Current Russian foreign policy in the Middle East can be described in terms of both continuity and novelty. As was the case in the previous years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the Middle East does not rank high on the scale of Russia’s foreign-policy priorities. However in certain aspects, notably on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, Moscow’s activity has visibly grown.
Russia is integrating the development of relations with traditional partners with the expansion of contacts with new ones. When it comes to addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Moscow continues to operate within the framework of the Quartet, but is as yet unable to bear the burden of promoting its own initiatives. Thus, although it advanced the concept of a new international conference on the Middle East, it failed to undertakeserious action aimed at convincing other players to support it. Moreover, Putin made it clear that Russia would not insist on this.
Perhaps the idea of a meeting of representatives of all the national forces of Iraq, including those in opposition and with the participation of the neighboring states in order to reach accord in that country, is being promoted with greater vigor. But here, the United States’ Interest in getting Russia involved in the effort to improve the situation in Iraqis playing a role. However, Washington would like Russia to send its military contingents to Iraq, while Moscow continues to believe that the Iraqi problem has no military solution no matter what strategy the US adopts. Nor is it likely that Russian troops will join the Nato contingent in Afghanistan, though in that domain Russia is constructively cooperating with the alliance in combating terrorism and drug trafficking.
In setting its guidelines and the nature of its activity in the Middle East, Russia proceeds from the principles of its new vision of foreign policy. This involves in particular the primacy of collective action and priority focus on so-called network diplomacy, meaning the formation of ad hoc groups created for resolving specific political tasks. These groupsare not closed blocs or alliances (like Nato) and often cut across and supplement each other. They include the Group of Eight, the Quartet, the ‘Six’ who have just scored a spectacular success with the North Korean problem and so forth. The Russian political elite takes a skeptical view with regard to the American idea of a Greater Middle East. Nevertheless, Moscow has accepted that concept as one of the areas of G-8 activity.
This adherence to collective action is it under the United Nations or through network diplomacy, does not rule out independent action by Moscow in keeping with its national interests–though without violating its international commitments or commitments to its main global partners. As examples of such actions one may cite the ongoing contacts with Hamas and defensive arms deliveries to Iran and Syria.
Moscow believes that contacts with Hamas are conducive to a positive evolution in the policies adopted by this organization, which is influential among the Palestinian Arabs. While such contacts are viewed within the context of Russia’s activity in the Quartet, simultaneously they fall in the mainstream of Moscow’s ‘new Islamic policy.’ Russia does not want to be drawn into the present confrontation between the West and the Islamic world and, while positioning itself as a European state, at the same time it emphasizes its ‘Eurasian’ character and the multi-confessional make-up of its population, 10-15 percent of which are Muslims. Russia’s membership in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, its recent Feb. 15 entry into the Organization for Education, Science and Culture of the Islamic countries, and the activity of such bodies as the Strategic Vision Group ‘Russia-the Islamic world’ all reflect not only foreign-policy goals but also internal policy goals.
Here one may also cite Putin’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan. The visit undoubtedly had an ‘Islamic’ dimension (significantly, during the visit, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia awarded the King Faisal Prize to Republic of Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev for his services to Islam). Its political significance far exceeds its economic importance. Nonetheless, Russia will keep on tackling such tasks as entry to the weapons markets of the Persian Gulf, the securing of contracts in high-tech spheres (space, infrastructure facilities and so on), closer energy cooperation and attracting investment. In the future, Russia will no doubt cooperate with Arab countries in the realm of nuclear energy.
As for the Iranian nuclear program, Russia, like other regional and global powers, is not interested in that country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. It recognizes Iran’s right to obtain and develop nuclear technologies, but believes that for this to happen it is necessary to clarify the issues connected to the fact that for 18 years Tehran conducted research and development work outside the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). At the same time, Moscow opposes the abuse of Iran?s nuclear program as an instrument of pressure and intrusion in its domestic affairs. Russia deems the construction of an atomic power plant in Bushehr a separate question, making allowance for the fact that it is being carried out under IAEA supervision and that Moscow will stringently ensure the return of used nuclear fuel.
Russia proceeds from the assumption that Iran would now be well advised to pause and settle all issues by negotiation. This, according to the official position, is possible. But unofficially, in expert circles, pessimism is expressed regarding both the possibility of a constructive solution to the Iranian nuclear problem and the fate of non-proliferationin general.
Vitaly Naumkin is president of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic andPolitical Studies, editor-in-chief of Vostok-Oriens of the Russian Academyof Sciences and chair of the political science department at Moscow State University. This commentary was first published at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.