How long can Putin dance with both Riyadh and Tehran?

November 12, 2017

Unlike US President Donald Trump, who openly shares Saudi Arabia’s hos­tility towards Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to avoid taking sides in the growing Saudi-Iranian dispute.

Indeed, the recent meeting between Putin and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Moscow was quickly followed by Putin’s visit to Tehran, where he met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Presi­dent Hassan Rohani.

Russia clearly is seeking good relations with both countries despite their antagonism towards each other.

What is Putin’s objective? The most basic answer is that Russia values and needs cooperation with both Tehran and Riyadh. In Syria, Russia and Iran are very much co-dependent on each other in their effort to prop up the Assad regime and defeat its opponents. Moscow needs Iran and its Shia militia allies to supply the ground forces that Russia does not want to deploy to Syria just as much as Tehran needs Russia’s capable combat air support.

At the same time, Saudi-Russian cooperation in restraining oil production is crucial for meeting Putin’s need to prop up oil prices to support Russia’s stagnant econ­omy. Putin is heavily dependent on petroleum exports for funding his ambitious arms build-up plans and for helping him maintain internal stability. Putin hopes to increase Russian exports to and investment from Saudi Arabia to alleviate the economic pressure Moscow faces because of Western economic sanctions related to his policies towards Ukraine.

In other words, Putin is seeking good relations with both Tehran and Riyadh at the same time be­cause Russia needs them. Saudi- Iranian mutual hostility provides certain opportunities for Moscow. While neither Riyadh nor Tehran appreciates Moscow’s cooperating with the other, Putin understands that their mutual antagonism is so great that neither can afford not to cooperate with Moscow. If anything, Saudi-Iranian hostil­ity motivates both Riyadh and Tehran to increase cooperation with Moscow to project the image that Russia really is on their side — a competition that Putin is most willing to exploit.

Having good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran gives Putin an advantage over the United States. He understands that Wash­ington’s ability to talk with both Arabs and Israelis after the Soviet Union broke diplomatic ties with Israel in 1967 enabled Washington to dominate the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and exclude Moscow from a meaningful role in them.

However, Moscow’s ability to talk with both Riyadh and Tehran while the Trump administration is pursuing a hostile policy towards Iran may allow Putin to dominate any Saudi-Iranian effort to reduce their mutual tensions as well as exclude Washington from any such process.

Of course, being able to talk with both sides in a dispute is no guarantee that a third party can reduce tensions between them. Still, just being able to do so can help Putin build his image as a responsible statesman who is genuinely seeking conflict resolu­tion, in contrast to US President Donald Trump.

Being seen as promoting Saudi- Iranian conflict resolution as well as Saudi-Qatari, Israeli-Palestinian and other Middle Eastern con­flict resolution efforts is helpful in ensuring that Middle Eastern governments do not support West­ern economic sanctions against Russia.

Putin’s aim, though, is not to resolve the Saudi-Iranian con­flict but to keep it manageable so Russia can continue and even increase its cooperation with both countries. Indeed, in addition to viewing it as not actually possible, Putin may see resolving the Saudi- Iranian conflict as undesirable be­cause it is very difficult to imagine genuine Saudi-Iranian reconcilia­tion occurring without an Iranian- American one also occurring.

There is, of course, very little risk of this taking place so long as Trump is US president. A danger for Putin is that Saudi-Iranian hostility escalates into direct conflict throughout the region. If this occurred, Washington would undoubtedly support Riyadh, thus confronting Putin with the choice of either siding with Iran or stay­ing out of the conflict. Preventing Saudi-Iranian hostility from es­calating, then, is crucial for Putin but it may be beyond his capacity.

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