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Rethinking Russia’s Mideast ambitions

Iran and Russia make for surprising allies in the Middle East, but ultimately Russia values its own interests over any alliance.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (2nd L) is greeted by the Secretary-General of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul Gheit (L) before their meeting in Cairo, Egypt May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh - RTX382BY

The fact that Russia and Iran are both supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government — and that Moscow has launched air attacks on Syrian opposition forces from Iran as well as directed its cruise missiles through Iranian airspace — has fueled widespread speculation that Moscow and Tehran are allies. Advocates of this view usually also point to Russia’s efforts to shield Iran from punitive UN Security Council sanctions over its nuclear program and to extensive Russian arms sales to Iran. As tensions between Shiite Iran and powerful Sunni states like Saudi Arabia have deepened, some even argue that Moscow is backing Iran in a bid for regional hegemony. Notwithstanding such fears in Washington and select Middle East capitals, Russia’s objectives in the Middle East appear much less ambitious.

Indeed, Moscow would face considerable obstacles in any attempt to support Iran’s dominance in the Middle East. Fyodor Lukyanov, a respected foreign affairs scholar who is chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy — an organization broadly analogous to America’s Council on Foreign Relations — told Al-Monitor that “to deliberately support the Shia over the Sunni would be suicidal for Russia” because 90% of Russia’s Muslims are Sunni. Tamping down Sunni religious identity and preventing extremist terrorism inside the Russian Federation have been among Russia’s top national priorities since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having pacified Chechnya in two bloody wars, and having suffered from mass terrorist events like the 2002 Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis and the 2004 Beslan school massacre, the Kremlin is hardly eager to pursue a Middle East policy that extremists could use to recruit new followers and justify new atrocities.

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