Missile deal between Russia and Iran challenges US influence in Mideast

The US has taken more of a background role in the conflicts spreading across the region and Russia seems willing to fill that vacuum.

April 15, 2015 09:37
2 minute read.
Rouhani Putin

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (photo credit: REUTERS)

As the US seeks to minimize its involvement in the chaos and instability of the Middle East, Russia is seeking to fill any vacuum it can.

The US has taken more of a background role in the conflicts spreading across the region, providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, conducting air raids against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and staying out of the civil war in Libya. In all cases, the Obama administration is being careful not to get too involved or commit to troops on the ground.

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The news on Monday that Russia was paving the way to resume missile system deliveries to Iran and starting an oil-for-goods swap signaled that Moscow may have a head start in the race to benefit from an eventual lifting of sanctions on Tehran. The sanctions relief is part of an interim deal world powers reached with Iran this month on curbing its nuclear program.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ending a self-imposed ban on delivering the S-300 anti-missile rocket system to Iran, removing a major irritant between the two countries after Moscow canceled a corresponding contract in 2010 under pressure from the West and Israel.

The move by Russia to quickly insert itself after the nuclear framework agreement could also be a way for it to gain leverage in negotiations in other areas with the West - such as over the standoff in Ukraine. That could mean the announcement is an attempt at gamesmanship - not a real effort to deliver the air defense system to Tehran.

“I wouldn’t say Russians are trying to fill any void left by the US, on the contrary, they are drawn to competition with the US over influence in the region, and specifically over ‘special relations’ with Iran,” Yuri Teper, a Russian expert and postdoctoral fellow at The University of Manchester told The Jerusalem Post.

Teper, who is also a fellow at the Israeli Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said that after the recent American effort at rapprochement with Iran, the Russian government sees no reason to restrain its relationship with the Shi’ite country since “their main adversary is running headlong into Iranian arms.”

“Americans are making Iran ‘kosher’ to do business with, so why should the Russians – who see themselves as Iran’s traditional ally – be more righteous than the Pope?” Furthermore, said Teper, the Russians perceive that “they must increase their support for Iran in order to stay in the game – in order to not lose their influence or to at least keep up with the US and maintain the status quo.”

“Iran has managed the political situation brilliantly,” he said, “as instead of being pressured, it is being courted by two competing powers.”

Another factor that may be motivating Putin, speculated Teper, is the Moscow’s displeasure with the possibility of Iran’s reintegration back into world oil markets, which would make it a competitor in the European gas market at a time when relations are tense over the standoff in Ukraine.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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