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The Ukraine crisis and the Iranian crisis

Mar 4, 2022 | AIJAC staff

Vladimir Putin meets then Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: Russia's aggression in Ukraine should also be a source of lessons about what Iran wants - and how to confront it (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Vladimir Putin meets then Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: Russia's aggression in Ukraine should also be a source of lessons about what Iran wants - and how to confront it (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Update from AIJAC

 

03/22 #01

 

The Russian aggression against Ukraine has rightly dominated international attention over the past two weeks. However, there are also growing indications that a deal may be signed, after almost a year of on-again, off-again negotiations, related to Iran’s nuclear program in the next few days – with Russian and European negotiators, and even Israel’s Defence Minister, saying a deal to return to some version of the deeply flawed 2015 JCPOA agreement, only likely even weaker than that deal, is now imminent.

This Update looks at what some top experts are saying about the relationship between the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s invasion, on the one hand, and the ongoing efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear file on the other.

We start with noted American expert Emanuele Ottolenghi, who suggests the world needs to extend the lessons its has drawn from Russian President Putin’s aggressive and expansionist behaviour to the Iranian regime. He says the world’s current efforts to deal with Iran are based on applying the same “cost-benefit analysis” model to Iran that was applied to Putin’s Russia up until the current aggression and that it is wrong to think that ideological, revisionist regimes like Iran and Russia are driven by rational calculations of their national interest. Reviewing the history of the Iranian regime, he concludes that Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons to become a hub of anti-Western revolution – but allowing Iran to do so will see scenarios like the Russian invasion of Ukraine play out repeatedly in future. For Ottolenghi’s powerful argument in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up are two Iran experts, Saeed Ghasseminejad and Behnam Ben Taleblu, who come at the issue from the opposite angle to Ottolenghi – they ask what we can learn from the history of sanctions on Iran with respect to efforts to impose stringent, biting sanctions on Russia in response to its aggression. They draw five lessons overall – about the effectiveness of sanctions, how to employ sanctions most effectively, the kinds of sanctions to employ and other issues. They recommend that experience with Iran shows the most effective sanctions on Russia would include -“sanctions against the Central Bank, pushing for a full removal of Russian financial institutions from SWIFT, imposing blanket sanctions on Russia’s key economic sectors, and exploring ways to deal with cutting off the Russian energy trade.” For their valuable insights into such sanctions, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Ksenia Svetlova, a Russian-born Israeli Middle East analyst who is also a former Knesset member, explores how the Ukraine invasion is likely to impact the Middle East, and especially Israel and Iran. She discusses Israel’s initially cautious reaction to the Russian invasion and later more forceful condemnations, and the reason for the initial caution. She goes on to predict that Moscow’s reaction to both Israel’s condemnation and its wider isolation will be to become much closer to its regional friends Syria and Iran, and also warns that Israel will find itself under increased pressure as a result. For Svetlova’s complete analysis and advice about what Israel can do about it, CLICK HERE.

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Accommodating Iran Will Be No More Successful Than Accommodating Russia

Putin’s horrifying war in Ukraine shows the likely results of the West continuing to ignore Iran’s nuclear quest

BY EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI

Tablet Magazine, March 03, 2022

 

Vladimir Putin has opened the gates of hell by invading Ukraine at the end of his 23-year journey to destroy Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture and reestablish Russia’s lost imperial glory. As the civilized world confronts a threat that we should have seen coming at us from the moment, more than 20 years ago, when Putin turned Grozny into Stalingrad and got away with it, our response is constrained by the fact that Putin’s Russia has a formidable nuclear arsenal, which the Russian tyrant has proclaimed himself willing to use. The shocking and horrifying scenes we witness on our television screens—and our inability to do anything about them—should be foremost in the minds of Western leaders as they blindly embrace a new nuclear deal with Tehran.

We should know better. Like Putin’s Russia, the Islamic Republic is a non-status quo power whose actions are driven more than anything else by ideology. Sooner or later, a revolutionary power aims to export its revolution, both as an instrument of radical change and as a tool to establish its hegemonic rule. In an article titled “A Powder Keg Named Islam,” published in Italy’s daily Corriere della Sera on Feb. 13, 1979, a few days after the Islamic Revolution’s founder, the late Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, returned to Iran from his Paris exile, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that,

Maybe [its] historical significance will be found, not in its conformity to a recognized “revolutionary” model, but instead in its potential to overturn the existing political situation in the Middle East and thus the global strategic equilibrium. Its singularity, which has up to now constituted its force, consequently, threatens to give it the power to expand. Thus, it is true that as an “Islamic” movement, it can set the entire region afire, overturn the most unstable regimes, and disturb the most solid ones. Islam—which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization—risks becoming a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men. Since yesterday, any Muslim state can be revolutionized from the inside, based on its time-honored traditions.

At the time, at least, Foucault was a fan of Iran’s revolution. But he was not wrong.

The ayatollahs’ Iran aspires to reassert Shiite predominance over the Sunni world, much like Putin’s Russia seeks to resuscitate the czarist empire. Iranian mullahs hope to become the beacon of Islam beyond the region, much like Putin dreams of a pan-Slavic awakening; to emerge as leader of the oppressed of the earth, much like Russia seeks to undermine Western global dominance; and to persuade the downtrodden to embrace Khomeini’s vision as a banner of resistance against the Western-dominated international order, much like Putin appeals to Christianity, anti-capitalism, and anti-wokeness in his battle against America’s “Empire of Lies.”

Yet even after Putin upended all our illusions about resetting relations with Moscow and solving disputes amicably; even after he unleashed an unprovoked war of aggression against a defenseless neighbor; even after he has green-lighted the rape of cities and the wanton destruction of an entire nation; Washington’s Iran policy debate remains focused on the misguided belief—which the Biden administration shares with its Democratic predecessors—that well-placed safeguards (which the JCPOA is lacking in any case) in exchange for economic dividends will not only constrain Iran’s nuclear quest but also potentially change Iran’s behavior. We tell ourselves that Iran is not Russia. It does not need to be, to aspire to a greatness that will upend our world.

Yet our policy is still guided by the basic cost-benefit analysis that premised every sanctions regime adopted in the past and which also guided the West’s Russia policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc: Faced with increasing isolation, costs, and damages to their economies, adversaries will barter the imagined rewards of bad behavior for economic opportunities. Even when they act irrationally—at least by the standards of Western, 21st-century rationality—we mistake their madness for a ruse, which we can defang through a calculated mixture of blandishments and punishments. We tried the same combination of carrots and sticks with Mussolini in Ethiopia and Hitler in Munich. Hollywood notwithstanding, it has never worked, because what ultimately motivates Tehran (and Moscow) is not rational calculations of national self-interest, as Barack Obama insisted back in 2015, but a burning desire to spread its revolutionary ideology and a determination to tirelessly wage a battle of ideas to undermine and destroy the Western rules-based international liberal order. The addition of nuclear power status ensures that existing constraints on those ambitions, however feeble, will wither away.

The Iranian regime as a whole may not be wedded to the kind of apocalyptic politics that the rhetoric of some of its leaders frequently suggests—but Iran remains, at heart, a revolutionary power driven by an ideology that successfully blends Persian nationalism, Shiite revivalism, Third World-ism, and revolutionary Marxist-Leninist theories. The revolution’s devastating potential always derived from the explosive combination of the subversive with the divine. The desire to push this agenda more aggressively and more successfully is what drives its quest for nuclear weapons.

The fact that Iran lacks the might of, say, the former Soviet Union in its revolutionary pursuit, does not make its efforts laughable or its position more vulnerable to pressure. It is what motivates Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, no matter what sacrifices that effort entails. A nuclear arsenal, or even the prestige derived from becoming a nuclear threshold state after prolonged and successful defiance of Western economic pressure, is a force multiplier we underestimate at our own peril. Allowing Tehran to acquire this capability, which the JCPOA is designed to allow under U.S. protection, is the diplomatic equivalent of flicking a lit cigarette into dry brush.

That contemporary Iran is a revolutionary power whose decision-makers are virtually impervious to pressure should be obvious by now. Forty-three years after the overthrow of the shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Tehran continues to invest considerable resources, even under extreme economic duress, to export its revolution to every corner of the globe. The financial and military undertakings required to save the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, enhance Hezbollah’s hegemony in Lebanon, and proliferate pro-Iran Shiite militias that fan the flames of violence from Yemen to Iraq, are only the most newsworthy, expensive, and nearby examples of how Iran prioritizes exporting its revolution abroad over public welfare at home.

Iran shares no border or personal territorial disputes with Israel, but it does nurse a pathological obsession with destroying it, which it cultivates through its support for Palestinian Islamists, worldwide terror plots against Jews, and relentless diplomatic pressure. Iran also bears considerable costs to sustain far-flung alliances (see: Venezuela) that yield little financial benefit and bring no domestic dividends. And then there’s Iran’s worldwide outreach to win acolytes through missionary work—a fool’s errand perhaps, but one Iran pursues with economic profligacy. Liberal democracies might view all this as the irresponsible squandering of precious national resources; Iran considers it a sacred duty.

That the cost-benefit analysis spurred by sanctions isn’t panning out the way it did with, say, apartheid South Africa, should also be obvious by now. Iran is not acting like an insolvent debtor trying to restore its credibility, but like an unrepentant thief who prefers to constantly improve its ability to crack ever more sophisticated security systems. With the example of Putin’s Russia before its eyes, the Biden administration needs to radically rethink America’s long game vis-à-vis Iran.


Iranian policy expert Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi “It is entirely reasonable to assume that Iran is seeking the protection that nuclear weapons clearly provide Russia to impose its will on its neighborhood” (Photo: Youtube). 

It is entirely reasonable to assume that Iran is seeking the protection that nuclear weapons clearly provide Russia to impose its will on its neighborhood—and to do so with impunity. And the new world that Iran seeks to create will be dominated by Tehran: It will be characterized by fierce competition with the United States for hegemony over the Persian Gulf and by efforts to cement alliances to confront Iran’s ideological and geopolitical antagonists in Riyadh, Ankara, Jerusalem, and Cairo. This will apply to a range of issues, including Iran’s all-consuming hostility to the existence of Israel or to any political accommodation with it.

But it will hardly stop at the Jewish state. Emboldened by its nuclear breakout, Iran’s revolutionary leadership will seek to cement partnerships and dependencies and establish its dominance far beyond the Middle East, using a new power and prestige to turn the tables on Western powers. The consequences will be severe, and the possibility for conflict far deadlier than what we are seeing in Ukraine can hardly be excluded.

Tehran makes no secret of its aspiration to become the node for all anti-Western and anti-global movements. Today’s Iran dreams of transforming itself into a Soviet Union redux, racing to the aid of anti-Western revolutionaries. Tomorrow’s nuclear Iran will be able to fulfill that dream. It will back a network of radical, violent groups that will rush to Tehran in search for a powerful patron. Tehran will then be only a small step away from becoming as potent a sponsor of subversion throughout the world as Putin’s Russia.

This scenario is not as far-fetched as it might appear. Iran already has important friends in Europe and stirs up revolutionary fantasies among hardcore Western Marxists. Links between Europe’s far left and Iran’s brand of radical Islam are well-established. Their mutual loathing for Western capitalism and democracy trumps differences they might have on issues like gender and homosexuality. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, expressions of sympathy and support for Iran are also evident among the far right, especially since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, which spurred numerous far-right organizations in Europe to idolize Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran as supposed defenders of Christian minorities and bulwarks against Sunni Salafists. Iran has since cultivated this image through foreign propaganda channels.

Nor would an emboldened, nuclear-capable Iran not stop at supporting anti-global political forces on the extremes of our political systems. It would consolidate an already existing international coalition of states that share Iran’s ideological antagonism toward the West. Iran’s alliances with Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba in Latin America have strengthened over the past decade. Whenever elections flip pro-Western governments across the developing world, Iran will have an easier time offering itself as their paladin—investing in their economies, topping up the bank accounts of compliant leaders, training and supplying their armies, and providing political support in international forums. Russia and China will be more than happy to use Iran as a hammer to strike at Western interests and security arrangements that interfere with their own ambitions.

As we watch Putin’s Russia destroy Ukraine, we should realize we are about to cross a similar threshold with Iran.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Five Lessons Learned From Sanctions on Iran for the Ukraine Crisis

 

The goal of sanctions should be to impose costs on the Russian economy that either make Putin’s tactical and strategic objectives too costly to achieve, change Russia’s overall cost/benefit calculation, weaken its economy, or deter further aggression.

 

Saeed Ghasseminejad and Behnam Ben Taleblu

The National Interest, March 1, 2022


If the world wants sanctions against Russia to be successful, it is essential to learn the lessons from previous rounds of sanctions against Iran (Image: Shutterstock, GAlexS).

In the past three months, the Biden administration tried and failed to leverage the threat of sanctions to prevent a Russian invasion of the Donbas region of Ukraine. Following a recent order by Russian president Vladimir Putin, Russian forces attacked eastern Ukraine by air, land, and sea on February 24, with fighting reaching the capital just two days later. Washington responded with a tranche of sanctions, promises of greater economic pain, and delivering military aid to the embattled Ukrainians.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States has increasingly relied on sanctions and other non-kinetic tools as weapons to adjudicate conflicts around the world. Scholars of sanctions have rightly pointed to the need for policymakers to better understand the mechanisms that underpin global trade as well as where and how U.S. sanctions have impacted those mechanisms as economic forces continue to take center stage in national security debates.

But caution from practitioners and derision from academics notwithstanding, the Iran sanctions case—both prior to achieving as well as after leaving the 2015 nuclear deal—offers key but underutilized insights into the strengths of U.S. economic sanctions. Subject to one form of economic penalty or another for four decades, over the past decade and a half, however, the Islamic Republic was targeted by an increasingly layered and complex web of sanctions. While Russia is a qualitatively larger and different target than Iran, the depth, breadth, and continuity of U.S. sanctions on Iran and related enforcement actions can still offer lessons to inform the debate over sanctioning Russia as Putin’s war in Ukraine continues.

The first lesson is that financial sanctions are among the easiest economic weapons for Washington to use and usually the most painful ones on the target. In fact, in an October 2021 review of U.S. sanctions programs, the U.S. Treasury Department cited the freezing out of Iran from the international financial system as one of the successes of its coercive and punitive economic measures.

Imposing an embargo on large, well-connected, and geopolitically influential countries such as Russia and Iran, both of which have long land borders, can be fraught with challenges. Financial sanctions, however, are considerably easier to employ, affect macro-level trade, and play to the relative advantages the United States enjoys in the world economy today. These sanctions make it exceptionally difficult to move trade-generated revenue around that is denominated in U.S. dollars or euros. After all, if the beating heart of the interconnected world of banking and finance lies in major Western hubs such as New York City, then it is the U.S. dollar and the euro that functions as blood moving throughout its arteries.

Financial sanctions can significantly reduce the accessibility of the target’s foreign assets, as happened to Iran’s oil export earnings, which was subject to additional lock-up provisions found in U.S. law. Beyond growing inflationary forces, as they did in Iran, financial sanctions can also significantly reduce a target country’s capacity to absorb foreign direct investment, as was proven to be the case with Russia since it invaded Crimea in 2014. These sanctions considerably slowed the relative rate of Russian economic growth.

Given that the Russian economy is much more integrated with Western economic structures than that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the pain Moscow stands to suffer under a comprehensive financial sanctions regime would be much greater than what Tehran felt. Conversely, deeper economic enmeshment means that political resistance inside the Western bloc against such measures would be much more robust, as was seen in the debate over removing Russian banks from the global electronic payments system known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT.

Borrowing from the model employed against Tehran, U.S. economic pressure should aim at banning all Russian banks from using the SWIFT system rather than focusing on a select number of banks to be removed from the platform as was recently announced. Building on the sanctions against the Central Bank of Russia, blanket sector-wide prohibitions that employ secondary sanctions—which put non-U.S. persons and entities to the choice of trade with Russia’s financial sector or the United States—would also go a long way. Some U.S. senators have already astutely drawn the parallel between the secondary sanctions’ impact on Iran and their applicability here.

The second lesson of the Iran sanctions experience is more political, namely that comprehensive sanctions should be deployed decisively and in one go, not incrementally. While there is a strategic logic behind graduated escalation, a resolute and risk-tolerant adversary committed to maintaining, for example, a nuclear weapons option or an invasion of another nation may perceive the use of graduated economic sanctions as a signal that Washington is unwilling to use force to punish or change behavior. Starting low on the sanctions’ scale and working up means that an adversary may feel that Washington is buying time by meting out the punishment rather than risking the costs of attempting to deliver a near knock-out blow up-front.

As a result, Washington should treat the levying of sanctions as an opportunity to make a positive impression about American resolve by deploying large and far-reaching sanctions packages against target states early in the crisis. While some may believe that was the case for President Donald Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” policy on Iran, the timeline of U.S. sanctions tells a different story.

Despite campaigning against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 and 2016, Trump decertified the agreement in October 2017 and only left it in May 2018, nearly a year and a half after entering office. The Trump administration then took 180 days to restore all penalties that were waived by the accord, and then used another six months to push towards removing waivers for the sale of Iranian oil. During the post-deal period, the United States continued to maintain several other sanctions waivers for regional energy salesport access/investment, and civil nuclear cooperation. Starting in mid-2019 until it left office, the administration only then began refining and recalibrating the pressure on Iran. This means peak maximum pressure sanctions on the Islamic Republic were around for just under a year and a half.

Course-correcting from that experience, sanctions are likely to have their greatest effect when the shock introduced into the target state’s economy is large, sudden, and sustained over time. Incremental and conditional sanctions that contain carve-outs, multiple waivers, and lengthy wind-down periods to end foreign contracts absorb the shock factor of these penalties on the country and its currency. They also run the political clock on an administration that seeks to enforce these penalties. Concurrently, they provide time for the target state to adjust and begin to develop front companies and sanctions-busting networks. If Washington is committed to using economic sanctions to impose costs and change behavior, concomitant with the swift implementation of comprehensive sanctions, it should clarify the precise concessions and conditions under which its penalties would be lifted.

Building on that point, the third major lesson from the Iran sanctions era is that sanctions and any kind of economic pressure must be continuously assessed, maintained, and improved to be effective. While this may appear at odds with the previous point, continuous refinement is not akin to defaulting to a strategy of incremental escalation. Instead, it involves a habitual refinement of an originally broad sanctions program that held back little when initially deployed. Beyond that, continuous calibration and refinement of sanctions is needed because target states have both agency and an incentive to find countermeasures to circumvent sanctions using every tool available. If Washington is serious about the sanctions option against Putin, it must devote assets and intelligence upfront to monitor the impact on the marketplace and battlefield, as well as what Russia is doing to offset these costs.

This phenomenon is but one reason why sanctions programs have traditionally been likened to a game of “whack-a-mole.” Like any other foreign policy tool, sanctions could also have unintended consequences that require close monitoring to address. One early example was the relationship between sanctions and Iran’s move from being a gasoline importer in 2009, to being “self-sufficient” in the production of such refined petroleum products a decade later.

Much later in the Iran experience, Washington had to broaden out its oil-based sanctions to account for how Iran diversified its economy to grow non-oil export earnings that came from places like the growing petrochemical sector. By 2020, petrochemicals made up about one-third of Tehran’s non-oil exports, and were such a critical component of the regional economy that even saw U.S. partners in the ranks of major purchasers.

Adversaries, like markets and industries, are not static. In response to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy, Tehran relied on a foreign exchange platform under the control of the Central Bank of Iran called NIMA to regulate the exchange of foreign currency among importers and exporters without the foreign currency moving through Iran’s financial system or accounts owned or controlled by the sanctioned Central Bank of Iran. This allowed the money to be transferred without touching the formal financial system, akin to a “Hawala” system but monitored directly by the Central Bank. This innovation installed a central monitoring system in the decentralized traditional Hawala system and allowed Tehran to alleviate its hard currency problem through more efficient use of export revenues by the private sector to fund imports.

Given how far U.S. adversaries are willing to go to bust sanctions, creativity should be treated as an element of national power and more welcome in the debate over enforcement measures. Bold actions, such as the seizure of Iranian tankers and forfeiture of their illicit oil cargos were a late but powerful component of the U.S. sanctions strategy against Iran. The further the United States is willing to go to enforce its penalties, the greater the transaction cost for the target state to continue its countermeasures. Psychologically, such moves signal that enforcement can be just as flexible and innovative as circumvention, thus aiming to deter future evasion efforts.


Former US President Donald Trump signs an executive order sanctioning Iran: The US experience with sanctions on Iran during the Obama and Trump Administrations shows that multilateral sanctions are not necessarily more effective than unilateral ones (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian). 

All else equal, the fourth lesson from the Iran experience is that multilateral sanctions are not necessarily more effective than unilateral ones. While this lesson does not aim to downplay the political and diplomatic costs of unilateralism and seemingly occasional irreverence for diplomacy out of Washington, it does aim to right-size such concerns given the risk-aversion of most large multinational enterprises and banks, the growth and importance of the compliance sector, the increasing use of U.S. sanctions, the position of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and other factors highlighting the outsized influence of the United States in the global financial system. While multilateral sanctions regimes can be treated as coalitions based around a “price-floor” interpretation of a perceived threat and what to do about it, reaching this consensus through international organizations like the UN Security Council or bilaterally with the European Union can be a lengthy and complex process that waters down sanctions and buy time for the adversary.

In the case of Iran, the unilateral sanctions imposed by the Trump administration were not less effective than the multilateral sanctions signed into law or imposed by President Barack Obama, which followed several rounds of UNSC sanctions. In fact, the takeaway for the 2018-2020 experience is that unilateral sanctions could be just as effective, if not more effective, and in record time. This is despite the skepticism of many U.S. policymakers and sanctions practitioners, as well as the efforts of the European Union to bypass U.S. sanctions. European governments went so far as to create a Special Purpose Vehicle for such trade, to no avail. When push came to shove, European banks and businesses broadly complied with U.S. sanctions regulations much to the chagrin and policy views of their own national governments.

In the case of Russia, European resistance against sanctioning Moscow had been stronger and better organized. But with Putin’s war continuing, considerable cracks have formed, and some European nations are reversing course by offering military aidpausing contracts, and supporting sanctions. Rather than hide behind early European foot-dragging, as some former administration officials have criticized, now is the time for the Biden administration to lead on sanctions efforts, taking a page from the U.S. playbook on Iran and SWIFT from 2018.

There are reportedly even areas where Washington may be able to offset the political cost of any unilateral economic measures by supporting multilateral diplomatic measures that some of its allies already have underway. One example is the Canadian and European decision to close their airspace to Russian planes. As time passes and if Russia’s military operations succeed, as a result of geographical proximity, energy dependence, and pressure from varied economic interest groups, European countries may be more inclined to pump the brakes on sanctioning Russia. It is crucial for Washington to remember that should these governments pull a U-turn, it can still influence the behavior of European companies despite the directives of their governments.

Last but not least, is a bureaucratic lesson. Given the centrality of sanctions to U.S. national security, it is imperative that Washington work to support and expand its financial warfare capabilities to include fully staffing and funding elements in the Department of the Treasury including but not limited to the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. By way of example, the enacted budget for that office in fiscal year 2021 was $175 million, a figure dwarfed by the country’s $777 billion military budget. As Washington’s reliance on sanctions and related tools expands, its economic warfare headquarters should similarly expand and modernize to make sure the programs they oversee are fully serviced. Sanctions can never replace the U.S. military’s function in deterring foreign adversaries or the State Department in supporting diplomatic efforts, but they are an important, in-demand, and multipurpose foreign policy tool which complements other sources of American power.

To be clear, sanctions alone are unlikely to fully resolve the Ukraine crisis. But this does not imply a vindication of the argument made by sanctions skeptics in the IranianRussian, or broader contexts. At present, the goal of sanctions should be to impose costs on the Russian economy that either make Putin’s tactical and strategic objectives too costly to achieve, change Russia’s overall cost/benefit calculation, weaken its economy, and deter further aggression. These sanctions can support, not replace, broader American policy goals related to countering Russia, supporting NATO, as well as send a message to a wide range of actors about American resolve and economic power.

Not holding back on enforcement of sanctions against the Central Bank, pushing for a full removal of Russian financial institutions from SWIFT, imposing blanket sanctions on Russia’s key economic sectors, and exploring ways to deal with cutting off the Russian energy trade are likely to be the most effective coercive and punitive tools Washington has in its arsenal of economic statecraft that need not wait for a new multilateral consensus. The Iran case has proved at least that.

Saeed Ghasseminejad is a Senior Advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow. They both contribute to FDD’s Iran Program, Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP), and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). The views expressed are their own.


Russia’s Next Target for Intimidation Could Be Israel

 

As Moscow slides into global pariah status, it will want to upgrade ties with its closest allies on NATO’s southern flank: Syria and Iran

BY KSENIA SVETLOVA

Tablet magazine, March 02, 2022


Israelis and Ukrainians protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv. There seems little doubt that the Russian invasion will also impact the Middle East, likely to Israel’s detriment (Photo: Shutterstock, Gil Cohen Magen). 
As Russia pounds Ukrainian cities and flaunts its nuclear weapons, there is little doubt that the implications of the war between Russia and the West will be felt globally—and the relations between states that prevailed only two weeks ago are unlikely to remain static. The International Criminal Court in The Hague may investigate possible war crimes committed by Russian leadership, while Western governments keep piling on unprecedented economic sanctions. As a result, Russia will be looking for alternative markets and spheres of influence, specifically in the Middle East and Africa, where it has become very involved during the last decade. While Moscow ratchets up military and economic pressure on Ukraine, using forbidden types of weapons and indiscriminate firepower against civilians, many in Israel fear that Moscow’s next move will happen in the Middle East—where Moscow is formally aligned with Israel’s worst enemies.

By Feb. 15, when the whole world was still trying to guess Vladimir Putin’s real intentions in Ukraine, his defense minister and confidant Sergey Shoigu had traveled to Syria, where he met with President Bashar Assad and inspected a Russian military exercise—the largest that Russia had held in the Eastern Mediterranean since the end of the Cold War. For this occasion, Russia transferred advanced weapons, including MiG-31s armed with hypersonic missiles, as well as strategic Tupolev Tu-22M bombers to its Khmeimim air base, positioning a potent new threat near Israel’s borders.

Just a few years ago, there was hardly any Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since the beginning of the Russian intervention in Syria, facilitated by the Obama administration to counterbalance Turkey and aid Iran, Moscow has reinforced its naval presence there dramatically. Although the Russian forces in this area are still limited in comparison with their abilities in the Black Sea, experts from the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies believe that Russia already has enough forces to present a potential challenge to longstanding U.S. and NATO naval dominance in the area.

As war clouds gathered over Ukraine, Israel became worried. Israel and Russia maintain tactical cooperation over Syria and run a deconfliction center in order to prevent Russian and Israeli forces from clashing. Since the beginning of Russia’s military involvement in Syria, Israel has been walking on thin ice, trying to balance its own security needs with the necessity of making nice with the Russians who now controlled the Syrian skies. A change in the Russian posture in Syria, particularly as America works to seal its reentry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, portends a far less favorable and more dangerous calculus than the one that Israel has grown used to since 2014.

For a time, the balancing act went well. While the Russians did not prevent Israel from hunting Iranian war targets in Syria (as was often reported in foreign media), Israel refrained from commenting on Russia’s aggressive demeanor—even when the United States publicly voiced opposition. In fact, this arrangement predates Russian involvement in Syria. In 2014—one year before Russia became Israel’s neighbor on its northern border—Israel refused to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea despite some pressure from the Obama administration to do so.

But 2022 isn’t 2014. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid first timidly condemned Russian behavior in a TV interview. He then announced that Israel will vote with the United States and EU countries against Russia in the U.N. General Assembly.

So what might be the repercussions for Israel of its public anti-Russian stance, however mild? There is no doubt that Russia is looking to flex its muscles in Syria, where it’s built an impressive military presence. As Russia slides into a pariah status in the international arena, it will want to upgrade ties with its closest allies in the region: Syria and Iran.

On the military front, signs of Russia’s new regional posture are already visible. During the last few weeks that preceded the war in Ukraine, Russia strongly rebuked Israeli activity in Syrian skies, while Israelis complained that Russia was jamming GPS signals in Israeli airspace. At the end of January, Russia and Syria started joint patrols along the Golan Heights and the Euphrates River. In Israel, this activity was interpreted as a sharp message to Jerusalem: Things in Syria might change soon, and fast. Since other countries like the United States and Turkey also operate in Syrian skies, the Russian message might be addressed to all concerned parties to let them know that Russia is determined to force them out of Syrian airspace and help Damascus reclaim its sovereignty there.

Yet other Russian messages were clearly directed at Israel. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when Israel was still mulling its reaction, busy Russian diplomats found the time to rebuke Israel over construction of new cities in the Golan Heights—possibly in reaction to timid Israeli attempts to support Ukraine without condemning Russia too strongly. While Moscow has since signaled that cooperation with Israel will go on as usual, many in Israel fear that Russia, emboldened by its violent move on Ukraine and furious about global sanctions, will become more aggressive and assertive in protecting its interests in Syria, and pay less attention to possible Israeli responses.

Until recently, some in Israel believed that Russia might work together with Israel and the United States to push Iran out of Syria—under the assumption that Russia and the United States shared this interest in common with Israel. Nowadays, this kind of scenario (however dubious it was in the past) is simply out of the question. Moscow will need Tehran and Damascus more than ever, perhaps even more than they need Moscow. This development might mean more intercooperation between all three parties and a significantly more aggressive tone toward Israel. In turn, if Israel is not able to freely operate in Syrian skies against Iranian military targets, an emboldened Iran seems likely to try to further grow its military presence near Israel’s borders, raising the stakes in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza.

Another possible target for Russia’s military is the Eastern Mediterranean. If until now the sea was mostly seen as EU and NATO playground, today’s Russian navy presence might pose a serious challenge to Europeans and Americans—and by extension Israel, whose economy depends in large part on open shipping from its ports. Turkey might soon see new developments in Syrian Idlib, where pro-Turkish militants still operate, and 3 million Syrians find their refuge, which may create wider instability in the region.

While Russian-Iranian rapprochement in Syria seems almost inevitable, the future of strategic relations between the two countries is still a puzzle.

Until recently, Russia saw Iran as a problematic neighbor, an occasional partner (for example, in Syria) and mostly as a country that was best held at arm’s length. When Iran demanded acceptance as a full member of the Eurasian Economic Treaty (a Russian-led block that also includes Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan), Russia took its time to “consider.” And when Iranians offered extensive cooperation in trade and industry, Russia generally ignored these requests. During the visit of the new Iranian president to Russia in January this year, no important treaty or memorandum of understanding was signed, to the disappointment of the Iranians.

Now, Russia needs Iran and its markets more than ever before. For Moscow it might be the right time to expand the partnership, as the Iranians have been demanding. Yet if Iran signs the nuclear deal, brokered in large part by Russia, the roles of Russia and Iran may be reversed, with Iran—if sanctions are lifted—having a stronger and even determining hand in that relationship.


Ksenia Svetlova in her former role as a member of Knesset for the Zionist Union party. The Russian-born Svetlova is now an expert in Middle Eastern affairs at an Israeli thinktank. (Photo: Knesset Spokesperson). 

There is a loud anti-Russian camp in Iran that remembers well how Moscow ignored Iranian demands for a long time. Yet there is also no doubt that Tehran will be happy to receive the latest Russian weapons. It now seems likely that Iran will get the weapons systems it demanded a long time ago even if for some reason the nuclear deal is not finalized. Russia has nothing more to lose and it will have to seize every opportunity to continue to sell its weapons to anyone who demands them.

What’s on the Iranian shopping list? According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Iran is interested in SU-30 fighters, Yak-130 trainers, T-90 tanks and—the cherry on top—S-400 surface-to-air missile defense systems that Russia previously refrained from selling. Even if Russia fulfills only part of the Iranian shopping list, it will be very bad news for Israel. Until recently, advanced Russian missile systems inside Syria were under full Russian control. That might change as well.

The greatest threat that Russia poses to Israel may be in the expansion of its regional influence, especially in the absence of an effective U.S.-led security structure. With the exception of Lebanon and Kuwait, which denounced Russia, and Syria, a full Russian client that denounced the West, the Arab states are currently sitting on the fence, unwilling to put their neck on the line for either the United States or the Russians. During the last few years some of these countries, particularly the Gulf states, didn’t hide their frustration with American Middle East policy, which aimed under both the Obama and Trump administrations at diminishing the American presence in the region—and which under Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden put a U.S. nuclear deal with Iran at the top of American regional priorities. In response, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt all began purchasing Russian (and Chinese) weapons, and putting their relations with Moscow on display.

Russia has significantly expanded its web of relations in the Middle East, mostly due to the fear of some countries that they might be abandoned by the West. If the United States wants these countries to join an alliance against Moscow, it might have to rethink its regional policy—or else rethink its relations with Arab countries who might wish to continue with their current balancing act. Yet Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia heavily depend on wheat supplies from Russia and Ukraine. Rising prices on basic food staples and energy might disrupt stability in many countries in the region, creating more risks and insecurity. All of these developments might in turn have a negative influence on Israel and its attempt to build new alliances in the region—especially if Russia sees Israel as an American instrument, while the Americans see Iran as a partner.

There is little doubt that fateful events in Ukraine have turned over the chess board in the Middle East, as elsewhere. While risks for Israel are bound to increase, it will need—now more than ever—firm American support and a confident U.S. policy in the Middle East. A new American deal with Iran, which remains America’s regional priority even during the war in Ukraine, seems unlikely to provide those assurances.

Ksenia Svetlova is the director of the program on Israel-Middle East relations at the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policy and a former member of the Knesset.

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