Russia through the Saudi looking glass

The latest bunch of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks as part of the half a million files relating to Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry contains a revealing document on an “arrangement of reciprocal support to the candidature of the Government of Russia to the Human Rights Council on the understanding that the Government of Russia would also extend its valuable support to the candidature of Saudi Arabia” in the elections to the body held in May 2013.

There is nothing earthshaking here, for sure, but it calls attention to the pragmatism that has characterized the relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Interestingly, the Syrian conflict didn’t come in the way of the above deal-making in 2013. The deal actually predates the rift between Riyadh and Washington following the commencement of direct talks between the US and Iran.

Against this backdrop, the Saudi assessments regarding Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to Russia last week fall into perspective. Writing in the Saudi establishment daily, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya television, cautions against reading too much into MbS’s Russia visit.

Salman meets with Putin in Moscow in 2006

Salman meets with Putin in Moscow in 2006

Rashed acknowledges the Saudi disillusionment over the US’ Middle East policies and takes note that Riyadh has taken “an unusual step and decided to do the opposite” by boosting business ties with Russia in critical areas such as energy and nuclear and military technologies at a time when the US has imposed sanctions and is boycotting Russia.

Nonetheless, Rashed sums up: “Of course, we shouldn’t read into any new developments outside political frameworks, because I can hardly imagine that Saudi Arabia has decided to turn against its alliances (with the West) – but it probably wants to get out of the narrow US corner and expand its options”.

Rashed hints that the Saudis have probably offered to give Russia “the biggest role in operating and overseeing” the 16 nuclear reactors it has decided to build “to join the nuclear club”. But on the political side, Rashed assesses, “Saudi Arabia wants Russia, which is a key player in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon, to be on its side. Russia plays an important role in the military balance with Iran.”

On the whole, what stands out is that Rashed tamps down the excitement over MbS’s Russia visit. He implies that the Saudi-US alienation falls far short of a rupture and, essentially, Riyadh is diversifying its foreign relations. (By the way, MbS is currently on a visit to France to sign “landmark agreements worth tens of billions of euros” in the fields of defense, civil aviation and solar energy.)

All indications are that Moscow took MbS’s visit on its stride. Of course, much as running and managing16 nuclear reactors could mean good business, if the Saudis expect Russia to disengage from its quasi-alliance with Iran in fighting the proxy wars in Syria or Yemen, that is not a price Russia will be willing to pay.

In Syria at least, Iran becomes the indispensible partner for Russia. It should please Russia that Iran is speaking about forming a regional alliance with Iraq and Syria to fight terrorism and is working on a regional summit of the three countries, possibly next week.

Having said that, Russia anticipates shifts in the Iranian foreign policies after the nuclear deal comes through and expects that Iran’s rapprochement with the West becomes inevitable, but hopes that this will be happening gradually, not overnight, but step by step. More importantly, Russia believes that Tehran will continue to develop relations with it.

The influential Russian daily Kommersant reported on Monday quoting a Kremlin source that Moscow has now proposed to Tehran its readiness to supply the advanced Almaz-2500 anti-aircraft missile systems, which are more advanced than the S-300 units that it originally offered under the 2007 deal.

Again, Russia sees Iran as a potential rival in the world energy market. In a commentary on Monday, the official news agency TASS quoted a Russian expert, “Iran does not care at all about Russia’s interests. It needs money and at some future date it will be able to offer considerable competition to Russia, and not in Europe alone: on the oil market, in two or three years from mow, and on the gas market, in five to seven years.”

Indeed, Iran is a highly focused, vastly ambitious regional power, too. Its integration with the West cannot and will not come at the cost of its “Look East” policies aimed at China and Russia. Tehran is pressing hard its case for full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia’s role, being the host country for the SCO summit next month, will be keenly watched.

Without doubt, the 3-way equations involving Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are entering a period of transition. All three protagonists are in it for the long game.

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Categories: Asia Times News & Features, Central Asia, M.K. Bhadrakumar, Middle East

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  • Maria Adams

    ” “Iran… will be able to offer considerable competition to Russia, … oil market, in two or three
    years from mow, and on the gas market, in five to seven years.””, WELL, Iran’s oil profits will be used to BUY weapons from Russia, so, whatever Russia loses on one hand, it will gain in the other (besides that, hydrocarbon competition will come from many places, not just Iran).

  • Zionism = EVIL

    The whole region is a mess thanks to US and Zionist wars and now the cat is literally out of the bag.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    The re alliance of Saudi Arabia with Russia is a huge success for Moscow and a massive blow to Washington D.C. on several levels.
    -Russia now has a greater presence in the Middle East
    -This alliance gives Russia more leverage against the US imposed sanctions.
    -The US now has to walk more gently in that region. Appeasing Tehran after imposing crippling sanctions has not won the hearts and minds of those in Tehran, but has lost those in Riyadh.
    -Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim nation where Wahhabism grew, where the founder of Al-Qaeda came, and where the roots of ISIS originate. She is then a very powerful ally to lose to Russia.

  • Syn Hope

    Shia Sunni card is played by House of Saud to distract the audience. That game seems to be over now. House of Saud is in danger of losing to the masses. Iran/Turkey is providing the representative governments sample that is threatening House of Saud. It is not Saudi Arabia that is threatened, but House of Saud. Two different things.

  • Syn Hope

    Iran will not use the money to buy weapons. Iran is already an advanced nation unlike before. Sanctions had blessings in disguise. It is no more a client state. Gone are the days.

    Science-Matrix, a Montreal-based data-analysis has published a report on “geopolitical shifts in knowledge creation”, saying “Since 1980, Asia is catching up even more rapidly than previously thought. Europe is holding its position more than most would expect and the Middle East is a region to watch,” according to the report author, Eric Archambault.

    Archambaut notes that Iran’s publications have emphasised inorganic and nuclear chemistry, nuclear and particle physics and nuclear engineering. Publications in nuclear engineering grew 250 times faster than the world average – although medical and agricultural research also increased.

    Despite more than thirty years of Western-imposed sanctions, Iran under Islamic regime has made great strides in different sectors, including aerospace, nuclear science, medical development, as well as stem cell and cloning research. Among the country’s most recent accomplishments, which has garnered international acclaim, was the February 2 launch of Kavoshgar 3 (Explorer 3) satellite carrier into space with living organisms – a rat, two turtles and worms – onboard. In January 2010, the country became the first Middle Eastern country to produce transgenic animals, such as sheep and goats that express foreign proteins in their milk and are, therefore, considered valuable sources of protein for human therapy. Also Iran has become one of the few countries that have the technology and the means to clone farm animals, which could lead to advances in medical research, including using cloned animals to produce human antibodies against diseases. A lamb named ‘Royana’, a kid named ‘Hanna’ and two calves named ‘Bonyana’ and ‘Tamina’ were the first animals successfully cloned in the country.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    Good point, but maybe you can explain this conundrum. Out of Saudi Arabia came Wahhabism, Al-Qaeda and finally ISIS. Out of the Sykes/Picot agreement of 1916 between the UK and France, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and the new lines of the Middle East drawn. they left out the Kurds. Now the US led 40 nation coalition are training & arming the Kurds to take on ISIS with no guarantee that ISIS will be defeated
    The Kurdish movement for Kurdistan is much older than ISIS, and now better trained and armed. When they finally take on the Middle East to form Kurdistan it will place that region with a few choices
    -purge the Kurds out of their lands, especially Turkey and Iran
    -fight the Kurds while not knowing if ISIS caliphate exists or not
    -Give into the Kurdish movement and let Kurdistan form, probably alongside ISIS caliphate.
    In the meantime Saudi Arabia has moved closer to Moscow and further from the US.
    We have two monsters (ISIS & the Kurdish movement) and a shift in alliance by Saudi Arabia. what is your answer?

  • Maria Adams

    #1) Iran has made advances in ballistic missiles, but, Iran hasn’t built their own fighter jet (and many other things). IN fact, India (with far more resources than Iran) FAILED to make a useful battle tank, and has to continue buying tanks from Russia. Ditto with China, with MORE resources than Iran, still can’t make a good engine for their stealth fighters, this is why china must buy SU-35s (to remove it’s engine and install it into the Chinese fighter!!). #2) The Biotechnology field is easy to make advances in since it requires very little start up capital…Oh, and biotechnology is NOT a weapon (unless Iran wants to make Bio-warfare agents, so I don’t know why you bring up biotechnology).