Iran-Russia-Israel love triangle trembles under Ukraine tensions

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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s relationship with his closest superpower ally, Vladimir Putin, has been going through a complicated patch. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has also struggled to retain Russian affections while not burning his bridges with NATO states.

It was recently reported that Tehran’s paramilitary allies in Iraq were sending large quantities of weapons to help Russian troops struggling in Ukraine. A Hashd Al-Shaabi commander said RPGs, anti-tank missiles and rocket-launcher systems had crossed the border point he controlled on their way to Russia. “Whatever is anti-US makes us happy,” he said.

This elicited a predictably animated response from Ukraine, compelling Tehran to deny the story. Nevertheless, Iran’s puppet in Damascus is forging ahead with the deployment of thousands of Syrian mercenaries in the Ukraine conflict, including some from elite regime divisions. Meanwhile, Iran recently arrested an Afghan politician and accused him of exploiting Iranian territory to recruit fighters for Ukraine.

A major reason for Tehran’s discomfort is the outpouring of sympathy for Ukraine among ordinary Iranians. Decades of empty rhetoric about standing up for oppressed and occupied peoples is returning to haunt the ayatollahs. As one mother from the regime’s working-class Tehran heartlands put it: “A bullying power is killing children and women in Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s ambassador to Tehran has welcomed this solidarity. “When I travel by car carrying the Ukraine flag and we stop in the street, the public sometimes shout and gesture their support for the eventual victory of Ukraine,” he said. However, he added ruefully: “I have never seen any support from the Islamic Republic itself.”

A jealous Khamenei must live with the fact that Iran invariably comes second behind Israel in Moscow’s affections. It galls the ayatollahs that Putin lets Israel bomb Iranian positions in Syria, while Bennett and his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu have been feted in Moscow. Israel is home to the world’s largest number of Russian Jews, comprising 15 percent of the Israeli population, and the two countries habitually characterize each other as “fraternal” states — even “neighbors,” given Russia’s presence in Syria. If a wider Israel-Iran conflagration ever broke out, it’s obvious whose side Putin would take.

However, just as with Iran, the Ukraine conflict has massively complicated Israel’s relationship with Russia. Obviously, occupying and oppressing a sovereign people and grabbing their land is business as usual for Israel, but they nevertheless came under massive Western pressure to align with NATO. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reduced parliaments elsewhere to tears, but after addressing the Knesset he was curtly told: “How dare you compare your suffering to how much we have endured!” While the US hurls charges of genocide and war crimes at Moscow, Israel demurs from offending Russia.

Israel has sought to remain in the Kremlin’s favor by not sending weapons to Ukraine or participating in sanctions, but still receives snarky diplomatic missives from Moscow that it isn’t showing enough love to Mother Russia. When Israel intimated that it could send helmets to Kyiv, Russia’s Ambassador in Tel Aviv warned that Moscow would respond “accordingly,” and accused Israel of trying to distract attention from its Jerusalem crackdown.

Capitalizing on these tensions, an Iranian trade delegation visited Moscow last week and signed off on a promise to increase annual trade to $10 billion, along with the prospect of Russia selling Tehran increasingly advanced weapons.

Iran, Israel and Russia profit from each other’s destabilizing actions, with the Ukraine conflict doing little to deter Tel Aviv and Tehran from competing to solicit Putin’s affections.

Baria Alamuddin

With Russia weakened, the ayatollahs fear losing their main cheerleader at the UN Security Council. As analyst Mohanad Hage Ali from the Carnegie Middle East Center noted: “If the Putin regime is destabilized, that has huge implications for Iran, particularly in Syria.”

Yet Iran and Russia’s status as fellow pariah states seeking to evade global sanctions is a feeble starting point for a beautiful relationship. Moscow and Beijing fear the spread of Islamist militancy throughout Central Asia, and have most to lose from Iran becoming a belligerent North Korea-style nuclear-armed basketcase theocracy on their doorstep.

Likewise, Turkey’s complex relationship with Russia has become even more convoluted, given its NATO membership and close ties with Ukraine, a maritime neighbor. Turkey has obstructed Russian Black Sea shipping and closed its airspace to Russian planes flying from Syria, to stem the flow of mercenaries. It remains to be seen how Moscow will respond to this recent recipient of Russian weapons systems.

While Iran sees Syria as a bridgehead for its deranged wars against the civilized world, Russia wants Syria stabilized so that it can make returns on its massive investments. Iran’s region-wide destabilization limits Russia’s aspirations to become a regional power, while damaging relations with Gulf states.

In sabotaging recent progress on the nuclear deal, aiming to discountenance the West, Putin scarcely considered Iranian strategic interests — leading to a bout of Russia-bashing from reformist segments of the Iranian media.

The US appears strangely oblivious to the fortuitous implications of Russian isolation weakening Iran. American signals that it could countenance the Revolutionary Guard’s terrorism delisting have emboldened Iran to push for slashing other anti-terrorism sanctions. Russia’s exodus from Syria skewers Assad and Khamenei’s ambitions for bloodily wresting back Idlib and eastern Syria, thus banishing Tehran’s hopes for consolidating these territories within its corridor of control through to the Mediterranean.

If the West realizes its goal that “Putin cannot be seen to win in Ukraine,” this sends a message to predatory occupying states elsewhere that disregard for international law cannot be allowed to stand.

In Mariupol, courageous Ukrainians are fighting to the last man — and woman — to defend every inch of territory. Their fight is the same as that of Lebanese, Iraqis, Palestinians and Syrians in resisting tyranny, occupation and foreign domination.

In their bizarre three-way marriage of convenience, the planet’s three principal occupying powers — Iran, Israel and Russia — profit from each other’s destabilizing actions, with the Ukraine conflict doing little to deter Tel Aviv and Tehran from competing to solicit Putin’s affections. The world’s increasing willingness to act on the side of justice, freedom and national sovereignty may have the paradoxical effect of welding these belligerent pariah states even closer together.

By: Baria Alamuddin – an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.

Source: Arab News

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