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A Possible US-Russian Arrangement and Implications for the Middle East

Written by Zvi Magen

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INSS Insight No. 139

We have recently been witness to a new US initiative launched by the Obama administration for dialogue with Russia that affects both the bilateral and global levels. The American proposal, which generated several top level meetings, including with presidents and foreign ministers, was apparently submitted to the Russian side as a comprehensive "package deal." If it materializes, this arrangement will yield a positive change in relations between Russia and the West and stands to have considerable implications for the international system, with an emphasis on the Middle East.

According to the previous policy, which was driven by superpower aspirations, Russia aimed to induce a confrontation in the international arena on three levels:

 

  1. On the global level: alongside full integration in the international system, Russia pursued assertive and defiant activity against the United States and its allies in order to enhance its own status.
  2. On the regional level: Russia aimed to displace the United States and further its own agenda, using a range of leveraging means. Naturally, the Middle East, which was the locus of cooperation with the Axis of Evil, featured strongly here.
  3. On the "near abroad"/former Soviet Union (FSU) level: In this area, identified as the Russian interest in the area of the former Soviet Union, Russia is desperately resisting the efforts of the West to extend its influence eastwards.

The American initiative makes a reversal possible by generating conditions for positive dialogue with Russia, while offering proposals for solving most of the aforementioned problems based on far reaching concessions. However, along with the important concessions for Russia, it appears that the American proposal is submitted as a single unit encompassing all the issues, including those that are problematic - first and foremost Iran. There is a growing impression that this process has been successful and that the sides have agreed on most of the package, even though a number of issues are still to be settled.

As far as it is possible to assess, the arrangement incorporates the follow topics:

This arrangement apparently includes American concessions that are important to Russia and that substantially upgrade Moscow's international standing. In turn, Russia is expected to reward American flexibility by softening its stance on the Iranian nuclear program as well as cooperating in the war on terror. This constitutes an important American achievement, but it appears that it is the Russians who have gained a diplomatic victory in proving that the Russian strategy of the last few years has paid off. Without tangible means, Russia has managed to improve its international standing and achieve most of its objectives.

With regard to the implications of the arrangement for Middle East affairs, it seems that Russia has positioned itself in a new and significantly improved position compared with the past. This is a function of two main issues. The first is the Iranian issue, which will enable Russia to gain important leverage because of its role in the agreement on uranium enrichment. At the same time, Russia's inclusion in an arrangement with the West highlights the familiar Russian dilemma: choosing between cooperation with the international community and the option of full cooperation with Iran and its partners in the Axis of Evil. Russia still views Iran as an important partner, a regional power, a potential leader of the future Muslim world, and as such, a country capable of furthering Russian global objectives. This makes it difficult to apply the Iranian clause of the American-Russian arrangement. Yet given inconsistent Iranian behavior and Russia's tough bargaining with the Americans, Russia has gained a sense of self-importance. In any case, Russia is ensured a central role in future talks with the Iranians.

The second issue concerns the new and enhanced standing that Russia is expected to gain in all areas of the Middle East political process. A conference in Moscow on the Middle East will constitute a clear expression of this. According to Russian foreign minister Lavrov, the conference will incorporate the Israeli-Palestinian channel and the Syrian and Lebanese channels. This is naturally also contingent on other developments, including Israel's willingness to cooperate.

These two areas provide Russia with relative advantages in forging an influential position with regard to Middle East affairs, and gaining a standing similar to that of the United States. Thus if the agreement is implemented, the Middle East may see a strategic transformation in the region.

This script confronts Israel with a new reality. Instead of the familiar regional picture, a different complex of problems and ways to seek solutions are expected to emerge. In such a situation, the success of the new direction is largely dependent on Israel's position, largely because Russia identifies it as one of the main regional players, both vis-à-vis the Iranian issue and the political process. Russia's active participation in the political process creates additional pressure on Israel with regard to the price and conditions of any future arrangements it makes.

It appears that Russia has lately been working on creating an image of a fair and efficient broker that is acceptable to all the sides in the region, and indeed, it has scored points in this area. A certain degree of tension that has recently emerged in the bilateral relationship with Israel may be attributable, beyond an expression of Russian dissatisfaction with Israel's conduct, to Russia's interest in demonstrating an "objective" position.

The United States has put together a clever proposal, offered as a single package with concessions to Russia that also obligates Russia to make corresponding concessions, primarily on the Iranian issue. For Russia this is a considerable achievement and an impressive diplomatic success that enabled it to achieve strategic objectives without what would otherwise presumably be considered necessary tools. The arrangement grants Russia a position in the Middle East with considerable future influence, potentially similar to that of the United States. As such, this constitutes a change that can be defined as strategic, and it requires a proper, thoughtful response by Israel and other relevant actors.

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The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

 

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