THE FOREIGN MINISTERS of Russia, Turkey and Iran and members of their delegations attend a meeting in Moscow in 2016..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With the winding down of the war in Syria, some pundits have seen an alliance of Russia with Turkey and Iran in the Middle East as possible and even likely. They see a rising authoritarian Russia and Iran uniting with an authoritarian Turkey to dominate the Middle East.
This prospect makes two major countries and one alliance most unhappy. The first country, of course, is the United States, which dominated the Middle East for several decades. It is unhappy at the rise of radical Islamist Iran, the revival of a Russia defeated by the American superpower in the Cold War and withdrawal of Turkey from its key role in American-sponsored NATO.
Then there is Israel, which has the strongest military in the Middle East, the best high-tech and is the only democracy in the region. It is unhappy at the prospect of Russia uniting with formerly friendly Turkey and a hostile Iran to create a Shi’ite arc in the region. Even worse, tiny Israel faces the prospect of being half encircled by a series of enemies reinforced by a major power like Russia and middle-ranking powers like Iran and Turkey.
Finally there are the Sunni enemies of Iran. They do not see Iran as an ally but a deadly enemy. Saudi Arabia, one of their leaders, sees the Islamic Republic of Iran as its biggest enemy. It just agreed to buy three billion dollars of weapons from Russia. Similarly the Egyptians remember Russia fondly as the supplier of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Egypt from 1955 to 1977.
The Russians will not feel comfortable with the Turks, whom they fought in a dozen wars over several centuries, and with the Persian Empire armies whom they defeated four times in the past two centuries. The Persian empire and Ottoman Turkish empire were the main regional enemies of Czarist Russia. For its part, Turkey is unlikely to give up its special role in NATO.
The Russians would not necessarily see the enemies of Iran and Turkey as their enemies. Indeed, Russia, even during the Soviet phase, had shifting attitudes toward Israel. In 1947 the votes of Russia and its Eastern European satellites were vital to the vote on Israeli independence. The early leaders of Israel were Russian Jews, such as David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir. Zionism and socialism, personified by the Labor Party, were created in Czarist Russia in the late 19th century. Over a million Russian Jews moved to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Only in Israel could the defense minister be a man who was born and grew up in the Soviet Union – Avigdor Liberman. When I was in Moscow at the Russian Foreign Ministry I asked a diplomat where they would like to be posted after Washington. He said, “Israel of course.”
Furthermore, President Vladimir Putin is the first Russian ruler since Lenin who has been philo-Semitic. Putin has visited Israel twice while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Russia six times in little over two years. As a youth in Saint Petersburg he was close to his Jewish wrestling coach and his high school teacher. When Putin visited Israel in 2005 and found out how poor his former teacher was, he bought her a condo. He allowed a new Jewish Museum in Moscow and even asked Russian Jews to return to Russia. He talks regularly with Netanyahu and the Russian chief rabbi in Moscow. Even many of his oligarchs are Jews.
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Israel is a major military power, in the top 10 in the world and No. 1 in the Middle East. It reportedly has 80-100 atomic bombs that can be delivered by air, sea and land. It also has one of the world’s top five intelligence agencies. Furthermore, these days working with Israelis brings along a raft of Sunni states – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and the people without a state – the Kurds.
Thus, for many reasons this Russian, Iran and Turkish alliance is possible but not probable.
The author is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver
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