It is worthwhile to examine the possibility of a US-Russian “understanding” on the security of the Gulf. The reason is that Russia has a considerable influence in Tehran, and the US has influence in the GCC countries. If the two major powers use their relations to reach a regional reconciliation, and if they play a role to devise a security consensus between the two banks of the Gulf, a major source of upheaval, violence and terrorism in the Middle East would have been closed.
GCC-Russian ties have improved in recent years despite many areas of contention. The fact that Iran is the major source of external threats to GCC countries, while Russia is the closest ally to Tehran did not lead to a deterioration in GCC-Russian ties. Neither did the Syrian crisis, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s steady expansion in Iraq, its intervention in Yemen and the nuclear deal.
This may be the result of an Arab cautious policy to avoid gaining enemies while confronting Iran’s intervention. It may also be due to a willingness in the part of the GCC to keep their channels open with a country that has leverage over the other side, in case of a direct conflict with Iran or in case of negotiations. Russia, in its turn understands that the GCC has turned to a regional power capable of shaping events in the Middle East and considered a leading player in that region.
Whatever the reasons are, we see frequent and friendly exchanges of visits between Russian and GCC officials. However, the calculus in Moscow seems simple: In its game of retrieving what it deems as its proper place in the current world order, there is little realistic hope that the GCC will abandon the West and go East instead. The ceiling for the Kremlin, in the GCC, is differently set than the case of Iran or Syria. It is relatively low in any strategic sense. Ties between the West and the Arab Gulf states are almost unbreakable.
In a way, what we see now in the role of Russia in Iran is reminiscent, however muted, to the role of the USSR in Egypt during the 60’s. But the comparison is not fair to history in many senses-Iran is not Arab-the present era is not the era of rising Arab nationalism-Iran is seen as a non-Arab, non-Sunni force, and many other factors. But in both cases, Moscow did not play a role to restrain its allies in Tehran in their regional moves.
Will Moscow do it differently now?
There are many lessons that can be learned from history, and there are also many differences between the past and the present that should be examined in terms of their impact on the growing ties between the Gulf Arabs and Russia.
The US has changed, in its regard to Russia, from the times of Afghanistan’s Russian invasion to the times of Ukrainian Russian intervention. Even in the post-Cold War era, the US is changing due to internal factors. No sane American, politician or not, envisions now a reparation of something like the invasion of Iraq.
Russia is also changing. It does not have the same ideology, economic outreach, military might and global ties, like the USSR. That also goes for the GCC countries. Just a decade ago, few were talking about economic and political reforms and the growth of military capabilities and regional influence now is not the same neither.
Since 2011, Russian-GCC relations matured remarkably. Foreign Ministers of the two sides held regular rounds of talks centered on common concerns like terrorism, regional stability, trade, and oil.
Now, the picture looks a bit complicated: Iran is expanding in Iraq after the US invasion, in Yemen to the extent of toppling the legitimate government, in Syria due to the civil war, in Lebanon through supporting Hezbollah and blocking the functions of the central government when it sees fit, and by assisting sectarian allies within the GCC.
This pushed the Arabs to react. The Shia Crescent of Iran was fast turning into a Shia full moon. The conflict greatly contributed to the deterioration of the security environment, and was one factor in the rise of radicalism and terrorism. When the cry of a sectarian war is echoed everywhere in the region, people grab their religious identity and go to fight. Naturally, radical religious groups flourish in that environment in both sides.
Religious identity should contribute to human ethics. However, in conditions of sectarian conflicts they turn into a positive force that seeks to annihilate the other or subjugate him. It is a force that is deformed by fanatics into an instigator of hatred, backwardness and violence.
In order to end this wave of destructive and fanatic religious self-identification, which by its rise, terrorism rises as well, good relations should be established between the Iran and the Arabs.
The main spot of meeting between the US and Russia is fighting terrorism. But so far, fighting terrorism has always been interpreted in military strikes-Mother of All Bombs compared to Father of All Bombs. While it is time for both parents to get back together, understanding the mission in “bombs” is way short of a real fight.
Diplomacy, reform of religious interpretations, dialogue, economic development and allowing free internal debate without fear and restrictions, should all be part of the arsenal, side by side with both Mother and Father Bombs.
As much as regional strategic competition is the antithesis of stability and peace, the Russian-American global competition is destructive in terms of global security and regional stability. If it is difficult to start talking about the “whole” with the Russians, the two major powers should open a dialogue seeking to find ways to pacify the Middle East.
During the Cold War, it was not impossible to reach regional deals between Russia and America to enhance security in Europe. It should be easier now, with the ties Russia have to both sides of the Gulf, and with the US overall leading role, to reach a deal between Iran and the GCC.
The Trump administration started already pressuring Iran to leash the IRGC. This is a very positive step. In fact, this step ultimately helps Russia so far as it aims at lowering the ceiling of the IRGC interventionism, hence defusing one major source of terrorism in the Middle East.
Success of US-Russian coordination to stabilize the Middle East will encourage both powers to move to a higher level-that of the “whole”, or the global order. But to succeed in the Middle East, the two sides should focus on restudying experiences accumulated during the Cold War on the European theatre and their most recent joint effort to reach the nuclear deal.
April, 27 2017