Middle Eastern countries see role for Russia

By Li Weijian Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/1 18:48:40

The situation in the Middle East has seen drastic changes recently that have puzzled observers. It surprised the international community that the unpromising Russia-Turkey relationship saw a sudden U-turn and is rapidly warming up. The joint missions by Russia and Iran have attracted a great deal of attention as well.

Iranian authorities opened the Hamadan air base southwest of Tehran to Russia for bombing runs over Syria recently, but later they waffled about follow-up cooperation. This has triggered a high alert from the US and extensive attention from the international community. In the meantime, Iraq is allowing Russia access to its airspace, and Turkey raised the possibility of opening airbases to Russia.

These changes are intertwined and have complicated motivations. Upheaval in the Middle East has promoted political transitions in regional countries, but meanwhile triggered constant unrest and the resurgence of extremism. Washington's shifted Middle East strategies have broken the regional geopolitical balance and prompted major regional countries to adjust their foreign policies so as to adapt to the changing situation.

Iran is not a traditional ally of Russia. Moscow shared similar stance with Washington on Iran's nuclear issues in the past. This raised strong dissatisfaction from Tehran, and the Russia-Iran relationship faced one of the most serious challenges since the Cold War. However, the two countries have common interests on a number of international affairs, and have been mutually supportive for some time. The US factor exerts significant influence on the Russia-Iran relationship.

There are profound divergences between the US and the two countries on many international and regional issues. Regarded as the most dangerous rivals and long suppressed by the US-led Western countries, Russia and Iran are forced to rely on each other to jointly contain the US sanctions. Although Russia sits opposite Iran at the negotiation table over nuclear issues, it deliberately stays distant from the US on many occasions.

Russia, Iran and Iraq have reached a high degree of consensus on the Syrian crisis. Unlike the US and its allies, the three countries, to ensure their interests in the Middle East and Syria, support the government of Bashar al-Assad and are firm in fighting against terrorism and extremism. They even established an anti-terrorism alliance that rivals the Western one led by the US. After the US was pressured to adjust its Middle East policy, Russia and Iran are provided with more opportunities for further cooperation.

The US has shifted its strategic focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, and has prioritized anti-Islamic State (IS) operations over the Syrian crisis. Fighting against IS is top priority for the US, but the White House is unwilling to invest in the Middle East any more. Russia has taken this opportunity. It intervened in Syria, worked closely with Iran and Iraq, and obtained effective achievements in fighting against the terrorist group, forcing the US to accept Russia's presence in Syria.

The shifting of US strategic focus also prompted Iran to open its military base to Russia and made Turkey grow closer with Russia. Moscow's active intervention in the Syrian crisis in the name of anti-terrorism has created favorable environment for its return to the Middle East. Russia will continue its active foreign policies in the Middle East, strengthen political, economic and military exchanges with regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, and expand its influence in the Middle East and on the international political arena in the future.

Although Russia and Iran have common interests in countering the US, and Turkey, dissatisfied with Washington's adjusted policies, is deliberately distancing itself from the US, these countries are fully aware that the US still plays a leading role in international relations and global affairs, and thus attach the greatest importance to their ties with the US. These countries are uniting to gain more bargaining chips to develop relationship with the US and Europe. After all, for both Russia and Iran, breaking the ice with the US-led Western countries is core to their national interests.

The author is director of the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, and vice president of the Chinese Association of Middle East Studies. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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