian prisms[6].

The majority of Russian experts view Iran as one of Russia's major southern neighbours, with whom mutually advantageous cooperation on a wide range of bilateral, regional and international questions – including trade, energy and (military) security – is absolutely essential. Not just the Middle East counts here, but the entire Eurasian context. Russia is interested that Iran become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a political alliance comprising non-Western states, which was founded by China and Russia.

Given these considerations, it is not realistic to confront Russia with an «either-or choice»: either Iran or the GCC. And though Russia and Iran have many common interests and their cooperation looks promising, their relationship is not without challenges. Moscow's and Tehran's foreign policy objectives coincide in some areas, but diverge in others, depending on the concrete circumstances. Russia recognizes Iran as a major player in the Middle East, yet like the Arab states does not want Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons. And the Rouhani regime understands perfectly well that Russia cannot build relations with Iran to the detriment of the GCC states' security. In Syria, Russia and Iran form a close military alliance, which however is not tantamount to a common political strategy. While both Moscow and Tehran seek to prevent the victory of Islamist extremists, their long-term goals and visions for a post-Assad Syria differ substantially. Russia is not set on retaining Assad personally, or the Alawite minority, in power, but is principally concerned with the integrity of the Syrian state, albeit a reformed one friendly to Moscow. In the security realm, Russia also closely coordinates its actions with Israel and therefore views Iran's reliance on Hezbollah suspiciously[7]. Iran's most prominent politicians are also far from contemplating the formation of an outright alliance with Russia. As Rouhani stated, «good relations with Russia do not imply Iran's agreement with any of Moscow's actions.» [8]

In general, many Russian and Western experts agree that, regarding Syria, there is Russian-Iranian agreement on the basis of  a situational confluence of interests, but that one cannot speak of a full-fledged military alliance between the two powers[9]. Unlike Tehran, Moscows maintains pragmatic contacts with a wide range of political forces inside Lebanon, eager to support national consensus and to prevent a slide of the country into the abyss of violence and religious strife. And regarding Yemen, their positions equally clash. While Tehran unequivocally supports Ali Abduallah Saleh and the Houthis, Russia has adopted a more neutral position on the conflict.

Drawing conclusions, it is critical to emphasize that Moscow does not support any Iranian great power ambitions in the Persian Gulf and categorically avoids interference in the Sunni-Shiite conflict, aware that - in conditions of acute rivalry for spheres of influence in the region - Iran instrumentalizes various Shiite forces in pursuit of its narrow political interests. Relations with Saudi Arabia are without a doubt valuable in themselves for Russia. Therefore, it is important to appreciate, just how difficult a balancing act it is for Moscow to simultaneously develop what it views as an indispensible partnership with the Saudi kingdom, to strengthen friendly ties with the other Gulf monarchies and to deal successfully with its Southern neighbour Iran, with which it shares a centuries-long history. Especially at the current stage, when the regional confrontation has gone too far and, most alarmingly, has become conceived as a clash between the two religious centers of the Muslim world, the Saudi leadership has decided to contain Iran by force.

As the two opposing camps deplete their resources, and the international community feels increasingly tired and powerless to stop the vicious circle of violence, conceptualizing a new regional security order, as proposed by Russia, will become all the more urgent. The Arab states have agreed in principle to such an initiative, but are against Iranian integration into a regional security system until Tehran starts pursuing a policy of good-neighbourliness and non-interference. But without Iran, the Russian project is not viable. Therefore, Russia has signalled its readiness «to use its good relations with both the GCC and Iran, in order to help create the conditions for a concrete conversation on the normalisation of GCC-Iranian ties, which can only occur through direct dialogue.» [10]

However Russian-American relations will develop, the Gulf States need to understand that, in recent years, the balance of power in the Middle East has been changing, alliances have been forming and breaking. The level of unpredictability is growing, new risks are emerging. Today, the US' allies in the region are not necessarily Russia's enemies, in the same way that Moscow's friends are not Washington's foes. All their disagreements about Syria notwithstanding, a further escalation in the Gulf – a region of utmost importance for the world economy and global financial systems – is not in the interest of either power. In the search for what would be a historical reconciliation in the Gulf, the common terrorist threat posed by ISIL and Al Qaeda could be a critical uniting factor. The number of supporters of the «caliphate» in Saudi Arabia and in the South of the Arabian peninsula is far from insignificant. Both also have ambitious plans for economic development and are very interested in creating a favorable external environment for their aspirations.

Dr. Alexander Aksenenok, Ambassador (ret), member of Russian International Affaires Council, senior researcher, Institute for Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Siencies.

 

 

[1] См. Свободная мысль, Россия и Саудовская Аравия: эволюция отношений, Косач Григорий, http://svom.info/entry/608-rossiya-i-saudovskaya-aravia-evoluciya-otnosheni/

[2] см. http://lenta/ru/articles/2013/10/23/unfriended/.

[3] См. РБК, Ричард Хаас, Скрытая угроза: чем опасно ядерное соглашение с Ираном, http://daily.rbc.ru/opinions/politics/16/07/2015

[4] «Москва арабам: Иран наш первый союзник», «Аль-Хаят», 19 февраля 2016 года, http://www.alh

[5] «Аль-Хаят», 26 февраля 2016 года, http://www.alhayat.com/m/opinion/14165741 ayat.com/m/opinion/14041679

[6] Выступление и ответы на вопросы СМИ министра иностранных дел России С.В.Лаврова, http://www/mid/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/...

[7] Russia and Iran: Historic  Mistrust and Contemporary Partnership, Dmitry Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, http://carnegie.ru/2016/08/18/russia-and-Iran-historic-mistrust-and-contemporary-part...

[8] См. Газета RU, 06.03.2016

[9] См. Брак по расчёту. Перспективы российско-иранского регионального сотрудничества, Николай Кожанов, Россия в глобальной политике, №3 май-июнь 2016

[10] Выступление и ответы на вопросы СМИ министра иностранных дел России С.В. Лаврова 15.09.2016, http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy_/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/...

Read 1123 times Last modified on Tuesday, 07 February 2017 13:33
Aleksander Aksenonok

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation.

RIAC member.

Graduated from MGIMO University.  

Holds a Ph.D. in Law. Speaks Arabic, English and French fluently.  

Has served in the diplomatic service since 1963. Mr. Aksenenok worked in embassies of the USSR in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Syria. 

1988–1990: Main Advisor, Deputy Chief and Head of the Directorate for Planning Foreign Policy Measures at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR

1991–1995: Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the USSR, and then the Russian Federation, to Algeria.

1995–1996: Chief Advisor of the First European Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

1996–1998: Ambassador at Large for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

1998–2002: Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to Slovakia.

Mr. Aksenenok is currently Managing Director of Vnesheconombank and a member of the Expert Council of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs.