First Published: 2017-11-13

How Long can Putin Dance with both Riyadh and Tehran?
Putin’s aim is not to resolve the Saudi-Iranian conflict but to keep it manageable so Russia can continue and even increase its cooperation with both countries, observes Mark N. Katz.
Middle East Online

Unlike US President Donald Trump, who openly shares Saudi Arabia’s hostility towards Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to avoid taking sides in the growing Saudi-Iranian dispute.

Indeed, the recent meeting between Putin and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Moscow was quickly followed by Putin’s visit to Tehran, where he met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani.

Russia clearly is seeking good relations with both countries despite their antagonism towards each other.

What is Putin’s objective? The most basic answer is that Russia values and needs cooperation with both Tehran and Riyadh. In Syria, Russia and Iran are very much co-dependent on each other in their effort to prop up the Assad regime and defeat its opponents. Moscow needs Iran and its Shia militia allies to supply the ground forces that Russia does not want to deploy to Syria just as much as Tehran needs Russia’s capable combat air support.

At the same time, Saudi-Russian cooperation in restraining oil production is crucial for meeting Putin’s need to prop up oil prices to support Russia’s stagnant economy. Putin is heavily dependent on petroleum exports for funding his ambitious arms build-up plans and for helping him maintain internal stability. Putin hopes to increase Russian exports to and investment from Saudi Arabia to alleviate the economic pressure Moscow faces because of Western economic sanctions related to his policies towards Ukraine.

In other words, Putin is seeking good relations with both Tehran and Riyadh at the same time because Russia needs them. Saudi-Iranian mutual hostility provides certain opportunities for Moscow. While neither Riyadh nor Tehran appreciates Moscow’s cooperating with the other, Putin understands that their mutual antagonism is so great that neither can afford not to cooperate with Moscow. If anything, Saudi-Iranian hostility motivates both Riyadh and Tehran to increase cooperation with Moscow to project the image that Russia really is on their side — a competition that Putin is most willing to exploit.

Having good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran gives Putin an advantage over the United States. He understands that Washington’s ability to talk with both Arabs and Israelis after the Soviet Union broke diplomatic ties with Israel in 1967 enabled Washington to dominate the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and exclude Moscow from a meaningful role in them.

However, Moscow’s ability to talk with both Riyadh and Tehran while the Trump administration is pursuing a hostile policy towards Iran may allow Putin to dominate any Saudi-Iranian effort to reduce their mutual tensions as well as exclude Washington from any such process.

Of course, being able to talk with both sides in a dispute is no guarantee that a third party can reduce tensions between them. Still, just being able to do so can help Putin build his image as a responsible statesman who is genuinely seeking conflict resolution, in contrast to US President Donald Trump.

Being seen as promoting Saudi-Iranian conflict resolution as well as Saudi-Qatari, Israeli-Palestinian and other Middle Eastern conflict resolution efforts is helpful in ensuring that Middle Eastern governments do not support Western economic sanctions against Russia.

Putin’s aim, though, is not to resolve the Saudi-Iranian conflict but to keep it manageable so Russia can continue and even increase its cooperation with both countries. Indeed, in addition to viewing it as not actually possible, Putin may see resolving the Saudi-Iranian conflict as undesirable because it is very difficult to imagine genuine Saudi-Iranian reconciliation occurring without an Iranian-American one also occurring.

There is, of course, very little risk of this taking place so long as Trump is US president. A danger for Putin is that Saudi-Iranian hostility escalates into direct conflict throughout the region. If this occurred, Washington would undoubtedly support Riyadh, thus confronting Putin with the choice of either siding with Iran or staying out of the conflict. Preventing Saudi-Iranian hostility from escalating, then, is crucial for Putin but it may be beyond his capacity.

Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, is currently a visiting senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly

 

Lebanon’s Hariri suspends resignation

Divided Syria opposition meets in Riyadh

Revolt in US State Department over child soldier law

US carries out air strikes against IS in Libya

Morocco bans bitcoin transactions

Saudi-led coalition to reopen Yemen airport, port to aid

Turkey court rules to keep Amnesty chief in jail

France calls for UN meeting on Libya slave-trading

Egypt detains 29 for allegedly spying for Turkey

WTO panel to hear Qatar’s complaint against UAE blockade

Three dead as diphtheria spreads in Yemen

Israel seizes explosive material at Gaza border

Activists call for release of UK journalist held by IS

Bahrain upholds jail sentence for activist

Iraq attacks at lowest since 2014

Turkey continues crackdown in post-coup probe

Hariri back in Lebanon

Putin to hold Syria peace talks with Erdogan, Rouhani

Lebanon's Hariri in Egypt ahead of return home

Rebels say Sanaa airport 'ready to run' after coalition bombing

Greece to amend historic sharia law for Muslim minority

Turkey to ask Germany to extradite top coup suspect

Car bomb in northern Iraq kills at least 24

13 million Syrians need aid despite relative drop in violence

Sudan urged to improve plight of Darfur's displaced people

Brain drain means Syria can’t recover for a generation

Palestinians close communication lines with Americans

Anti-IS coalition strikes drop to lowest number

German police arrest six Syrians ‘planning terror attack’

Palestinian factions in Cairo for reconciliation talks

Turkish opposition daily web editor sentenced to 3 years in jail

Israeli police arrest 33 in ultra-Orthodox draft riots

Turkish lira at new low against US dollar

Islamic republic declares end of Islamic State

Assad in Russia for talks with Putin

UN chief horrified by Libya slave auctions

Qatar 2022 chief has no regrets over hosting World Cup

Gheit says Lebanon should be 'spared' from regional tensions

Saudi Arabia, Arab allies push for unity against Iran, Hezbollah meddling

Syria ‘de-escalation zone’ does nothing to stop civilian deaths

Is a demilitarised Palestinian state a viable option?

S&P affirms good Saudi credit ratings

Israel president faces big backlash over Palestinian scarf

Sudan leader to visit Russia Thursday

Seven years into Libya’s civil war, the chaos continues