Iran and the Principle of Balance and Containment in Russia's Middle East Policy

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Alireza Noori
Ph.D. Student, Saint Petersburg State University & Expert on Russian Affairs

Although Russia is very much different from its Soviet predecessor and its current assets do not allow for all-out competition or rivalry with the West, the issue of maintaining the “balance” is still important to it from the viewpoint of both security and identity. Russia's seriousness about this principle can be seen in the hard way that Moscow has taken to counter eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), deployment of the United States’ anti-missile shield in Europe, Washington’s encroachment on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CSI), and West’s expansionist policies in the Middle East. The most important goals of this approach include maintaining Russia's position as a “big power,” preventing the balance of powers from tilting toward the West in international arrangements, and bolstering Russia's geopolitical advantages. However, balance-making is not solely limited to large-scale relations with the West and Moscow has put this necessity on its agenda, of course, on a lower level, when regulating its relations in other regions, including in the Middle East.

When it comes to this issue, the United States follows a clear policy of supporting its allies and putting pressure on those political forces that are not in line with its policies. At the same time, it has drawn clear lines for interaction with such incongruous allies as Israel, Turkey and Arab states. Russia, on the one hand, lacks such a pattern in its foreign policy, while on the other hand, existence of diverse and conflicting interests in the Middle East does not allow it to use this policy. It is evident that maintaining interests by keeping a balance between such incongruous binaries as Israel – Syria, Turkey – Syria, Arabs – Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas vs. Israel, Iran – Israel, Iran –Arabs, and Arabs – Israel, and also between such conflicting issues as hard geopolitical considerations and relations with Syria and Iran, on the one hand, as opposed to politico-economic interests and interaction with Turkey and Arab states, on the other hand, is not easy. Lack of strategy, inefficiency of tools used by Russia, and lack of diplomatic finesse on the part of Moscow have been added to its existing woes and reduced the maneuvering room of Russia.

Moscow’s solution to this problem is pragmatism and a multi-vector policy, which as Kremlin believes, will help Russia better than any other approach to meet its interests in the face of these heterogeneous mixtures of actors. Therefore, while making a subjective differentiation among various issues, Russia has established a certain level of relations with “all sides,” and by vacillating among those sides, on the one hand, and between its political position and possibility of goals, on the other hand, has been trying to boost its bargaining power in the face of the West. In other words, this approach not only makes it possible for Moscow to maneuver among such incongruous actors as Iran, Syria, Arabs, Turkey, and Israel, but will also provide it with an opportunity to maintain geopolitical advantages in relations with its allies, on the one hand, while meeting its economic and political interests in interaction with the allies of the West, on the other.

Therefore, due to advantages that this principle offers Russia, disruption in its enforcement, whether by allies of the West, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey (through pressure on Russia's relations with Syria and Iran), or on the contrary, by Russia's own allies in the region (through pressure by Tehran and Damascus on Russia's relations with Israel and Arabs) would not be acceptable for Kremlin. Although Russia's multi-vector policy has been disrupted to some extent at certain junctures, including as a function of the Syria challenge, Moscow is still committed to its continuation. On this basis, even at the height of tensions in the Middle East, Russia has kept the door open to both covert and over talks and cooperation with “all sides.” For this reason, Moscow has acted cautiously when developing relations with Iran and has avoided being accused of supporting the so-called “Shia Crescent” against the so-called “Arab-Islamic” (Sunni) coalition.

With this consideration in mind, Russia, similar to the United States, believes in the necessity of the existence of balance among Middle Eastern powers in such a way that none of them would become powerful in an “uncalculated manner” as a result of which it would be able to have a negative effect on regional balance. To prevent any challenge to face its hegemonic domination over the ongoing trends in this region, the United States puts emphasis on balance, while Russia considers such a balance necessary through a different logic and in order to prevent its multi-vector policy from coming to harm while protecting its diverse interests in the region. According to the Russian equation, strengthening of the West’s allies would harm its geopolitical interests. On the opposite, any uncalculated help to Russia's allies, including Iran, that would increase their power, would damage Moscow’s political and economic relations with Arabs, Israel and Turkey.

From this viewpoint, Moscow like Washington believes in the principle of “containment” in the region, including with regard to Tehran. This is true because Russia is well aware of Iran’s regional ambitions and its determination to become the topmost power in the region. It also knows that in case of uncalculated increase in its power, Iran would take steps not only to increase its influence in the Middle East, but also its clout in Central Asia, South Caucasus and the Caspian region. This is an issue over which Moscow has been worried since “past” years. It goes without saying that at the present juncture, the principle of “containment” is not considered to its full extent, but when needed, Moscow will put this principle in gears by controlling the level of its relations with Iran. It would be logical to say that Russia will even welcome a “certain level” of tension in Tehran’s relations with the regional allies of the West, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, because this will be an effective way to pit these political forces against one another, contain them indirectly, and maintain the balance in regional power.

Interaction with the United States, however, is a better solution for the realization of these goals. Officials at Kremlin are well aware that it is only in this way that they would be able to come up with a better model for handing out shares, and while solving part of their problems with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, make sure about balance and containment in their relations with Iran. Shaping such a model in which Russia would be able to bargain with the United States over strategic issues related to the “balance” as a “big power” and “an equal side,” has been among the most important goals of this country’s foreign policy. Although achieving this goal did not seem impossible for Moscow up to a while ago, the self-confidence that Moscow has gained through “the notion of successful performance” in Syria has created a positive feeling in this regard at Kremlin.

Therefore, in order to avoid a “transitory approach” to this issue and look at it from a large-scale viewpoint, this article argues that Russia shares the same viewpoint with the United States on the necessity of creating a balance between Iran and other regional powers in the Middle East and also about the principle of “containment” of Tehran (though through a logic different from that of the United States). Moscow also agrees with Martin Indyk, the mastermind of the “dual containment” strategy against Iran, that helping Iran in a way that would lead to uncalculated increase in its regional power would not be to Moscow’s benefit. Russia's commitment to the principle of balance and containment with regard to Iran is another reason, which proves that relations between Tehran and Moscow are not possible to become “strategic” in nature. This is true because “strategic” interaction is only possible under relatively equal conditions for both sides while Russia practically looks at Iran only as a “smaller ally.”

Key WordsIran, Balance, Containment, Russia, Middle East Policy, Conflicting Interests, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Arabs, Hezbollah, Hamas, Pragmatism, Multi-Vector Policy, Martin Indyk, Strategic Interaction, Smaller Ally, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

*Tactical and Geopolitical Interaction between Iran and Russia in Syria:

*Bolstering Russia’s Military Interaction with Syria: Necessities and Considerations:

*Iran's Nuclear Deal, a “Desirable” Option for Russia:

*Photo Credit: Now the End Begins, Sputnik News