Russia's relationship with the Gulf countries is complex, and it responds to internal political transformations on both sides of the relationship, as well as to external developments in world politics.

Despite differences over Syria and the Iranian nuclear deal, contemporary GCC-Russian relations are arguably at an apex, both in terms of shared interests and mutual understanding. Russia believes that the GCC has becom=e a real power center, exerting influence within and beyond the Middle East.

Historical Relations

GCC-Russian relations predate the inception of the Gulf bloc. The USSR 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 positively, especially against the backdrop of the West’s colonial policies, which were characterized by dividing and plundering the Arab states. Saudi Arabia appreciates that in those difficult initial years, Moscow provided Riyadh with critical oil products, bizarre as such an import may sound today.

Thereafter, internal issues within the USSR led to a recall of the Russian Ambassador, freezing bilateral relations for a protracted period. During the Cold War, looking through a bipolar lens, the USSR viewed the Gulf states as US satellites, in contrast to the Arab countries that had so called socialist leanings.

Russian-Saudi relations remained complicated during the 1980s due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Muslim country. In the 1990s, mutual diplomatic representation was re-established, but was overshadowed by a pro-Muslim stance by Saudi Arabia on Chechnya and Kosovar independence, and a Russian position that emphasized territorial integrity and external non-interference. At the same time, Russia’s decision to adopt a pro-Western foreign policy meant that GCC relations were subsumed within a broader engagement of the West that emphasized Middle Eastern security.

In the early 2000s, Russia began to reformulate its relationship with its Arab partners, including the GCC states, with an emphasis on pragmatic policies, such as encouraging political dialogue and building economic ties. At the same time, the GCC states were developing and systematizing their own internal strategic priorities. Five rounds of talks between the GCC and Russian foreign ministers were held, covering topics such as international terrorism, political solutions to the crises in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and Russia’s ties to Iran, in light of the GCC states’ designation of Iran as the main regional threat, especially following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In addition to its military might, the GCC states expressed concern toward Iran’s ability to influence their Shiite communities.

The Arab Spring and Beyond

The Arab Spring has rendered drafting a Gulf security apparatus a much more complex issue, as previously key players, such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, have been impaired by internal strife, sometimes between groups close to Saudi Arabia or Iran. Turkey’s growing domestic and external problems have taken the lustre away from its model of Islamic democracy.

Compared to the more substantial reforms enacted by Jordan and Morocco, Saudi Arabia underwent gradual economic and political reforms, as it tried to balance the threats posed by terrorism and by Iran, which is considered in the Gulf as a hegemonic state, (though most Western and Russian experts regard Saudi perceptions about the threat posed by Iran to be exaggerated).

Certainly, Iran gained significant influence in Iraq after the US invasion, while it maintains close ties to the Assad regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Together with the increased activity of Shia opposition in Bahrain and the Houthis in Yemen (the latter of which have a debatable relationship with Iran), these developments across the Arabian Peninsula have caused Saudi Arabia to adopt a new, comprehensive strategy as a countermeasure, accelerated by changes at the top of the Saudi power structure.

Saudi-US relations have also changed notably. Riyadh has come to view the US as sometimes being an unreliable ally, as reflected in its failure to back Hosni Mubarak, and as appearing duplicitous, via its flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its support for policies that have empowered Iran at Saudi Arabia’s expense, such as the US’ stance regarding Syria, and its spearheading the Iranian nuclear deal.

Diminishing confidence in the US’ willingness to be the regional security guarantor has caused the GCC states to reach out to Russia, both as a diversification strategy, and with the hope that Russia might play a moderating role with respect to Iran. This fitted in well with Russia’s efforts to develop ties with all Arab states from the early 2000s, in the pursuit of its political and economic interests.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has been a controversial issue. US and GCC opponents of the plan believe that it is unlikely to check Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and that it is likely to embolden Iran regionally, as it frees up funds for pro-Iranian regional militia activities, possibly even igniting a nuclear arms race.

Its supporters argue that Iranian moderates will be strengthened within the Iranian power structure, especially the elements that favor more responsible regional policies, pushing Iran into a more constructive relationship with the GCC states. Many JCOPA proponents also believe that the US remains as committed as ever to the security of the GCC states.

GCC-Russian relations have maintained their positive trajectory and pragmatic nature in spite of the JCPOA, setting aside the disagreements over Syria. The region’s complexities have thus far prevented any major breakthroughs, the economic cooperation has continued to develop, as well as an understanding that the two sides’ shared interests exceed the areas of disagreement, and that sustained dialogue is the best way of addressing differences of opinion. Both the GCC and Russia regard regional security, the Middle East peace process, the promotion of a dialogue among civilizations, and the fights against terrorism, piracy, and the drug trade as areas where they have shared visions on effective policies.

Among the six GCC members, a notable, multi-faceted relationship has developed between Russia and Bahrain, covering politics, economics, science, culture, and other spheres. It represents the fruits of four visits by HM King Hamad to President Putin.

A major theme of Russia’s engagement with the Arab world has been international cooperation against ISIL and other Islamist terrorist organizations which pursue political agendas. The complexity of counterterrorism has predictably generated some misunderstandings regarding Russia’s regional strategy, especially in the eyes of various GCC stakeholders.

In particular, there is a perception that Russia prioritizes its relationship with Iran over any relationship with the GCC states. During a recent GCC-Russia dialogue in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed these concerns by explaining that a country’s right to expand its regional influence has to be exercised in accordance with international law, in good faith, and without interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Russia has also sought to counter rhetoric that enflames intra-Islamic sectarian tensions, calling for unity among Muslims.

Admittedly, due to its relative geographic proximity to Russia, Iran is a natural partner for Russia on a variety of issues, including trade, energy, and security, and is keen for it to enter the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a political alliance comprising non-Western states, which was founded by China and Russia. Accordingly, expecting Russia to dispense with Iran in favor of a stronger relationship with the GCC is unrealistic and illogical.

Yet by the same token, Iran and Russia disagree on various foreign policy issues, such as Russia’s insistence that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, or the long-term vision for the future of Syria, where Russia favors it as a territorially integrated multi-ethnic, multi-confessional civil state that has good relations with Russia, neither of which is essentially dependent upon the retention of either Assad personally, or of the Alawite ruling minority. In the case of Yemen, Russia’s stance has been neutrality, compared to Iran’s unequivocal support for Ali Abdulla Salih and the Houthis. Moreover, due to Russia’s security cooperation with Israel, it views Iran’s reliance upon Hezbollah with suspicion. Many Iranian politicians also oppose the formation of an alliance with Russia, favoring no more than continued partnership [1].


Synthesizing the above, it is critical to emphasize that Russia does not support the policy of regional hegemony in world affairs and particularly in the Gulf region. 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 Iranian regime understands perfectly well that Russia cannot build relations with Iran to the detriment of the GCC states' security.

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 values its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the GCC greatly, but it has found advancing these ties challenging in light of the importance that it places on its relationship with its southern neighbor, Iran. As regional conflict has reached unacceptably high levels, Russia has been alarmed by Riyadh’s decision to contain Iran by force.

In an effort to break the cycle of violence, Russia is promoting a new regional security order. The Arab states agree in principle, but they are presently refusing to integrate Iran until Tehran starts to pursue a policy of good-neighbourliness and non-interference. However, the initiative’s viability depends upon Iran’s involvement, and so Russian efforts have now focused on encouraging a GCC-Iran dialogue.

The GCC states should also appreciate the evolving nature of Russian-US relations, and the dynamic nature of regional alliances. Today, the US' allies in the region are not necessarily Russia's enemies, in the same way that Moscow's friends are not necessarily 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 between all parties. GCC and Iran both have ambitious plans for economic development, and the best way to realize those plans will be to contribute to forging a favorable external environment.


Published in Tribune
Tuesday, 21 February 2017 00:00

Can Iran change? We hope it will!

Our region is rife with turmoil. We have a crisis in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, Libya. We have an Iran that is rampant in its support of terrorism and interference in the affairs of other countries. We face terrorism, we face piracy, we face challenges of economic development and job creation. We face challenges in terms of reforming our economies and bringing the standard of living of our people to a higher level. We have the challenge of trying to bring peace between Israelis and Arabs.

I am an optimist, because if your job is to solve problems, you cannot be a pessimist. We have to do everything we can in order to deal with the challenges that we face. I believe that 2017 will be a year in which a number of the challenges will be resolved. I believe the crisis in Yemen will be brought to an end and the attempt to overthrow the legitimate government will have failed. We can then work on putting Yemen on the path of economic development and reconstruction. I believe progress can be made in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If there is a will to do so, we know what a settlement looks like. We just need the political will to do so. And my country stands ready with other Arab countries to work to see how we can promote that.

I believe that a political settlement in Syria is also possible.

One of the biggest factors that will help to resolve many of these challenges is the new American administration. Yes, I am very optimistic about the Trump administration. I know there are a lot of concerns or questions in Europe about the new administration, but I like to remind my European friends that when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1981, there was a lot of concern in Europe. People thought World War III would take place. And yet, how did it all turn out?

Ronald Reagan reasserted America’s place in the world. He made comprehensive arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, he pushed back against the Soviet Union and he ended the Cold War. It is a wonderful history. When we look at the Trump administration, we see a president who is pragmatic and practical, a businessman, a problem-solver, a man who is not an ideologue. We see a man who has a certain view of the world. He wants America to play a role in the world.

Our view is that when America disengages, it creates tremendous danger in the world, because it creates vacuums and into these vacuums evil forces flow. And it takes many times the effort to push back against these evil forces than to prevent them from emerging in the first place.

For 35 years, we have extended our arm in friendship to the Iranians, and for 35 years we have gotten death and destruction in return. This cannot continue.

Adel Al-Jubeir

Trump believes in destroying Daesh. So do we. He believes in containing Iran. So do we. He believes in working with traditional allies. So do we. And when we look at the composition of the Cabinet and the personalities that he appointed — secretary of defense, secretary of state, secretary of homeland security, director of the FBI, secretary of commerce, secretary of treasury — these are very experienced, highly skilled, highly capable individuals who share that world-view. So we expect to see America engaged in the world. We expect to see a realistic American foreign policy and we look forward to working with this administration very, very closely. Our contacts with the administration have been very positive and we are looking at how we can deal with the challenges facing our region and the world.

When I look at our region today, I see a challenge that emanates from Iran. Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has — as part of its constitution — the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite — the “dispossessed,” as Iran calls them — all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. This is unacceptable for us in the Kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world.

The Iranians do not believe in the principle of good neighborliness or non-interference in the affairs of others. This is manifested in their interference in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan. The Iranians have disrespected international law by attacking embassies, assassinating diplomats, by planting terrorist cells in other countries, by harboring and sheltering terrorists.

In 2001, when the US went to war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the board of directors of Al-Qaeda moved to Iran. Saad Bin Laden, Osama Bin Laden’s son, Saif El-Adel, the chief of operations for Al-Qaeda, and almost a dozen senior leaders went and lived in Iran. The order to blow up three housing compounds in our nation’s capital (Riyadh) in 2003 was given by Saif El-Adel — while he was in Iran — to the operatives in Saudi Arabia. We have the conversation on tape. It is irrefutable. The Iranians blew up Khobar Towers in 1996. They have smuggled weapons and missiles to the Houthis in Yemen in violation of UN Security Council resolutions in order to lock these missiles at our country and kill our people.

And so, (when) we look at the region, we see terrorism, and we see a state sponsor of terrorism that is determined to upend the order in the Middle East. The Iranians are the only country in the region that has not been attacked by either Daesh or Al-Qaeda. And this begs the question, why? If Daesh and Al-Qaeda are extremist Sunni organizations, you would think that they would be attacking Iran as a Shiite state. They have not. Could it be that there is a deal between them that prevents them or causes them not to attack the Iranians? This is a question that we keep asking ourselves.

The Iranians talk about wanting to turn a new page, wanting to look forward, not backwards. This is great. But what do we do about the present? We cannot ignore what they are doing in the region. We cannot ignore the fact that their constitution, as I mentioned earlier, calls for the export of the revolution. How can one deal with a nation whose objective is to destroy us? So until and unless Iran changes its behavior, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this. Not just for Saudi Arabia, but for other countries.

We are hopeful that Iran will change. We respect Iran’s culture, we respect the Iranian people. It is a great civilization, it is a neighbor of ours. We have to deal with them for many, many years. But it takes two to have a good relationship. For 35 years, we have extended our arm in friendship to the Iranians, and for 35 years we have gotten death and destruction in return. This cannot continue.

• These are edited excerpts from Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s address at a session — titled “Old Problems, New Middle East” — at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday. The session was moderated by BBC’s Lyse Doucet.

Video of the address is available here : 
Initially published by IMESClub's partner : Arab News

Published in Tribune
Sunday, 12 February 2017 15:33

Moving towards Geneva: Giving peace a chance

Syria is moving to the fourth round of the Geneva talks. Two days of inclusive talks in Riyadh, bringing to the negotiation table the expanded Syrian opposition, including the Astana delegation and the Syrian Higher Negotiations Committee, finished yesterday. 

The opposition was harmonizing its positions on the threshold of the new Astana round, setting the priorities for Geneva Talks and discussing the outcomes of the previous Astana meeting.

The Astana meeting did not replace the format, but became a supplementary in-strument, a back-up tool for the Geneva negotiations. Astana permitted the realiza-tion of ceasefire, and the first round of talks resulted in the elaboration of trilateral monitoring mechanisms of the ceasefire regime in Syria, guaranteed by Turkey, Russia and Iran. 

On February 15-16, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry will host another round of talks, welcoming delegations from the Syrian government and the rebel side, along with the UN Special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistoura, and the delegations of three guarantors.

Jordanian and the US delegations are also invited to take part in Astana II.  

Resolving problems 

The Astana format is set to solve the problems preventing the Geneva format from being a success, by instituting the communication process and resolving ground is-sues, mostly related to the military sphere, and paving the way for political resolu-tion and the long-awaited and inevitable transitional process. 

The Geneva talks are set to be held on February 20. A lot has changed since the previous round. The third round practically did not leave hope for a political solu-tion. The Opposition, both moderate and otherwise, was so much fragmented, that it could not come to any agreement even within its own ranks. The International community was supporting separate opposition groups, thus somehow fragmenting them even more and politicizing the whole negotiation process, putting it in the framework of global geopolitical rivalries. 

The major changes in the global sphere, the focus of the US on presidential elections first and then on the cataclysms in face of Trump’s administration, with the West watching the goings on in Washington, together with changes on the ground in Syria have significantly changed the situation and prospects of the negotiations. 

The foreign states have cut their financial support to the rebel groups, and there are practically no more voices calling to topple the Syrian regime by force. 

As was stated by prominent Syrian dissident Louay Hussein, “the armed conflict for the state is over”, and the majority in the opposition are going back towards a political struggle. Even though Hussein’s conclusions are premature, his words have a grain of truth.


The Syrian opposition has become more united and amenable. However, the Islamist fractions, that have formed a new alliance recently, are reportedly going to launch new attacks on the government’s positions. But most likely from the general perspective, such a decision is counterproductive primarily for themselves. 

Maria Dubovikova

The Syrian opposition has become more united and amenable. However, the Islamist fractions, that have formed a new alliance recently, are reportedly going to launch new attacks on the government’s positions. But most likely from the general perspective, such a decision is counterproductive primarily for themselves. Such attempts to disrupt negotiation and political process do not correspond to the expectations of the majority of the rebels and opposition forces. They alienate themselves from the political process, lose credibility, drifting to the terrorist Islamist formations in the company of which they have all chances to end up their fight. But this will hardly inflict significant damage to the negotiation process. 

Assad’s stubbornness 

What can be done about the stubbornness of the regime in Damascus. Russia’s in-fluence on the regime is overestimated than real. Damascus will keeps listening to advice as long as that that corresponds to its own expectations and vision. 

Iran has more influence on Damascus than anyone else, taking into account the strong Iranian support of the ruling regime. Iran is not interested in transition and in toppling Assad. Iran is interested in guaranteeing its influence on Syria in the post -war scenario. That is Tehran’s main priority. And during the negotiation process, Iran will do its best not to let anyone kick it out from the post-war political system rebuilding in Syria. 

Nothing is guaranteed for the outcome of the Fourth Geneva round. However, the sides attending it are far more organized than ever, and the opposition is looking forward to these talks with more enthusiasm and hope, than before, when the for-mat was considered mostly useless for them. 

There is a high risk that Damascus and Tehran can sabotage the talks with their stubbornness, as their positions are poles apart on many issues to the expectations of the opposition. Even in case of success there are many issues that will have to be faced during the political process and that will provoke at best tough debates. One such issue is the Kurdish matter.

While all the sides are seriously getting ready for talks, Syrians are looking to the future with hope. Reportedly, people have started to return to Syria, mostly to the ruins of their past, but they are strongly motivated to restoring their country and homes with their own hands. 

Life is returning even to ruined East Aleppo. Peace got a chance it did not have before, during all the long years of the bloody war.

Initially published by Al Arabiya English: 

Published in Tribune

The Saudi-Iranian conflict will compel Moscow to make a hard choice: stand with its Iranian partner or step aside and remain ostensibly neutral.

However Russia decides to react to the ongoing spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the consequences for the Kremlin’s goals in the Middle East will be negative.

On the one hand, keeping quiet would affect the dynamics of Russian−Iranian relations that had been on the rise. Moscow invested diplomatic and economic effort in improving the dialogue with Tehran,includingthe opening of a credit line. It cannot afford tolosethese dividends considering Russia’s economic dire straits.The Russian authorities are desperate to retain Iran within its sphere of influence and avoid any drift westwards. Without Iranian ground forces fighting the opponents of the Assad regime, it will be difficult for Moscow to attainits goals in Syria −Russia needs Iran’s military and political support to compel the Syrian opposition and its sponsors to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s silence on the diplomatic quarrel between Tehran and Riyadh would also provide opponents of Russo-Iranian rapprochement among Iranian reformists and Russian pro-Western policymakers with furtherproof that the two countries are unable to forge any kind of effective partnership.

If, however, Moscow takes the Iranian side, this would affect Russian relations with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)−whose money is still considered by the Kremlin as a potential source of investmentintothe Russian economy. The financial support and political blessing of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is important for the successful implementation of joint projects with Egypt such as the creation of a joint industrial zone or the development of the nuclear industry in Egypt. The Russo−Iranian alliance undermines Moscow’s diplomatic efforts to settle the Syrian crisis by making the Saudis less willing to talk to Russiaand effectively drags Moscow into the middle of the broader Sunni−Shia confrontation, allowing anti-Russian political forces in the Middle East to portray Kremlin as an enemy of the Sunni world.

This will be a serious threat, not only to the Russian position in the region, but also, conceivably, for the domestic security of Russia, where the 15 million-strong Muslim community is predominantly Sunni.Salafi groupingsin the Gulf have depicted Russians as new crusaders at least since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. Moscow received a warning in October 2015 when approximately50 Saudi clerics signed an open declaration calling for jihad against Moscow. Thishas created an ideological background for the unification of radical forces in Syria and provides motivation for supporters of radical Islam in the GCC to intensify their financial support for Islamists inside Russia.

(Russian silence on Tehran’s diplomatic confrontation with Riyadh might also be an attempt to improve Moscow’s image in the Sunni world.This image severely suffered after the beginning of the Russian bombings of the Syrian opposition that together with the radical Islamists became one of the main targets of the Russian airforces in the autumn of last year.)

By supporting Tehran, Moscow will most likely harm relations with its ‘silent partner’ in the Middle East – Israel – whose position on the annexation of Crimea, on Western sanctions against Russia and on Russian air forces in Syria corresponds to Russian interests. Recent statements by Israeli officials demonstrated concernsabout growing Russian−Iranian cooperation in Syria and beyond. Previously, Israel tolerated the rapprochement between Moscow and Tehran as long as it was not considered as a threat to the national security of the country. Yet, recently, Israeli officials have begun to openly worry that the Russian government may begin to close its eyes to anti-Israeli moves by Tehran. Although these speculations seem to have little basis, active Russian support of Tehran in its confrontation with Saudi Arabia would almost certainly be considered in Israel as further proof of the growing Russian-Iranian alliance.

There is also a dilemma related to Russia’s image on the international stage. Putin tries hard to maintain an image ofaleader who does not leave his partners in trouble, but the Kremlin also traditionally positions itself as the main (sometimes only) protector of international law. Iran is a partner. Yet the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran was a clear violation of international norms. From this point of view, backing a country with a laissez-faire attitude towards the rights of foreign diplomats might not be in Moscow’sinterests.

The Russian authorities dounderstand the difficulty of their situation. Consequently, they are trying to fudge it and avoidboth complete neutrality andallying fully with Tehran. Are there any alternatives?Shortly after the beginning of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in early January, Russia declared its readiness to play a mediating role between Riyadh and Tehran.This would allow the Kremlin avoid a further diplomatic disaster and to burnish its image internationally. Sadly, the initiative has little chance of success: the Saudis simply do not trust Russia.Theyconsider it aloyal ally of Iran.Besides, Riyadh is interested in Tehran’s isolation, not its reintegration.

So Moscow must choose between two bad options– both of which involve losing investment and influence.

Initially published by Chatham House

Published in Tribune
Monday, 01 February 2016 17:59

The Limits of Russian-Iranian Cooperation

During his recent trip to Tehran, Vladimir Putin was reassured by the Supreme Leader of Iran that the two countries remain partners in Syria. But this cooperation will likely be tested in the future. 

At least for now, Tehran needs Moscow. Iran would be unable to save the Syrian regime without Russian support, not to mention provide Damascus with equipment that guarantees the superiority of the Syrian government forces: Russia does have this within its gift. The Russian government, in response, has been backing Iranian involvement in negotiations on Syria. Russia and Iran not only insist on dialogue between Damascus and the opposition, they both wish to secure the survival of the Syrian government institutions and Bashar al-Assad.

A signal of Iranian support for Russia was sent in mid-October when the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, met Putin in Sochi and called upon Moscow to play the security guarantor role. Larijani is not just a speaker of the Majlis, his family clan is influential too. He embodies the 'pragmatic' views of those traditionally critical of Russia. Praising the Russian president for his efforts in Syria suggests that the Iranian political elite have reached a consensus on cooperating with Russia.

Moscow and Tehran also seem to have arrived at a common view on Assad's destiny. Both accept the possibility of Syria without Assad. For Russia and Iran, keeping Assad in power is just the means of continuing their policy in Syria. Russia is addressing what it sees as a security challenge to the stability of the post-Soviet space posed by radical Islamists. Moscow also uses its military presence in the region as leverage with the West. For Iran, its struggle in Syria is a part of its effort to be the leading regional power. 

But there are six reasons why Russian-Iranian cooperation will be limited:

First, neither Russia nor Iran is interested in a fully-fledged alliance. Moscow has no wish to be part of a pro-Shia camp confronting the GCC-led Sunni coalition. This would affect Russian security as its 17 million-strong Muslim population is largely Sunni.

Second, Tehran is also concerned about being involved in the wider Russian confrontation with the West while it seeks European technologies and money.

Third, Moscow guaranteed Israel that Russian actions in Syria would not pose a threat to Israel. This, of course, is contrary to Iran's interests. Iran will attempt to increase its presence in southern Syria to have better access to Hezbollah and the Israeli borders.

Fourth, while largely supporting Russian air strikes, some of the Iranian political elite is concerned that Russia may hijack Tehran's own successes in Syria. It is largely due to Iranian support that the Syrian regime has managed to survive until now. Russian military involvement has overshadowed Iranian assistance.

Fifth, a part of the Syrian elite welcomes the Russian presence as a means to balance Tehran. This will inevitably concern the Iranians whose military leaders do not see Assad as just a mere foreign policy tool. On 3 November, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said Russia 'may not care if Assad stays in power as we do'.

The sixth and final reason Russo-Iranian cooperation is limited is the Iranians expect a pay-off from Syria when the conflict is over. Now, they will need to share that with Moscow. This could undermine any revival of the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Mediterranean gas pipeline project that Tehran wants but is a concern for Russia.

Russia and Iran probably understand the limits to their cooperation in Syria. And so far, military coordination between the two has been patchy. Neither are in a hurry to create joint command structures, and in most cases, they simply prefer to take parallel paths to the same destination.




Published in Tribune

Alternative Visions of Syria’s Future:

 Russian and Iranian Proposals for National Resolution


(Presented at the European Parliament on November 12, 2015)


First of all, I would like to thank you for inviting me to speak here today. There are many conflicting views regarding Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict and the degree to which Russia and Iran are coordinating their actions there, with many misunderstandings on all sides. It is indeed a topic that needs to be discussed. I will divide this brief overview into three parts:


  1. Russian goals in Syria
  2. Iranian goals in Syria
  3. The nature of Russian-Iranian coordination in Syria.



Russia’s immediate goal, in simplest terms, is to end the fighting and return stability to Syria. The Kremlin has made it clear that: it considers president Assad’s government legitimate; considers Russian intervention legal because made at the request of the Assad government; and — importantly — that it does not consider extremist elements limited to IS but that they are fluid groups of fighters operating under different banners often receiving financing and training under the guise of moderate opposition and then bringing those resources to IS, the Al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda and any number of other radical military forces. This does not mean that Russia is not willing to engage genuine moderate Syrian opposition. As a matter of fact, Russia has been engaging the Syrian opposition, whose representatives — along with those of the Syrian government — have come to Moscow for talks time and again throughout the civil war. I myself have met with them. Russia has also engaged the moderate Syrian opposition in the Geneva conferences and other international talks.

Once peace has been reestablished, work can begin on strengthening and rebuilding Syria’s state institutions. Russia supports the communiqué issued by the Geneva I conference on Syria, calling for “a transitional government body with full executive powers.” This transitional government should be secular and inclusive of all different segments of the Syrian population.

The next step would be democratic elections. The oft-repeated claim that Russia is insisting on an Assad-led Syria for all time contradicts official statements by Russian diplomats and the Russian president. The Russian position is that changes and amendments in the Syrian government and governmental institutions should be effected through democratic processes, not violence, and by the Syrian people (even including some members of violent opposition, whose voices should also be heard, on the condition that they abandon violence). Foreign intervention is needed not to handpick a new (or artificially enforce an old) government for Syria, but to provide the stability and peaceful conditions necessary for real democratic processes.

In addition to the defeat of radical religious fighting forces, the territorial integrity of Syria must be preserved. Moscow is against the “balkanization” of Syria, which would only result in a collection of weak countries divided along ethnic, confessional or political lines and all the more likely to fight among one another in the future.

Another important strategic point is that any attempt at resolution must address the region as a whole: regional players, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, must be involved; the government of Iraq must also be strengthened, as well as the government of Libya, whence many fighters are reportedly arriving into Syria. Ideally, an even broader international coalition would engage these challenges, something Moscow would only welcome.  

In any case, the current situation in Syria cannot continue. The four-plus years of civil war, and around 250,000 dead and 11.5 million overall refugees, has been accompanied by unfortunate actions on all sides but at least partially inflamed by ill-advised and poorly controlled US-funding and support of opposition groups as well as underground money and arms from other sources.

The goal of stability and resolution in Syria is all the more urgent for Russia because increasing numbers of Russian citizens and citizens of neighboring states are traveling to the Syrian battlefield, often from the Caucasus and Central Asia. In mid-2015, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) set the figure of Russian citizens fighting alongside opposition groups in Syria at approximately 1,800. Naturally, it is difficult to obtain hard numbers, but observers in the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow more recently cited a larger figure of around 4,000 fighters from the Russian Federation, and 7,000 from the former Soviet Union. These figures have increased alarmingly since the first years of the civil war in Syria. And the problem is not merely radicalized Russian citizens: a huge number of Central Asians find employment in Russia, especially in the Russian capital, crossing the Russian border without requiring a visa. In that sense, post-Soviet territory resembles the European Union and faces many of the same dangers from returning fighters moving with relative freedom among countries within the territory. Iranian sources are claiming that there are 7,000 fighters from Central Asia alone in Syria and that that around 20% of Islamic State commanders hail from Central Asia.

A Tajikistan government source has been quoted as saying that around 300 Tajik fighters have been killed in Syria and Iraq, and 200 remain there. According to the same source, the parents of 20 fighters recently approached the Tajikistan government for help in returning their sons stranded near the Syria-Turkish border.

It is common knowledge that websites exist for recruiting fighters in Russian and other languages of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Russian social networking sites such as “V-kontakte” and “Odnoklassniki” also carried content and calls to arms, until those accounts were recently shut down. Other sites, such as “Telegram” have proven more difficult to control Recruitment techniques vary from pure ideology to money. A common theme in these messages is the reestablishment of the caliphate.

Very recently, however, many Russian-language insurgent sites and blogs have simply gone silent of their own accord. It is difficult to say whether this is due to the accuracy of the Russian airstrikes or greater caution by the fighters – who, in at least one instance, accidentally revealed their location: in April, the Chechen-led “Al-Aqsa” brigade in Syria posted a photograph of a training camp in Al-Raqqa, Syria, but forgot to deactivate the “location finder” on a the Russian social networking site “V-kontakte.” Government sources in Tajikistan consider the Internet silence to be the result both of increased fatalities among Tajik fighters and increased disillusionment and desertion.




Now let us talk about Iran’s interests in Syria. Media and experts have commented much on the importance of Bashar Assad’s government as an ally to Iran, and Syria as a bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon and as a buffer zone between Iran and Israel. This is true, and yet it is no less true that the current chaotic violence in neighboring Syria could be devastating to Iran were it to spread further. It should also be remembered that Iran and Syria have signed a mutual defense treaty, each promising to intervene on the other’s behalf in case of outside aggression from a third party.

As far Iranian proposals for resolving the conflict, Fars news agency published a four-point plan for Syria from a high-ranking Iranian government source. Parts of this plan have been echoed by other Iranian officials, and it coincides roughly with the Russian proposals, although the Iranians emphasize the need to revise the Syrian constitution and end foreign intervention as soon as hostilities have ended. The plan is


1. Immediate cessation of hostilities.

2. The formation of a federal government in which the interests of all segments of the Syrian population are represented, i.e., religious and ethnic groups.

3. Revising the Syrian constitution to protect and provide representation for the different ethnicities and confessions that comprise the Syrian population. I have heard this referred to as “Lebanization,” since Lebanon’s constitution offers similar guarantees to the different groups that make up its varied population; but it should be noted that the Iranian constitution itself also offers protection and parliamentary seats to ethno-religious minorities.

4. Any new leadership and changes to government institutions must be realized through elections with the participation of international observers.


According to the source, this plan is currently being reviewed by Turkey, Qatar, Egypt and UN Security Council members.


Speaking in Sochi, Russia, in October of this year at the “Valdai Discussion Club,” Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, outlined his country’s perspective on the conflict in Syria, a perspective that, again, shares much with the views expressed by President Putin and Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov: the problems in Syria are part of a regional collapse in security that will require the efforts of all regional players to correct. A strong and stable Syria will be unlikely with chaos next door in Iraq, or even in Afghanistan. Two points that Iranian and Russian officials have both emphasized are that the Syrian people must choose their own government and that the territorial integrity of Syria must be preserved.


Coordination between Russia and Iran


During negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, many Russian commentators questioned the wisdom of Russia’s support for a deal between Iran and the P5+1. Would a stronger Iran turn its back on Russia? Would Iranian oil flood the market and hurt the Russian economy? In other words: what was “in it” for Russia? Perhaps now, in the joint Iranian-Russian efforts in Syria we are seeing that the two countries had more developed plans for working together than was presumed. 


Amir Abdollahian, Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Counselor on Arab and African States, stated this month that Iran is only providing consultative and informational support to Russia, while actual military operations are being carried out by the Syrian government and Russian armies (there have been rumors of deeper Iranian involvement, however, that Iran is preparing to send 7,000 troops to Syria). Additionally, Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq have created a shared intelligence base to battle terrorism in the region, and Russian missiles launched from the Caspian Sea cross Iranian airspace on their path to targets in Syria. In a move not directly related to Syria but indicative of closer ties, Russia is again preparing to sell S-300 anti-aircraft installations to Iran.

Russia has also provided diplomatic support for Iran, as Moscow considers achieving peace in the region an impossible dream without the participation of Iran. The Kremlin has consistently lobbied for Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva and other talks on resolving the Syrian conflict.

Iran, for its part, has enthusiastically supported the Russian aerial offensive. House speaker Ali Larijani praised the Russian campaign in Syria as being highly effective. When US sources claimed that Russian missiles malfunctioned and crashed in Iran on their way to Syria, the official Iranian press rallied to Russia’s defense, denying the claim and branding it as part of an information war against Russia.

Nonetheless, the Russo-Iranian alliance is not seamless and should perhaps better be called a partnership for now. At times, these differences even escalate into competition. Let me mention a few points worth remembering about these partners in Syria. Iran is a religious state, and thus takes confessional issues into account in its foreign policy – namely, the fate of Syrian Shia minority. Russia is a secular state. While the fates of Christian communities in Syria are certainly an important factor for Russia, the driving calculus of the Kremlin is secular.

Although Iran is often characterized as a vertical power structure devoid of dissent, the Syrian question is nonetheless a focal point of disagreement between the reformist and conservative camps, with debate over the degree to which Iran’s military should be involved in Syria and the wisdom of footing the bill for such intervention and providing financial support for Assad’s government. The coordination with Russia is viewed differently within Iran: how close should or can the Russo-Iranian alliance be? Many see Russia as a fair-weather friend. Russian delays in the construction of Iran’s nuclear power plant in Bushehr and the backing out of a deal to sell Iran S-300 anti-aircraft installations are in Iran widely believed to have been due to pressure from the United States and/or Israel, perhaps in a exchange for Russian WTO membership. What’s more, on a cultural and historical level, the wars and territory Iran lost to Russia in the last centuries of the Russian Empire still loom large in the Iranian consciousness.

One reported fissure in the Russian-Iranian coordination in Syria concerns the question of President Assad’s role in the future of the country. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s recent indication that Assad’s future presence would not be essential for Russia drew criticism from the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who apparently said Russia was acting in its own interests, implying it had abandoned an earlier agreement with Iran. This was quickly downplayed, however, in subsequent official statements by the Iranian government.

The incident looks probable enough at first glance, but would seem to contradict the basic principles both Russia and Iran have set forth for Syria: that the people of Syria must come to a consensus regarding their government via elections, the results of which might or might not include Bashar Assad. One wonders, then, what the Iranian commander’s words really were and whether they represented a real split. It is often difficult to discern when disagreements between factions in Iran are real or staged. Theoretically, all statements by the Iranian president and other high-ranking officials have the approval of Ayatollah Khamenei, who is thought often to send contradictory messages through different channels, either to appeal to different audiences (domestic and foreign) or perhaps to muddy the waters as to the country’s real intentions.   

At the end of his October speech at the “Valdi Discussion Club” in Russia, Larijani emphasized the difficulty of the task ahead in Syria, of defeating terrorism in the region and the need to prepare for a long-term struggle. His words were certainly addressed to his Russian counterparts, in addition to others: “The biggest question is whether this new lineup of forces, which must be lasting, can be created without a theory of strategic coalition?” I read this as Larijani asking: Is the partnership forming between Russia and Iran one of temporary convenience or something more? As the two countries cannot be said to be united by state ideology, is it possible to construct a larger strategy or framework for their partnership?

Larijani continued:


The fight against terrorism cannot be considered a tactical and short-term project. We will need to work hard and long to create a new security system in the region […] We need to develop long-term strategic ties […] including […]  cultural, political, economic and security relations to help responsible countries develop trust for each other and to start strengthening this trust. 


Russia’s consistent diplomatic support of Iran in recent years and statements like Larijani’s above seem to indicate that both countries are taking a potential alliance more seriously now, despite efforts to drive a wedge between them. Such an alliance, especially if part of a larger coalition and if truly used to promote stability and empower the peoples of the region, could be a powerful force for positive change in a region that, alas, has benefitted little in past decades from Western intervention.

Published in Tribune
Friday, 02 October 2015 01:57

Russian role in Syria still anyone's guess.

Russia's increased aid to Syria remains the center of attention among experts and the world media, where rumors of a possible "Russian intervention" have begun circulating. Russian officials deny them, calling them speculation, but they often give evasive answers on the subject. At the same time, Moscow has emphasized that on the Syrian conflict, it will keep operating on two parallel tracks: actively opposing terrorist groups — primarily the Islamic State  and continuing the political process toward a diplomatic solution to the conflict. 

The additional support has to be understood within the framework of the first track: President Vladimir Putin has been calling for a united front to fight terrorism. At a Sept. 22 press conference in Moscow, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein-Amir Abdollahian said Tehran welcomes the Russian president's proposal.

But what will happen next? Given the ambiguity of the current situation, one can only suggest a few hypothetical scenarios.

Scenario 1

Russia doesn’t directly engage in the conflict either by land or air and limits itself to providing military/technical aid and advice to Damascus, including the development of Russia's naval base on the west coast. This situation is quite plausible, but it is unlikely that IS could be defeated in this context.

Some Middle East analysts have opined that Russia’s main objective is to ensure the safety of a future Alawite state in western Syria in the event of the country’s partition, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the Alawite religious minority. The authors of Middle East Briefing write that one of the inevitable consequences of Russian intervention would be precisely that: the partition of Syria. Allegedly, "There are several indications that Russia is deploying its forces along the lines believed to be separating areas of strategic interest to Iran and the Assad regime [the western coastal region] from the rest of Syria. These are the lines where suggested UN forces could deploy in the future."

I am convinced that Russia isn’t preparing for such a scenario and that it will instead make every effort to help preserve Syria as a unified state.

Scenario 2

At the request of the government in Damascus, Russia participates in hostilities against IS in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Army and volunteers from neighboring countries. There are two possibilities for implementing such a scenario. The first would be to launch rocket attacks and airstrikes with the direct participation of the Russian contingent in ground operations. This is unlikely, mainly because of the inevitable losses to the Russian military that would cause an extremely negative reaction among the Russian public. However, an analogy between this situation and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan that has been circulating in some regional media is inappropriate. In the Afghanistan situation, almost all states were against Moscow, while now many regional and global players have an interest in seeing Russia participate in the fight against IS.

The second possibility would be to launch rocket attacks and airstrikes on IS positions — and possibly those of other jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra — without boots on the ground, as the Americans say. In this case, only the Syrians and their regional allies would fight on the ground. This scenario is also rather risky, as it does not offer much chance of success. In both cases, at least some limited coordination with the forces of the US-led international coalition would be needed, at the bare minimum to prevent aerial vehicles from inadvertently colliding and to avoid accidentally striking each other’s positions. Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed this very topic during recent talks in Moscow.

Scenario 3

Russia joins the international coalition already operating in Syria. However, given the current state of relations between Russia and the United States — and the West in general  it is impossible to assume that Moscow would put its armed forces under US command (and Washington will never give up control). Besides, the US administration is unlikely to cooperate with Damascus unless we suggest the unthinkable, namely that Moscow would play the role of a bridge between them and facilitate the necessary level of cooperation. This scenario is totally unrealistic.

Scenario 4

Russia creates a parallel coalition to the current one composed of Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran, with the participation of volunteer troops from neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but without getting involved in ground operations. This scenario is plausible, but in this way a full victory against IS seems hardly possible.

Scenario 5

Russia forms a wider parallel coalition by joining forces with its main strategic ally, China. While this may sound like a fantasy, it would radically change the situation, and a whole set of circumstances speaks in its favor.

First, China has an interest in strengthening its presence in the region, not only in economic terms, as before, but also in the military and political sphere. Strong evidence for this idea is provided by the naval base Beijing is building on the Horn of Africa in Djibouti, where China plans to accommodate nearly 10,000 Chinese soldiers. Likewise, it plans to post units of elite Chinese counterterrorism forces — the Snow Leopard Commando Unit  in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is already talk of their likely deployment in Syria. There is participation by 1,000 Chinese peacekeepers under the UN flag in Lebanon, another 1,000 in South Sudan and 500 in Mali. In Africa, it has long been rumored — yet never verified — that workers and employees on Chinese sites in several countries such as Sudan are in fact military personnel.

Second, there is Beijing’s growing concern about the threat posed by jihadist terror organizations, heightened after a Uighur terrorist group from China known as the Turkistan Islamic Party captured a Syrian air force base.

Third, there is the ever-growing military cooperation between Chinese and Russian armed forces on a bilateral basis and within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In this context, we can point to a series of military exercises in the region of Inner Mongolia. It is said that plans for the next such drill already involve not only Russia, but also new SCO members India and Pakistan. They, too, are interested in destroying IS and its "franchise" strategy, under which more and more terrorist groups are rising around the world. Will it be possible to include India and Pakistan in the fight against IS in Syria? And what if the SCO also accepts Egypt, which already has experience in joint military exercises with Russia and China and is also extremely concerned about the terrorist threat? In any event, one has to acknowledge that despite the SCO’s slow and difficult evolution, there are signs it is transforming into an organization with the characteristics of a political and military alliance.

Of course, China will have to consider some constraints. It has close ties with energy suppliers in the local market, primarily Saudi Arabia, which won’t like such a scenario. China has a difficult yet working relationship of cooperation and interdependence with the United States — and the United States is already extremely annoyed at China’s rapidly growing international activism. At the same time, there may be other considerations. Christina Lin, former director for China policy at the US Department of Defense, wrote in a blog post for The Times of Israel, "China and SCO’s entry into the war against [IS] would be a welcomed step in Washington."

If this scenario is really implemented, it will dramatically strengthen "Coalition 2" and its chances for a convincing victory over IS and other terrorist groups. For now, Al-Monitor has no concrete data on any noticeable preparation to create such a broad coalition, but circumstantial evidence gathered from Chinese diplomatic circles leads us to believe that the ground is being tested, at least.

The intrigue about Russia’s true intentions in Syria will obviously continue, at least until Putin’s Sept. 28 speech at the UN General Assembly. As befits the Russian president’s style, there may be surprises. According to Russian military affairs journalist Vladimir Gundarov, "No one knows what objectives the Kremlin has set [for] itself. The intrigue has reached such a climax that US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has spoken with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu." Now everyone is expecting the start of negotiations between the military chiefs of the two countries, as suggested by the Kremlin.

Would a new anti-terrorism coalition — parallel to the existing one  operate with the participation of Russia? What would happen to the political process then, and how would relations between Russia and the "healthy Syrian opposition forces" develop?

Published by Al Monitor: 


Published in Tribune

Russia’s recently declared decision to lift the embargo on S-300 deliveries to Iran has a particular meaning and puts Moscow in the face of hard decisions to be made.

The term “S-300” - referring to long-range surface-to-air missile systems that have been in service since 1978 - has already become an international term of discord that appears regularly enough on the world agenda. .

The system has a next generation version, S-400, and an absolutely new version – S-500 – will reportedly soon be seen. Russia had signed a contract to deliver it to Iran in 2007. Then the delivery was cancelled. The official reason for this step was the sanctions imposed by a U.N. Security Council resolution. But several experts suggested that the true reason of the delay was Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow at that same time and his promise not to deliver arms to Georgia, as well as remarkable pressure from the U.S. Five years later and Russia has lifted the embargo, met with a controversial international reaction.

S-300, even being a rather old system and having an absolutely defensive design, could be a game changer in the geopolitical battles in the Middle East and over it. The possibility of Russia’s S-300 delivery to Syria was a matter of deep concern to the international community.

And even there is no proof of the S-300 delivery to the Syrian regime; a significant number of experts believe it is being delivered. Thus this uncertainty, besides other factors, has prevented the international community from the repetition of the Libyan scenario in Syria. 

The main player that opposes any S-300 delivery – is Israel, which believes that S-300 shipments will break the relative balance of forces existing in the region and will make it more vulnerable in the face of the Iranian threat. Saudi Arabia does not approve of the Russia’s decision as well. Russia’s support of Iran and condemnation of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen strains the country and aggravates the relations between the two powers. S-300 delivery causes strong debates in Europe and in the U.S., however the reaction coming from the White House was surprisingly calm, as Obama was “frankly surprised that it [the ban] held this long.”

To read the whole piece : 

Published in Tribune

A round table “Sunni-Shia divide: the roots of the phenomenon and the ways to overcome it” on the situation in the Middle East took place at MGIMO-University (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) on the 14th of April. The leading experts (from MGIMO, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, of the Institute of the General History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, of the Diplomatic Academy, Institute of International Relations and World Economy of the Russian Academy of Science, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives and from other political and scientific institutions were brought together. The eminent Russian diplomat Veniamin Popov, who leads the Center for Dialogues of Civilizations at the MGIMO-University and holds IMESClub membership, chaired the meeting.

The participants of the meeting have discussed the Shia-Sunni clash on the current historical moment, the origins of this clash in the historical perspective, the reasons of the regional conflicts. Yemeni, Syrian and Iraqi crises were in a special focus.

In the opening address to the audience Alexander Orlov, the director of the Center of international Studies of MGIMO, shared his thoughts over the current destabilization in the Middle East that he links with international crisis having brought the global system to the state of a deep imbalance. 

George Mirsky, famous Russian expert from IMEMO, has noted among other important issues an aspect, that there is a dangerous trend of simplification of all the processes in the region to the level of Saudi Arabia vs Iran clash, that is irrelevant for the understanding of the processes we witness now, as there are numerous inner processes that rather often form the core of the ongoing developments. 

Andrey Fedorchenko, the director of the Center of the Middle Eastern Studies, IMESClub member, has mentioned in his speech, that the tradition of compromises is not well developed in the Middle East, particularly in the religious field. Maria Dubovikova, President of IMESClub, has stressed that there is a dangerous trend of politicization of the religion and instrumentalisation of the existing discords, that is often used by the external and non-regional players as well serving their national interests they have in the region. All these trends, according to Ms. Dubovikova, lead to the extreme aggravation of the regional situation.

Nikolay Soukhov, researcher of the Institute of Oriental Studies, IMESClub member, has focused in his speech mostly on the Russia's role in the current discords and the role the Russia's expats and children from the mixed marriages can play as a factor of mediation and harmonization of the processes, and has also shared the observation, based on the Pew Research Center report over how Sunnis and Shia's percept each other, that the farer the country is situated from the Shiite concentrated region, the less positive attitude the Sunnis have towards the Shiites, even considering them as non-Muslims. And the nearer the country is to the Shia concentrated region, the more neutral attitude to Shiites is.

During their speeches the experts have noted taking into consideration the controversial interests of both regional and external players, the solution of the existing problems seems rather unlikely in the near future.


Published in Events
Sunday, 12 April 2015 19:47

Iran in Yemen?

US Secretary of State John Kerry said recently Iran is “obviously” aiding the Houthi uprising in Yemen. According to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, "Iran provides financial support for the Houthis and helps them in building weapon factories and providing them with weapons.”[1] "There are 5,000 Iranians, Hezbollah and Iraqi militia on the ground in Yemen," an unnamed diplomatic official in the Gulf is reported as saying.[2] The Editor-in-Chief of the Arab Times of Kuwait calls the Houthis Iran’s “dummy”[3] and “tools” of Iran and Hezbollah.[4] In Britain, “The Telegraph” writes of “the Iranian-backed takeover of Northern Yemen”[5]

Sergei Serebrov, of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, noted that the Telegraph’s claim would be unarguably true had it been followed by the qualification “11 centuries ago.”[6] And he is far from the only observer skeptical that Iran stands behind the Houthi eruption in Yemen. Wikileaks documents analyzed on the Al-Bab website indicate the US was not convinced by the Yemeni government’s repeated claims of Iranian involvement in a series of conflicts with the Houthis over the last decade[7] — claims made by the regime of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now allied with the Houthis (and who in 2011 found refuge in Saudi Arabia, the country now assaulting his forces from the skies). The US Embassy in Yemen, according to a leaked 2009 memo, was more concerned with the interference of Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, which it feared might make Iranian alleged involvement a self-fulfilling prophecy:


… we can think of few ways to more effectively encourage Iranian meddling in the Houthi rebellion than to have all of Yemen's Sunni neighbors line up to finance and outfit Ali Abdullah Saleh's self-described ‘Operation Scorched Earth’ against his country's Shia minority.[8]


Now, with a fragile Iran-US détente underway and sanctions a step closer to ending, Iran would be risking much more by stepping into the Yemen imbroglio than it would have in 2009. Why unnecessarily antagonize the US and jeopardize the longed-for sanctions breakout for a prize of such questionable practical value? Or for that matter, why antagonize Saudi Arabia? While it’s a widely accepted truth that Iran will get up to any mischief it possibly can against the Saudis, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a point of calling for a mending of relations with the Kingdom soon after his election. The US National Intelligence’s annual security assessment in February also noted that Iran was still seeking to “deescalate tensions with Saudi Arabia.”[9]

Iranian involvement in Syria and Lebanon is already a serious drain on the limited resources of an economy shackled by sanctions. From the Iranian security perspective, those countries are strategically crucial, a buffer between itself and Israel. Not only is Yemen not a buffer against a perceived threat, but its devastating poverty makes it an expensive proposition. A Houthi government under Iranian auspices would require massive financial support. What would be the motive? To reestablish the Persian Empire, the rationale repeatedly put forth the Saleh administration for alleged Iranian meddling in Yemen, according to Wikileaks? Rhetoric aside, behind the scenes the Americans were not convinced.

The smart play for Iran at this critical juncture is not to rock the boat unnecessarily, which corresponds to its official line: a denial that it provides military support to the Houthis coupled with vociferous condemnations of the bombing campaign and calls for all the warring parties to come to the negotiating table.

Whatever external factors are exacerbating the conflict in Yemen, the main spark is internal, and as related to the country’s economic problems as it is to the much-trumpeted Shia-Sunni conflict. Yemen is one of the poorest Arab countries, with 50% of the population below the poverty level, despite potentially lucrative fishing and some oil. The recent Saudi withholding of funds from a promised bailout package and the sabotage of oil pipelines and electricity infrastructure in the Mareb Province of Yemen have only compounded economic woes. When President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government abolished energy subsidies last summer, causing a spike in the price of gasoline, the result was protests in the streets with the army called in to put them down. Social unrest is common, and the populace has arms and knows how to use them – some say guns far outnumber people in Yemen. Even in peaceful times, Sana’a has the feel of a Wild West town: men strolling the streets or sitting in cafes with their “ali” (AK-47) and pickups zooming by with mounted chain machine guns.

Yet Sana’a was taken by the Houthis without much of a fight. That and their dramatic advance to Aden owes much to a formidable domestic ally, former Yemeni president Saleh, ousted in Yemen’s “Arab Spring” but still commanding a great deal of loyalty in the government and military. He is a wily political survivor who has switched sides more than once in the past, this time making an advantageous alliance with his former foes. It was Saleh’s regime killed Al-Houthi, founder of the movement.

Trade and economic ties between Iran and Yemen were weak under former president Saleh; and under President Hadi they had been all but shut down. But with Hadi fleeing to Aden and the Houthis essentially taking control of the government in February, preliminary agreements were signed between Yemen and Iran on reconstructing the port of Al Hudaydah on the Red Sea and establishing regular direct Iran-Yemen passenger flights. And no wonder, with all other outside funding cut off or on hold. Apparently, the prospect of this deal too much for the Saudis and their allies. Accusations followed immediately that the flights were for military supplies from Iran, and soon after that, the bombs began coming down.

The Zaydiyyah Shia branch in Yemen, to whom the Houthis belong, differs in many ways from the Ja’fari Islam of Iran, and is similar in many ways to Sunni Islam. The two Shia schools do, however, share the concept of the Imamate, as distinct from the Sunni; and ideological resonance seems to have been increasing in recent decades. The Zaydi imamate ruled from 897 to 1962, its territory expanding and contracting, but the heartland always remaining in the mountainous northwest of Yemen, where the Houthis are now based. Like the Zaydis, Ja’faris and all Shia sects, the Houthis come into being as a force of opposition to the powers that be, in the 1990s. The founder of the Houthi movement, also known as “Ansar Allah,” was Said Hossein Al-Houthi, a Yemeni parliamentarian of aristocratic heritage and a religious education from Sa’ada, that same mountainous Zaydi heartland in the north of Yemen, bordering on Saudi Arabia. His family enjoys great respect among the tribes there, and in Yemen, tribal alliances are everything. Al-Houthi came into conflict with former president Saleh in the early 2000s. In addition to defending the interests and culture of the Zaydi minority against what he saw as an encroaching Salafi presence backed by Saleh, Al-Houthi decried Yemen’s alliance with and reliance on the US and Saudi Arabia. After increasingly tense clashes with the government, he was killed in 2004. His brothers, primarily Abdul Malik, now lead the movement, which has also made battling corruption a centerpiece of its rhetoric. Despite the Houthis’ “Death to America” chants and placards, some Yemenis’ believe that the Americans may not have been opposed, at least early on, to the Houthis’ growing power as a counterbalance to the greater evil of Al-Qaeda and other extremist Sunni groups in Yemen. Just to further muddy the waters….









[8] ibid.


Published in Tribune
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