Iran and Russia have been uneasy allies in the Syrian Civil War, providing aid to the Assad regime in its attempt to regain control of the country from jihadist rebels.
Russia is also attempting to serve as a buffer between the Iranians and Israelis, who are seemingly on the brink of war inside Syria – no easy task.
For now, both Iran and Israel need Russia as a shield between one another. Moscow is trying to convince the two enemies to preserve a status quo of moderation: Iran has to restrain the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah’s provocative actions, and Israel needs to restrain its assertive responses and pre-emptive air raids.
Russia is concerned with the state of relations between Israel and Iran, “in light of mutual threats and rejection by both countries,” Russia’s outgoing ambassador to Israel, Alexander Shein, has stated .
Russia is preoccupied with finding a comprehensive formula to keep the parties from feeling endangered. But this is a tricky tightrope to walk.
As Irina Zvyagelskaya, member of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, put it, “The situation for Russia is difficult as our country has good relations with Iran and Israel, which share deep differences.”
The secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, met separately on April 24 with his Israeli and Iranian counterparts, Eytan Ben-David and Ali Shamkhani.
The meetings were held in the Russian resort town of Sochi, and Patrushev discussed Middle East developments with the two officials. He visited Israel this past January, and reported he had tried to prevent harm from coming to Iranian installations in Syria.
“What is important to understand is that the Russians are very pragmatic players,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said recently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “At the end of the day, they are reasonable guys.”
There is even a “hotline” between the Russian Khmeimim air base in Syria and the Israeli Kirya command center in Tel Aviv.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 9 met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Netanyahu claimed that he was able to persuade Putin to delay the sale of advanced weapons, including S-300 missiles, to Syria. It was Netanyahu’s eighth visit to Moscow in three years. Next to the United States, Russia is the country to which he travels most frequently.
Israeli warplanes struck Iranian targets inside Syria the very next day, suggesting that Netanyahu may have given Putin advance notice of the attack.
“We have repeatedly noted the need for both sides to avoid any actions that would provoke the other,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on May 10. “Iran and Israel assure us that they have no such intentions, but, as you know, incidents, nevertheless, happen.”
Also on May 10, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov met with Iran’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs, Abbas Araghchi, in Tehran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has praised Russia’s dealings with Israel: “I believe Israeli aggression has been resisted and will be resisted, and I think it will be best for everybody to advise them to stop aggression against others.”
While Israel and Iran would each like to lure Moscow to their own camp, they are also discovering that Russia’s role as the only entity that can deal with matters of life and death between them might just prove beneficial for them all. A “go-between” serves everyone’s interests in this volatile situation
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.