While Russia has recently been improving its relationship with Iran, there are no signs that Russia will decisively side in the favor of Tehran if Iran’s confrontation with Saudi Arabia intensifies.
An Iranian woman holds up a poster showing Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent opposition Saudi Shiite cleric who was executed by Saudi Arabia in early January, in Tehran, Iran. Photo: AP
Russia has taken a cautious stance amidst heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, even though it seems that relations with Riyadh have deteriorated over Syria while cooperation with Tehran is developing quickly.
However, Moscow did not support either party and only stated that it was "seriously concerned" by the escalation of the situation involving major players in the region. The Russian Foreign Ministry urged all Gulf countries to exercise restraint and avoid any actions that could increase the tensions, "including interdenominational issues."
Moreover, Russia criticized Iran for allowing attacks on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran and its Consulate in Mashhad. The statement of Russia's Foreign Ministry emphasizes that, "Under no circumstances shall attacks on foreign diplomatic missions be considered a legitimate means of protest and a way of expressing political beliefs."
It is quite remarkable that the Russian authorities did not comment on the execution of Shia preacher Nimr al-Nimr in spite of it being widely criticized in the West. This reluctance on behalf of the Russian government can be interpreted as the desire to avoid further complications of already strained relations with Saudi Arabia.
Moscow does not need any more problems
After the execution of al-Nimr, some Russian observers were quick to claim that a serious crisis (and better yet, a war) in the Persian Gulf would benefit the Kremlin because it would drive oil prices up. Therefore, Moscow should welcome the escalation.
However, such a scenario would realistically cause more problems than it would solve. Any economic advantages would be short-lived, with other exporters quickly making up for the possible decline in production and bringing prices back to the current level. Moreover, the Kremlin's political plans for the region would be in jeopardy.
Russia is already involved in two conflicts with uncertain outcomes in Ukraine and Syria. While there is no quick way of ending the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow sees the Syrian conflict as a tool for improving its relations with the West and believes that since the issue cannot be resolved without Moscow, the U.S. and its allies will have to deal with Russia. However, the Syrian puzzle cannot be solved without a compromise between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which means that Moscow is not interested in new altercations between Riyadh and Tehran.
Russia is not a true ally of Iran
It is also too early to speak of a possible deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations due to the new tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Formally, Moscow is now in the Shia camp because of its support of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, who is friendly towards Iran, while the U.S. positions itself as an ally and a guarantor of Saudi security. It appears that confrontation is quite possible, but in reality Moscow is not strategically allied with Tehran.
True, during the negotiations on Iran's nuclear problem, Russia played the part of a "good policeman," and currently Moscow and Tehran see eye-to-eye on a number of issues (first and foremost, on Syria), but it is an alliance of convenience. The economic ties also leave a lot to be desired. Tehran is definitely interested in Russian weapons and nuclear technologies, but Europe with its financial opportunities and technologies is a lot more important. So, the Kremlin will not go out of its way to defend Iran, especially since that could lead to a further deterioration of its relations with the West.
Even if we imagine the worst-case scenario — a military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran — we should not expect Russia to interfere. Suffice it to recall the details of the 1980s war between Iran and Iraq. At that time, Soviet leaders preferred to stay out of the conflict, but made money by supplying weapons to both parties.
There will be no war
Still, there is no reason to contemplate an actual war in the Persian Gulf. Theoretically, Saudi Arabia could attack first because Riyadh is afraid of Tehran, not the other way around, but that would only happen if the Saudis had serious reasons to be concerned. They have the technical ability to conduct a massive air strike, but they cannot defeat Iran on the ground. Another factor that should be taken into account is imminent retaliation executed either directly or through armed groups that are loyal to Iran.
Tehran also does not need a real war. Iran is now trying to restore its relations with the West in order to modernize its economy. Its armed forces are not ready for a full-fledged war. Previously, Iranians were building containment potential, predominantly by producing small- and medium-range missiles. According to a recent Economist interview with Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, Saudi Arabia's deputy crown prince, that scenario is what the Saudis fear the most.
The execution of al-Nimr was possibly a way for Riyadh to show its external and internal foes the government's readiness to act firmly and decisively. Speaking of the war against Iran, it is rather conducted through economic means, specifically by reducing the prices on the oil market that Tehran is hoping to reenter.
The cold war will get hotter
Even though there is no threat of direct military conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the current escalation should not be dismissed as a regular episode of a regional cold war. Iran will most likely issue an adequate response to the Saudi insult, and the attack on the Saudi Embassy is only the beginning. It is probable that it will be soon followed by the deterioration of the situation in the Middle East in general and a further escalation of tensions.
The first areas to be influenced by the recent developments include Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The confrontation in the so-called Shia belt may move to the next level. Riyadh can provide financial support and supply arms to its allies, and Tehran can do the same. This will result in the final denominational divide of Syria and Iraq, and Lebanon will be put on the brink of a new civil war. Nor will Bahrain or even Saudi Arabia itself avoid the rise in subversive activities among their Shia population.
In the meantime, Saudi leadership's nervous response to the Houthis’ success in Yemen indicates that it is the perceived Achilles heel. If Iran used to provide mostly moral support to local Shia groups, now we can expect it to change.
All this means only one thing: The resolution of Iran's nuclear problem did not bring peace, local wars will be waged in the Middle East for quite some time and new fronts of regional confrontation will keep emerging.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.