Israel Watches Warily as Russia, Iran Build Stronger Ties

Israel is clearly concerned that Russia’s criticism could move from rhetoric to action.

By David Isaac | | Topics: Iran, Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Yerevan, Armenia, to take part in the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council on Oct. 1, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Yerevan, Armenia, to take part in the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council on Oct. 1, 2019. Photo: Gevorg Ghazaryan/Shutterstock

Underscoring the warming ties between the two countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Iran on Tuesday. This was the third time since the start of the year that Putin has met with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi. Israel is closely watching the strengthening Russian-Iranian alliance.

“We really don’t know what the actual results of the meeting were, whether they signed something in the way of a real alliance,” said Zvi Magen, senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

“We know what they said and what they intended by the meeting. Iran and Russia have a mutual interest in presenting a united front against the West, specifically against the United States, especially as President Biden was just in the region,” he told JNS. “They were presenting a counter-alliance to the one led by the United States against Iran. Whether it includes Russian military obligations, we don’t know.”

Israel is clearly worried about the direction of Russian diplomacy in the region. During a Cabinet meeting earlier this week, former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned that Israel should take care not to neglect its relations with Russia.

“Israel has been very careful throughout the war with Ukraine. It hasn’t supplied Ukraine with weapons. It hasn’t taken part in sanctions against Russia,” said Magen, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine (1993-1997) and Israel’s ambassador to Russia (1998-1999).

He said that what Bennett was referring to in his comments was his concern that Russia could become more aggressive toward Israel and move from rhetoric to action.

“Russia’s criticism of Israel has remained on the rhetorical level, but that could change,” he said. “Russia could take practical action, like selling advanced weapons to Israel’s enemies in the region, or making trouble for Israel in Syria and Lebanon.”

Until now, Russia has quietly accepted Israeli sorties against Iranian targets in Syria, and this too could change, he noted. At this week’s meeting, Russia and Iran did sign a statement condemning Israel for its activities in Syria. However, this will have no practical effect and Israel can continue to operate at will over the skies of Syria.

See related: Russia Tells Israel to Stop Bombing Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who participated in the meeting between Putin and Raisi, joined the declaration condemning Israel, an action which appeared to contradict his recent efforts at rapprochement with the Jewish state, and the West as a whole.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told JNS it would be a mistake to read too much into Turkey’s participation in the statement.

“It will not have any effect on the current Turkish-Israeli reconciliation,” he said.

Turkey’s main concern is countering Kurdish rebel groups based in northern Syria, he said, and it was seeking support for an operation it intends to carry out against those groups.

“From the Turkish point of view, this was the most important objective, and if the Iranians would like to condemn Israeli airstrikes in Syria, let them condemn them,” said Yanarocak. “Turkey wanted to get something concrete from this summit and if you would like to get something concrete, you also have to satisfy the needs of the others. So its signing onto such a statement shouldn’t surprise anyone.”

Iran opposes Turkish incursion into Syria, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly warned Erdoğan against an operation at the meeting. Nevertheless, Yanarocak said that the Turkish press described the meeting as a “diplomatic victory.”

“The press presented it as if Russia and Iran recognized the need to clean northern Syria from terrorist elements, meaning a reluctant support for the Turkish operation,” he said. “We should not be surprised if in the very near future we’re going to see a Turkish operation in northern Syria.”

As far as Israel is concerned, such an operation doesn’t impact its interests.

“It doesn’t matter to Israel. The area is located in the north. In previous operations, Israel condemned Turkish extraterritorial operations but I don’t think it will take a critical line this time,” he said.

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