Think tank roundup: As tensions continue to simmer throughout the Middle East, Russia’s top experts honed in on the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In addition, they kept a wary eye on the developing situation in Moldova.

Iraqi Shiite protesters chant slogans against the Saudi government as they hold posters showing Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in Saudi Arabia last week, in Najaf, Iraq. Photo: AP

For Russian experts, the two most important geopolitical events of January 2016 were growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East and new protests in Moldova. In addition, analysts discussed the perspectives of improved relations between Russia and the West, especially in the context of the Syrian crisis.

Saudi Arabia vs. Iran

In January, the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a conflict that had been simmering for a while, finally moved to a more, dangerous stage. Technically, it was caused by the execution of Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia on accusations of terrorism and anti-government activities.

A brief exchange of wild allegations led to the severance of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh, with most countries of the region getting involved at least at the level of official denunciation of the actions perpetrated by one of the parties.

Russian experts explored the reasons behind the conflict and discussed whose side Russia should take in this Middle Eastern conflict.

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Nikolay Kozhanov, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes that Saudi Arabia has a lot more to gain from the escalation. Iran, on the contrary, was waiting for the lifting of sanctions and is looking forward to returning to global markets, so it was hardly looking to get involved in a confrontation with any of the leading regional powers.

Kozhanov points out that Tehran's reaction is quite telling. Its rhetoric is predictably tough, but the actual response is virtually non-existent, except for the attack on the Saudi Embassy, which, according to Kozhanov, was organized by some radical groups operating inside Iran.

Saudi Arabia has a lot to lose if Tehran's isolation comes to an end, so Riyadh has been long carrying out subversive actions aimed at undermining the influence of Iranian leadership on Shiite groups throughout the Middle East.

Russian International Affairs Center (RIAC) expert Yury Barmin also writes that Iran is not interested in exacerbating the conflict at the moment. He is positive that Saudi Arabia made another attempt at destabilizing Iran before sanctions are lifted and also in anticipation of negotiations on Syria, where Riyadh and Tehran have divergent interests.

However, Iran's response was much softer than Saudi Arabia expected, and "in the end, it looks like diplomatically Riyadh was caught in its own trap. The Iranian leadership quickly assessed the risks of conflict escalation, and after the attack on the Embassy, opted for a cautious approach."

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) is wary of the escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia and suggests that Russia take a broader approach to the issue. According to Lukyanov, we are witnessing another stage of the "bloody deconstruction" of the Middle East when global and regional powers lose control over the situation, which will sooner or later result in complete destabilization of the region.

Under these circumstances, Russia "would do well to leave the Middle East alone and try to separate itself from this source of violence and instability. Realistically though, it is highly unlikely." Lukyanov believes that reaching an agreement on the problematic region will be much easier for global powers than the countries of the Middle East, and Russia should take advantage of that opportunity.

The Moldovan Maidan

Russian foreign policy experts continued to discuss the riots in Kishinev, the capital of Moldova. The protest movement that brings together various segments of the Moldovan opposition originated in September 2015, but recently it stepped up its efforts.

Protesters are expressing their dissatisfaction with current policies and are demanding that the government resign. Russian experts draw parallels with other recent protest movements in the post-Soviet space as they analyze the balance of power within Moldova.

Maksim Artemyev, an author at the Carnegie Moscow Center's website, reluctantly admits that Moldova is rapidly turning into a failed state and forecasts that the social, economic and political situation will soon deteriorate even further.

Artemyev states that there is little difference between the corrupt authorities and the opposition that is out in the streets. They are all bound to the interests of some large business interests and see power as a way to resolve their own economic and business issues.

The expert also emphasizes the complete disorientation and apathy within Moldovan society. The people would prefer to run away from their country's problems by moving to neighboring EU countries.

Also read: "What will change as a result of the power shift in Transnistria?"

Korneliu Churya, a RIAC expert and Moldovan political scientist, thinks that the main weakness of the protest movement is in its excessive heterogeneity. Pro-European and pro-Russian protesters, as well as minor political parties, came together to overthrow the pro-European forces that are currently in power. However, the opposition's diversity and inability to reach an agreement may put an early end to the Moldovan Maidan.

Besides, neither party is interested in following the Ukrainian scenario, which makes the united opposition even more disjointed. Therefore, according to Churya, "The drawn-out political crisis in Moldova that started in September 2015 is coming to an end."

Russia and the West

The success in limiting the risks from Iran's nuclear program, the removal of sanctions against Tehran, and Russia's active involvement in the fight against terrorism in Syria and major negotiations on the resolution of the Syrian crisis determined Russian experts' special interest in the dynamics of relations between Russia and the West in January.

RIAC expert Nikolay Surkov believes that the Syrian conflict has the ability to bring together Moscow and Washington, at least in the medium-term perspective, because both countries are interested in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis as soon as possible.

Even their conflicting motives in the promotion of crisis resolution should not stand in the way of a rapprochement, even though certain risks still exist. The expert points out that this process is going to be rather slow and requires major diplomatic efforts from Washington and Moscow and other parties to the conflict, including the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the fragmented Syrian opposition.

Problems between the government and opposition might hamper negotiations in spite of active support from world powers, according to Surkov.

Also read: "Will Russia sacrifice Assad as part of its Syrian endgame?"

CFDP analyst Alxander Golts is of a different opinion. He believes that the U.S. and Russia might drift further apart over the difficult Syrian issue. Rumors about the U.S. ground operation in Syria and Iraq could be mere speculation, but they escalate the situation in the region and push Moscow to act on spontaneous demands and impulses.

Thus, both countries enter the vicious circle of demonstrating force and intent, which can be exceedingly dangerous in the unstable Middle East.

"In demonstrating their resolve to each other, parties might get carried away," Golts concludes.

"Friendship between Russia and the West largely depends on U.S.-Russia relations,” says Leonid Gusev, an expert at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. U.S. allies in the West, such as Great Britain, follow America's political lead, and that means that Moscow needs to seal the deal with Washington first.

Gusev predicts a fairly lengthy period of inactivity in bilateral relations due to the ongoing presidential campaign in the U.S. The current administration is busy solving pressing issues and is hastily resolving a wide range of international problems that accumulated over the years. U.S. President Barack Obama is not trying to escalate the situation, and the candidate who wins the election can be expected to act unpredictably towards Russia because electoral promises and claims often have little to do with real politics.

Sergey Guriev, an author at the Carnegie Moscow Center's website, does not believe that Moscow can return to full-scale international cooperation in the near future and emphasizes the ever-growing deglobalization of Russia. The Russian leadership does not want to play by the global rules, including economic and legal rules. The Kremlin acts like it does not give serious thought to them and thus puts the country on a dangerous slippery path of being excluded from the globalized civilized world.

Actually, Russia’s increasing isolation will have an adverse effect only on average Russians, who will have "to pay a high price for the exclusion: Russia will miss out on growth opportunities and continue to stagnate."