The annual meeting of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum – dubbed as “Russia’s Davos” – on May 25, which traditionally promotes foreign investment in the Russian economy, ended this time around as a major political event signaling a renewed bid by President Vladimir Putin for détente with the West.
In wide-ranging remarks at the forum, Putin made an explicit overture to Washington for dialogue. The US decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal was the leitmotif of the Q&A at St Petersburg – which are generally choreographed by the Kremlin in advance – and Putin seized the opportunity to articulate a highly nuanced position on the topic with an eye on the overall Russian-American relationship.
Unsurprisingly, Putin criticized the US’ rejection of the Iran nuclear deal as a unilateralist move which would have negative consequences. But then, Putin also expressed understanding for President Donald Trump’s domestic compulsion in taking such a decision.
Putin also proposed that the US and Iran, which had negotiated the 2015 pact directly, could resume their negotiations to settle the differences: “Even now, the US President is not closing the door on talks. He is saying that he is not happy about many of the terms of the deal. But in general, he is not ruling out an agreement with Iran. But it can only be a two-way street. Therefore, there is no need for unnecessary pressure if we want to preserve something. Doors must be left open for negotiation and for the final outcome. I think there are still grounds for hope.”
Putin probably sees Russia as a facilitator-cum-moderator between the US and Iran, but at any rate, he has deflected the focus from the EU’s approach, which single-mindedly focuses on the downstream impact of US sanctions against Iran. It is smart thinking on Putin’s part to signal that Moscow does not propose to wade into any transatlantic rift over the Iran issue. He probably doubts if the rift is real enough for outsiders to exploit.
Putin and the Iran nuclear deal
But the really intriguing part was that Putin also brought into the matrix the “good, trust-based relations between us (Russia and Israel).” Significantly, the interpolation occurred while Putin was arguing that the preservation of the Iran nuclear deal was also in Israel’s interests.
Neither Russia nor Israel has divulged the details of the recent meeting between Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Moscow in early May. But Israeli sources have since divulged in bits and pieces that a major understanding might have been reached as regards the imperative need for an holistic approach toward the whole situation surrounding the “Iran question,” including Iran’s presence in Syria, which Israel indeed sees as existential threat.
Interestingly, three days after Putin spoke at St Petersburg, an influential Moscow think tank came up with a commentary regarding the emergent trends in the Syrian situation. Basically, the commentary stressed that Russian policy was switching tack and giving primacy to the search for political settlement and reconstruction of Syria. But it went on to discuss the rising tensions between Iran and Israel in Syria and blamed Iran for using Syria for the “export” of its policy of Resistance against Israel.
Hinting at growing resentment within the Sunni majority in Syria against Iran’s activities, the commentary contextualized Putin’s recent call for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syrian soil. It openly rapped the Iranians on the knuckle: “Iran’s operations in Syria go far beyond fighting terrorists and are hardly welcomed by anyone within the region and beyond. This heightens tensions in Israel’s relations with its bitter rivals … Serving as a platform for fighting the ‘Zionist’ enemy is something Syria needs the least.”
Indeed, these are extraordinary statements for an establishment think tank known to be close to the Kremlin. The key elements were: a) Russia holds Iran as responsible for ratcheting up tensions with Israel; b) Russia thoroughly disapproves of Syria being turned into a turf for Iran’s policy of “Resistance” against Israel; and, c) Moscow expects the Assad regime to distance itself from Iran’s anti-Israeli activities.
The patent shift in the Russian stance implies Moscow’s acknowledgment that the fate of the Iran nuclear deal is also linked to Iran’s regional policies. Arguably, this Russian stance harmonizes with what Trump and Netanyahu have been saying all along. Perhaps, Russia hopes to cajole Tehran to walk toward the negotiating table where Trump is waiting. Perhaps, Putin also calculates that such a helpful stance cannot but have positive fallouts on US-Russia relations as a whole. Time will tell.
The bottom line is that the close ties between Russia and Israel are sailing into full view. Interestingly, Israel just obliged a famous Russian oligarch who is perceived as close to Putin, by granting him citizenship, which would enable him to visit Britain – although London refuses to renew his residence permit. The influential Kremlin-linked Russian oligarch now de facto becomes the wealthiest Israeli citizen, too.
Suffice to say, it all does seem a cozy condominium between Putin and Netanyahu. The big question will be how far Netanyahu can help Putin to bring about a Russian-American “thaw” under this complex set of circumstances.
This article was first published in the Asia Times on 1 June, 2018.
M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for 29 years.