Russia seeks mediator role between Israel and Iran

With no way to get Jerusalem and Tehran at the same table, Moscow will seek to make sure the conflict does not spiral out of control

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 9, 2018. (AFP/Sergei Ilnitsky)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 9, 2018. (AFP/Sergei Ilnitsky)

MOSCOW, Russia (AFP) — Following Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, Russia has positioned itself as a mediator between the Middle Eastern rivals as it has maintained good relations with both countries.

“The Kremlin is sitting on two chairs,” Russian analyst Alexei Malashenko told AFP.

“It is a complex and difficult situation for Russia that has links with both of the sworn enemies.”

Israel carried out raids on dozens of Iranian military targets on Thursday after it said around 20 rockets were fired from Syria at its forces in the Golan Heights.

Russia was quick to call for restraint, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying on Thursday that “all issues should be solved through dialogue.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a joint press conference with his German counterpart following their talks in Moscow on May 10, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Yuri KADOBNOV)

He added that Russia had warned Israel to avoid “all actions that could be seen as provocative” the day before the strikes, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin.

Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said relations between Putin and Netanyahu were “very good” and that the meeting, on the eve of the strikes, showed Russia could play a major role in the Israel-Iran dispute.

“Moscow could use its good relations with the two countries to help them communicate and make sure confrontation does not exceed certain limits,” Lukyanov said.

Major player

Russia has become a major player in the Middle East since intervening in the Syrian war on the side of the Damascus regime in September 2015. Analysts also highlight its role as mediator in other conflicts in the area.

“The role of Russia as a mediator is strongly appreciated in the region. This role will be reinforced if the crisis between Israel and Iran worsens,” said Alexander Krylov, a foreign policy expert at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Krylov told AFP that Russia’s “additional value” is that it has good relations with forces that other actors refuse to speak to such as with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and the Kurds.

Russia’s good ties to Israel were demonstrated by Netanyahu’s visit, he said.

“I do not rule out the idea that Israel gave some clues to Russia about the strikes,” Krylov said.

But even if Russia considers Israel’s security concerns over Iran legitimate, Lukyanov said, it sees Iran as an “indispensable partner on many issues, especially in Syria.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), and President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani (L) pose for a photo ahead of the Turkey-Russia-Iran Tripartite summit in Ankara, Turkey on April 04, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / TOLGA BOZOGLU)

Russia, Iran, and Turkey regularly meet to discuss the regulation of the Syrian war, where the three countries have positioned themselves as major players.

Unlike Turkey, Iran and Moscow are unflinching allies of the Bashar Assad regime and often maintain a united diplomatic front.

Analyst Alexei Malashenko said Russia would do everything possible to maintain relations with both Israel and Iran without taking a stand, especially since Israel’s strikes “do not threaten” Moscow’s position in Syria.

“If Israel were to defy Russia’s dominant role, Russia would react and take a stand. This is unlikely to happen because Israel knows Russia defines the rules in Syria,” said Lukyanov.

‘Anti-Iranian sentiment’

But if escalation continues, Moscow will find it difficult to keep playing a mediator’s role.

“Even with the best intention, nobody can bring Iran and Israel to the same table,” said Malashenko.

He added that Russia is also closely watching Washington’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal, which the Kremlin has opposed. On Thursday Moscow said it would continue a “close collaboration” with Iran on the agreement.

Lukyanov said it may not have been coincidental that the Israeli strikes took place shortly after US President Donald Trump announced his country’s withdrawal from the deal.

“Iran’s enemies can only be inspired by this decision: there is a very strong anti-Iranian sentiment,” Lukyanov said. “Increased US pressure on Iran has certainly helped Israel fulfill its agenda.”

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