Are the battle lines being drawn in the Middle East?

Ahead of Biden's trip to the region, Lavrov's visit to Tehran has deepened the Russia-Iran strategic pact

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrive for a joint news conference in Tehran on Thursday. Reuters
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Pragmatism is in a race with recklessness in Iran, as the final countdown begins to either rescue the Vienna talks with the purpose of reviving the JCPOA, or let the negotiations collapse that would then unleash a nuclear-armed state in the region. The room for manoeuvring is shrinking and time is running out.

Russia has re-inserted itself into this race, marked by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to Tehran on Thursday.

The trip was a milestone, as Moscow effectively blessed Iran's possible transformation into a nuclear-armed state. Russia has also entrusted Iran with securing their common interests in Syria, a country where both governments are allied with the Assad regime. Just as importantly, Moscow and Tehran agreed to activate their strategic pact similar to the one the latter signed last year with China, which the two sides believe is crucial towards firming up a Chinese-Russian-Iranian troika.

At the joint news conference, both Mr Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian hinted that the door to the Vienna talks remain open but only just. Mr Amirabdollahian said Iran and EU officials maintain contact, affirming that Tehran will not abandon diplomacy and remains serious about reaching a sustainable agreement on the JCPOA.

Such statements suggest that Tehran still prefers prudence over recklessness. The devil, however, is in the details, with one such detail being the Iranian regime's demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from America's terror list – a condition that US President Joe Biden has categorically rejected. Meanwhile, Iran continues to oppose American insistence on a strict monitoring regime for Tehran's nuclear programme.

Moscow understands that its preoccupation in Ukraine has weakened its position in Syria

Behind closed doors, it seems, Russia and Iran agreed that the chances of success in Vienna are diminishing, and that, therefore, they need to explore alternatives. According to a readout by a source apprised of the discussions, Russia appeared ready to support Iran’s nuclear future. This marks a shift in Moscow’s position, which was hitherto committed to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Russia and its fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council had previously agreed to prevent an expansion of the so-called nuclear weapons club. But the war in Ukraine may have undone this consensus.

Moscow, meanwhile, seems conflicted between its determination to further its strategic pact with Iran and its desire to see better Iran-Gulf relations.

In Tehran, Mr Lavrov said his country is working to guarantee the security of the Gulf region and is seeking the improvement of relations between Iran and the Gulf countries. He called for a dialogue between Iran and the Arab states to build confidence and take steps that reinforce stability in the region. These sentiments are commendable, but Moscow doesn't appear to be using its leverage over Iran to check its regional behaviour in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

To be sure, Moscow’s gesture of encouragement towards Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons and allowing for the latter's confrontation with Israel in the future will only serve to destabilise the broader region.

Russian diplomats have made it clear to their Iranian counterparts that Moscow does not wish to see an Iran-Israel confrontation, but they have affirmed Iran’s right to respond to Israel if provoked. They have also reiterated the importance of Iran's interests in Syria and the Iranian regime’s right to confront any force that could harm its interests or those of Russia. Moscow has, in the process, given Iran the green light to act as a security guarantor in Syria, even if that means gradually replacing some of Russia’s own role in the country.

Moscow understands that its preoccupation in Ukraine has weakened its position in Syria, leading to a strategic loss to what it views to be Turkish and Israeli provocations in the Arab country. It has, therefore, agreed for Iran to step up its efforts in Syria. The likely failure of the Vienna talks will serve to unshackle Iran’s hands in the region, in Russia’s view, and Syria could become a key arena for activating a potential Iran-Israel conflict.

If Tehran determines that the time has come to retaliate for the failure of the Vienna talks and the continuation of sanctions against it, the regime could expand its operations inside Iraq, Lebanon, and perhaps even the waterways in the region, with implicit Russian blessings.

Russia remains angry with Israel for its stance on Ukraine, its disruption of the Vienna talks, its lack of regard for Russian interests, and its repeated military operations inside Syria. There is also some Russian resentment towards Israel for its alleged operations inside Iran targeting the IRGC and nuclear installations. The mood in the Kremlin currently favours leveraging Iran’s anger in the event of the collapse of the Vienna talks. An Iran-Israel war could distract from Russian's actions in Ukraine and become an additional source of worry and embarrassment for Washington, an ally of Israel.

Some may question the value of a Russia-Iran strategic pact at a time when both countries are under sanctions and facing increasing international isolation. But Russia remains a permanent member of the Security Council and so, it is capable of eroding the foundations of the international order as its fury grows. Indeed, as Russia is seeking to chart an independent course, it could circumvent unilateral and international sanctions imposed on itself and Iran.

For now, Tehran continues to seek a breakthrough in Vienna. If the talks fail, it is ready to work with Russia. But even if they succeed, it sees no contradiction between benefiting from the resulting lifting of sanctions and cementing its pact with Russia.

What has become amply evident in recent weeks is that the Middle East continues to hold strategic value. It is important, therefore, for the US to think strategically. At a time when Iran is engaging with China and Russia, Washington must further develop serious, comprehensive and permanent co-operation agreements with the GCC states, led by Saudi Arabia.

Published: June 26, 2022, 2:00 PM