One of the remarkable achievements of Russian President Vladmir Putin’s Middle East diplomacy both before and after the Russian war against Ukraine that began in 2022 is that Moscow has been able to maintain good relations both with Iran on the one hand and with Middle Eastern governments fearful of Iran (including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) on the other.
It has been a great disappointment to the U.S. and Ukraine that America’s Middle East allies have not joined the Western effort to support Ukraine or sanction Russia. The recent attack on an Iranian weapons production facility in Isfahan, though, is an indicator that it may be getting increasingly difficult to keep the war in Ukraine and Iran’s regional rivalries separate.
While press accounts indicate that Israel was responsible for the recent attack on the Iranian weapons producing facility, there is much about this episode that is not clear. First and foremost, it is uncertain how much damage was actually done (the Iranian government is minimizing this, but its account may not be truthful).
In addition, it is not clear the extent to which the attack has interrupted Iranian production of missiles, drones, or other weapons. Finally, it is not clear whether the attack has interrupted the production of Iranian weaponry set to be exported to Russia for use against Ukraine.
What is clear, though, is that whether or not the Israeli attack on the Isfahan facility disrupted the export of Iranian weaponry to Russia, it showed that Israel – and others, including the U.S. – can do so. The condemnation of this attack by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson shows that Moscow is very unhappy about this.
Up until Russia began to import Iranian drones for use against Ukraine, America’s Middle Eastern allies which most fear Iran were willing to overlook Russia’s support for Tehran in the hope that their having good relations with Putin would somehow result in his acting to restrain Iranian hostility toward them. But with the Russian war effort now relying heavily on armed drones from Tehran, there have been numerous reports that Iranian officials expect Moscow to return the favor by selling advanced Russian weapons – including Su-35 fighter aircraft – to Iran.
Furthermore, while Russian forces remain present in Syria, Moscow’s redeployment of air defense missiles as well as some personnel from there to the Ukrainian theater means that Russia may be less able to restrain actions by Iran and its Hezbollah forces against Israel there.
Russia’s failure to prevent Turkish-backed Azerbaijan from making further gains against Moscow’s protégé Armenia in the recent flare-up in fighting between these two former Soviet republics is not an indication that Putin is in a strong position to restrain aggressive actions by other countries.
With Russian dependence on Iranian drones and other weapons potentially resulting in Russia providing Iran with increased capabilities for attacking its Middle Eastern rivals, and with Russia already showing signs of being less able (if it ever was) to restrain Iran and others, it is not surprising that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would prioritize weakening Iran over propitiating Putin (even though Netanyahu was fairly successful at this during his earlier stint as prime minister).
Israel, of course, did not attack the Isfahan weapons production facility in order to prevent Russia from obtaining weapons from there to attack Ukraine, but to prevent Iran from acquiring more weapons to attack Israel. But to the extent that Israel achieves the latter goal, it also furthers the former.
Furthermore, to the extent that Israel can act to disrupt Iranian weapons production, this also benefits Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which, while seeking to preserve their cooperation with Russia, have been attacked by Iranian missiles supplied to the Houthis in Yemen and fear direct attack by Iran itself. While Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been displeased by what they see as Washington paying more attention to Ukraine’s security than their own, they cannot be happy that their “friend” Putin has been strengthening Tehran’s ability to target them.
Since the outbreak of the war in February 2022, Israel and America’s other Middle East allies have tried to avoid involvement in the Ukraine conflict while Russia has tried to maintain good relations with America’s Middle East allies while continuing to back Iran. But Russian dependence on Iran for weapons for use against Ukraine as well as Russian actions increasing Iran’s ability to threaten America’s Middle Eastern allies are making this attempt at compartmentalization increasingly difficult. The war in Ukraine on the one hand and the rivalry between Iran and its many adversaries on the other are increasingly linked.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter