Understanding the Growing Collaboration Between Russia and Iran

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on June 12, 2024. Watch the full video here.

Max Bergmann: Understanding the growing collaboration between Russia and Iran. That's the topic for today's conversation. I'm Max Bergmann, the director of the Europe, Russia, Eurasia Center and the Stuart Center here at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And with me to discuss this incredibly important and interesting topic are two of the foremost experts. First, we have Dr. Jon Alterman, who I have the pleasure of being right next to and being an office mate right down the hall for me. And Dr. Hanna Notte is a senior associate nonresident fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

And Dr. Jon Alterman is the senior vice president for the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and director of the Middle East Program here at CSIS. I should also say that Hanna is in town. She's normally at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California but is based in Berlin. So, Hanna, let's jump into the conversation. Why don't, if you could maybe outline Russia's strategy toward the Middle East and maybe Iran specifically.

It seemed that over the previous decade, Russia had played a productive role when it came to the JCPOA negotiations that were trying to constrain Iran's nuclear program. Russia had a solid relationship, if not warm relationships with Israel. It wants to have positive relationships with the Gulf states. But since the war in Ukraine happened, there've been shifts. Maybe you could outline those.

Hanna Notte: Sure, happy to and it's great to be here again, Max. So first of all, I would say that Russian interests at large in the Middle East have not changed so much with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, I would argue. Russia has consistently pursued certain interests in the region, security interests. Russia is present in Syria since intervening in September 2015 in that country and is still present there and uses that presence as a platform to project power into the eastern Mediterranean, but more broadly into the Middle East. That remains an important interest of the Russian Federation to stay in the region.

Russia has a number of economic interests in the region, thinking of arms sales, where we've seen somewhat of a decline, arguably, but also building nuclear power plants in Egypt and in Turkey. Coordinating with the Gulf states in the OPEC+ format on the international oil markets. Grain, those interests stay constant and if anything, I'd argue given this harsh decoupling of Russia from the West in light of the invasion of Ukraine, those economic interests have only become more important. Now, having said that, some things have changed over the last two plus years. And that gets us to the topic of Russia-Iran relations as well.

The first thing I'd say is that Russia now really formulates its approach to the region through the prism of confrontation with the West over Ukraine. I would actually argue it's a confrontation over global order. So, it's not just about the territorial configuration of Ukraine, but that now dictates Russia's approach to the Middle East. Now, what does that mean? If you look at the period before 2022 there were still dossiers where Moscow would be willing to coordinate or cooperate with Western states. Syria, the Iran nuclear dossier that has largely fallen by the wayside. Turning to Syria, Russia is no longer cooperating when it comes to humanitarian access to the northwest of Syria. It is no longer supporting that through the Security Council, that has fallen away.

Russia has become, I'd say, more brazen since 2022 in pushing back against the U.S. presence in northeast Syria, so a more confrontational stance over Syria. Certainly, Iran and the JCPOA is another example where, before 2022, when the Biden administration tried to find a pathway back into a restored nuclear deal, Russia was quite helpful, I'd say, still quite constructive in working with Western counterparts on that. And now that has fallen by the wayside, and we can have a deeper discussion as to why that is. I think it's both a function of Russia no longer be willing to do that as sort of a de-prioritization of the issue, but also perhaps having lost some leverage over the Iranians. I think that also plays into it.

But more so, the one broad dynamic is just more confrontation. The logic of confrontation with the West is really dictating Russia's approach to the region. And the best example of that is how Russia has navigated the post-October 7th Middle East and the war in Gaza and we'll talk about that later. Now, a second dynamic and that is very much related, is that I would say we see a growing Russian tilt towards anti-Western forces in the region. Meaning Iran, but also Iran's partners and proxies in the Axis of Resistance. And we can talk about how that has manifested. Now, I think Russia still cares about pursuing certain balancing acts in the region that have been characteristic of its approach to the region for a long time.

And Russia still cares about, for example, its relations with the Gulf Arab states, in particular with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, because that is important to Russia economically. But I think Russia has been willing to somewhat sacrifice its relations with Israel since October 7th. We've seen this quite stark pro-Palestinian posturing over the war in Gaza. So, I think there is this pro-Iran, pro-Axis of Resistance tilt. And one way in which that manifests very much, and we can talk about this more, is in a growing Russian-Iranian military defense relationship, which goes far beyond the drones that Russia has procured from Iran for its military campaign against Ukraine.

And I think we should be looking at how that relationship is going to evolve into the future.

Mr. Bergmann: Maybe, if I could just follow up on that last point. Because it strikes me that in Russia's role in the Middle East prior to the war there was a large military component of Russia being an arms provider of S-400s to Iran. Support for Assad in Syria, but also potential arms sales, or arms sales to the Gulf States. But now Russia needs to absorb arms, it's not exporting as much. It needs countries to provide it with aid. It's getting that from North Korea in particular, but also Chinese support. But Iran has been really helpful here and maybe you could outline what is the nature of this military relationship now. And also, what is Russia providing back to Iranians?

Dr. Notte: Sure, happy to. I would say that the Russia-Iran military relationship was one, I mean, it's long-standing, it goes back decades. But until 2022 there was what one could call a patron-client dynamic in that relationship where, really Iran was on the receiving end hoping for certain systems from the Russians, which were not always forthcoming. If I think back to 2010 when the Russians, under President Medvedev did not provide the S-300 system to Iran. But we didn't really see Iranian support to Russia in any sort of a meaningful scale. What have we seen since? Since 2022 of course, the UAVs, the Shahed drones, I mean different types of Shahed drones.

But not just complete systems, importantly also Iran sharing production technology for those kinds of systems, enabling the Russians to effectively indigenize the production of those drones in Russia, in Yelabuga and in Tatarstan. The Iranians providing training on how to operate those UAVs and that training has happened in various countries based on what we know from reporting. Actually, including in Syria, where according to Ukrainian military intelligence, Hezbollah have trained Russian officers on the use of Iranian drones on Syrian soil. So, quite a sort of convoluted situation there.

But the Iranians have also given support to Russia for their ground war with ammunition, with shells. I think that's sometimes less talked about because we pay so much attention to the drones. So, that's what Russia has gotten from Iran. We can also have a separate conversation about learning on techniques how to overcome the effect of sanctions and sanctions evasion. There might be a lot of knowledge diffusion going on between those two partners in that area that's obviously harder to study from the open source. But certainly, they have come to agreements in that domain that they're going to work together on countering or mitigating the effects of Western sanctions.

If we now look at what the Russians have given the Iranians in return, you know, there's certain things that the Iranians have wanted for quite a long time that they haven't gotten yet. For example, the Sukhoi 35 fighter aircraft, even though there's been sort of intermittent talk about deals and delivery forthcoming, but we haven't seen those systems delivered. We've seen trainer aircraft, we've seen increased collaboration on electronic warfare, which is having the Israelis very worried in terms of what the Russians give the Iranians in terms of support in that area. We have seen Bill Burns, head of the CIA, state on multiple occasions this concern of Russian engineers supporting Iran's missile and space launched vehicle program.

So there's different areas in which the two sides are probably working together. And then one final point, I think that's important to mention here is that we've also seen indications of Russia passing captured Western origin technology captured on the battlefield in Ukraine to Iran. Which is probably studying those systems, and possibly using them for the purpose of reverse engineering or sort of looking into those systems. And of course, the Iranians are probably getting a lot of operational insights and sort of learning from how their own systems fair against Western air defenses or other technologies on the battlefield in Ukraine.

So, I think we need to not just look at hard systems and hard technology that is passing past both, in both directions but also the area of knowledge diffusion and intangible assistance.

Mr. Bergmann: That's a great point, because we often talk about the lessons learned that Western militaries are gaining from the Ukrainians engaging with the Russians. But it's definitely a two-way street and the provision of a lot of advanced technology to the Ukrainians will fall out of Ukrainian hands just due to the nature of warfare. And that's getting not just to Russia, but also to Tehran and potentially Beijing. Jon, I want to bring you into this to maybe offer the perspective from Tehran, from Iran. We'll put your Iranian hat on. But how does Iran view Russia, its potential, its relationship there.

And maybe you could also speak to how Russia is viewed more broadly within the Middle East and how that role evolved since the war in Ukraine.

Jon Alterman: Thank you. First, Max, it's a delight to be six feet away from you once again the way it's been most days. Hanna I thought did a wonderful job, but maybe made this very complicated relationship seem less messy than it really is. I mean, let's remember there were five Russo-Persian Wars, the Soviet Union occupied northern Iran. This is a relationship that has been troubled through the years, it's a relationship that was troubled where they were sort of aligned, not really aligned in Syria, and had very different goals, very different relationships with Turkey and so on. This is really, really, really complicated. There's a way in which the Ukraine war was clarifying for both the Iranians and the Russians. It gave them a strategic opportunity to work together.

It was, I think, very important for Iran, which really felt completely reliant on China, which gets 90% of Iranian oil. It represents more than 30% of Iranian trade, although Iran represents us in 1% of Chinese trade. And so, there's this strategic Iranian need not only to find ways to dismantle this international order the United States is trying to build. Common ground, undermining U.S.-led sanctions. Common ground, supplying weapons to Iran, bringing hard currency to Russia, bringing hard currency into Iran. This is a relationship which I would argue was deeply, deeply, deeply troubled and complicated, and there's a way in which the Ukraine war has clarified it and provided some really clear opportunities.

And what the Chinese like to refer to as win-win solutions that really advanced Iranian interests, advanced Russian interest, because the world they're trying to move toward is a very similar kind of world. I think the Chinese are largely aligned with this as well and I think that's part of why you see an effort, or you have seen an effort to portray the Gaza war as sort of the West against the Global South. There really has been this effort aligning Russia and China and Iran and Hamas, not in any positive vision but in a vision to undermine US hegemony. Now, from a regional perspective, there's not a lot of love for the Russians, there's not a lot of great sense that the Russians provide things.

The Russians, in their regional behavior, tend to be bottom feeders. They tend to go into places like Libya and Syria that are falling apart. They make marginal investments, derive marginal benefits. I don't think anybody, except maybe the Egyptians and maybe the Algerians are really enthusiastic about a Russian relationship. But there is this sense that the Russians provide a way to escape American hegemony. There's a sense the Americans come in and they want to change the world, they want to make everybody democratic, they want to impose their will. And what a lot of countries in the region would like is A) they'd like more control of what happens inside their own country without pesky people telling them how to run their lives.

And they want to be able to bargain for better deals. And there's a sense that by being non-aligned, by not taking a stake in these Great Power conflicts, we'll have a relationship with Russia and with China and the United States. We'll have good relations with Russia and China and the United States and we'll benefit from that and they can work out their own problems elsewhere. And the UAE is an example of a country with an increasingly strong relationship with the United States over the last three years, at the same time that they got a lot of Russians and a lot of Russian wealth that came out of Russia, went to the UAE, protected from sanctions.

And there's a sense on the UAE side that we don't have a dog in this fight. I was in Egypt right after the invasion, about a month later, and one of my Egyptian friends looked at me and gave me an expression that I'd never heard in Arabic, which is apparently a medieval phrase that means, I don't have a dog in this fight, except it involves camels. And which is true, of course, Egypt was profoundly hurt by the war in Ukraine, but there was this sense and I think there's a broader sense in the Middle East that “this isn't our fight, that's their fight. That's them fighting about their things. If you want to talk about sovereignty, let's talk about the Palestinians,” which in the eyes of many Arabs, the United States has never really cared about. And so, let them work their things out and we'll live our lives. And the Russians help them gain independence from this sense of an overweening United States.

Mr. Bergmann: So, it sort of seems that the relationship between Moscow and Beijing has become a partnership with no limits. This is, in some ways, a partnership with limits, or maybe it's not even right to call the Moscow-Tehran relationship a partnership, but it's a more transactional way of engaging. How would you think of that partnership?

Dr. Alterman: Well, look I think it's friends with benefits.

Mr. Bergmann: Yeah, friends with benefits. 

Dr. Alterman: There is a deep and messy history, which is really deep and really messy, it goes back a long time. But right now, from a strategic perspective, there is this alignment because for both Russia and Iran, the principal security threat they feel comes from the United States and its partners and allies. And there's both an urgency and a necessity to undermine that. An urgency and necessity to undermine sanctions, an urgency and necessity to rally forces around the idea that the United States can't boss everybody in the world around. And I think they say there's the history, but there's the present and we're going to deal with the present. 

Mr. Bergmann: The transactional nature of Russia's relationship, especially with Gulf states, strikes me as potentially problematic. That if Russia begins to provide Iran with more advanced weapons technology, will that receive pushback from the Gulf states? Or is Russia just sort of seen as a very transactional actor throughout much of the region?

Dr. Notte: I mean, just perhaps a quick note on transactional, I'm not entirely sure that I would characterize the Russia-Iran relationship as transactional today. Because to me, transactional implies a quid pro quo engagement, one party gives something and gets something specific in return. And I think there is a perception in Tehran, from what I understand, that one has already gotten a lot of things from this relationship over the last two plus years that one would have not gotten before they go beyond some military hardware. I mean, the Iranians have now acceded to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

They are more aligned with Russia in various multilateral institutions. And they are also, for instance, making forays into Central Asia, enhancing their bilateral cooperation there where there's a sort of understanding that probably wouldn't happen if the Russians were opposed to it. So, sort of a broader perception that one gets sort of more and more from this relationship. Now, having said that, I completely agree, first of all, on the importance of historical mistrust that hangs over that relationship. Though I do wonder, building on years of working together in Syria and now since 2022 whether the importance of that historical mistrust, at least when we look at the Russian leadership and the IRGC, is becoming less important as an inhibitor of cooperation.

But certainly, there are constraints, and you just asked about the Gulf states. I think one explanation as to why Russia has not given certain systems to the Iranians might be in order not to antagonize, in particular, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. I mean, I was in Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago. I took up that issue of Russia-Iran cooperation and the sense that I got was, yeah, this is a problem for us and we do take it up with the Russians at the highest level. And you know, given that coordination in OPEC+ is very important for the Russians. And I mean President Putin, where did he go in the region after October 7th? He went to the Gulf, he didn't go to Iran, he went to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

I do think that they care about this relationship, and so that might act as a break in terms of how far the Russians are willing to go.

Dr. Alterman: Absolutely true. And part of the reason why the Gulf states want to maintain a good relationship with the Russians is partly to drive resources, but partly to constrain what Russia does with the Iranians. Because the Gulf states are pretty transactional, and they believe in transactional relationships. And the Gulf states' relationship with China is enhanced by the belief that one of the ways to get greater Gulf security is by ensuring that Saudi Arabia exports more oil to China than Iran does. Because then, when the Saudis tell the Chinese, “we really need you to stop doing this,” the Chinese are more likely to listen than if there's a lesser sense of stake.

So, just as the Gulf states, in many cases, want to buy elaborate weapon systems from the United States to get the United States committed to their security, I think the Gulf States want to develop relationships with countries that are aligned with Iran to have all these countries go through a balancing act when they're thinking about the relationship with the Iranians, so they have a voice. And this, I think, is a very Gulf response and for Americans who are used to the bifurcated map of the world—remember the maps of Europe, there's the red side, there's the blue side—that's not the way they see the world.

They see Iran as a permanent reality, they see a relationship with Russia as an important way to constrain what Iran has. And I think on the one hand, they say we're not going to be able to cut off Iran, but we can certainly influence what people give to Iran, and that's why Gulf leaders are working closely with the Russians, not because they're going to walk off in a fit of pique, but because they say we're going to co-opt the Russians to some degree to constrain the Iranians when it comes to our interests.

Mr. Bergmann Hanna, you mentioned the kind of lessons learned on both sides reacting to Western sanctions. And I was wondering if we could maybe unpack this a bit. Right now, there's a huge effort to sanction the Russian economy but also to deprive Russia, especially the Russian defense industry, of crucial parts and components and technology. There are new sanctions that were just announced today by the United States that really goes after the banking sector to try to hopefully enforce sanctions, or to put the onus on banks to essentially help enforce a lot of the sanctions and export controls. What lessons learned, and this is question for both of you, is Russia taking from the Iranian experience and perhaps vice versa?

Dr. Notte: That's an excellent question and I think it's maybe hard to answer it with a great degree of specificity, because it's an issue that's very hard to study or get by through the open source. I mean, what do we know? We know that various Russian officials, including at the highest level have repeatedly stated that they see Iran as this model of perseverance, having persisted under sanctions for a long time. And that it's a model that one can look towards, actually, President Putin said it last week at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. He sort of applauded how the Iranians in certain industries and high tech have performed under Western sanctions, and that the Russians are sort of studying this closely.

And we've seen those Russian statements repeatedly over the last two years. And then this agreement that I noted that was concluded, I believe, in December of last year, to work together in that area. We've also seen certain Russian companies, I think there was a report in the Russian press that Pobeda, the Russian airline, should look towards Mahan Air, for example, in terms of studying how they've existed under sanctions. But let me make a suggestion in terms of how we can think about this issue more broadly. I think when it comes to potential Russian learning from Iran in the area of sanctions, I think there is learning in terms of how to evade sanctions.

And that gets us into the area of illicit procurement strategies, how to get stuff from abroad using front companies, hiding end users, those kinds of strategies which I think the Iranians have honed over decades, so sort of evading sanctions. And then there's the whole issue of overcoming the effects of sanctions, which is slightly different, which has more to do with strategic adaptation in your military industrial complex. How to simply make do without certain components or technologies coming from abroad, how to reverse engineer systems, how to domesticate the production of certain systems.

And I would say that in both areas, Iran has honed its skills and expertise over decades. And so, those are two slightly different types of learning. I would also say, though, that there are those who would argue that actually when it comes to strategies for evading sanctions, there's not so much that the Russians will be able to learn from the Iranians, because they themselves have honed those skills over decades, thinking back to Soviet times. So, it's perhaps also early days to see how all of this shakes out.

But there seems to me to be a bit of a debate in the expert community in terms of the extent to which the Russians will really learn from the Iranians or will need those kinds of skills.

Mr. Bergmann: Jon, I’m curious for your take on the sanctions back and forth. And you know Iran has had domestic turmoil, protests that erupted recently or last year. And is that sort of a warning sign to Russia about the impact of sanctions, or does it have nothing to do with sanctions?

Dr. Alterman: No, I think, you know, frankly you have two rotten regimes that are shot through with corruption. I think you have a lot of public despair at the nature of daily life. You have governments that try to use an external enemy to rally people. But a lot of people look around and say, "What is this and what's the future of this?" You also have these corrupt networks and I think in many ways, the corrupt network is even more robust in Iran than in Russia. But there's a plenty strong corrupt network in Russia, and that's part of the sanctions busting.

So, I think there is a way in which on large scale movement of financial flows, on engaging with the Chinese, on finding ways to hide oil shipments and things like that. I think there's a lot of learning that is going on, a lot of cooperation. There is this profound strategic alignment in undermining the U.S. ability to shape the world through the U.S. connection to global financial markets. And this is both strategic and urgent for Russia and Iran, strategic but not urgent for China. But you do have this growing movement to say the United States shouldn't be able to shape the world, and for Russia and China this is urgent as well as strategic.

Mr. Bergmann: I want to turn to October 7th in a second. But first, I want to ask you, Jon about the recent death of the Iranian president in a helicopter crash. Ibrahim Raisi died last month. What impact might that have on the bilateral relationship with Russia, if at all? Or will that upend Iranian politics? Is that something that, as Russia watchers, we should be paying attention to?

Dr. Alterman: No, because the president and the foreign minister aren't the ones driving the foreign policy. They're the ones executing it, but it's conceived and controlled by the Supreme Leader's office, and the principal instrument is the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and not either the conventional Iranian Army, the Artesh or the foreign ministry, or anybody else. What this means for the future of the Supreme Leader, the current Supreme Leader is 85. Although I have to say he looked very sprightly at the funeral for Raisi. He seemed to be doing pretty well, but he's 85. Raisi was perceived by some people to be a potential successor.

I think that's the space to watch, is the succession in the actual leadership and not the political leadership. They'll have an election in a few weeks there are, I think, several virtually identical candidates, one reformist, who I'm told is not likely to do well at all. The alienation of the public will mean turnout would be profoundly low. I think Iranians have decided this doesn't matter and I think Russians should also decide this just doesn't matter.

Mr. Bergmann: Let's turn to October 7th. Hamas' attack on Israel and Israel's response, going into Gaza has obviously been a global focus here in the United States, in Europe, and all around the world, especially in the Middle East. It also strikes me as sort of a pivot point for Russia in some ways in the region, particularly with its relationship with Israel, which had been, maybe characterizing it as warm is incorrect, but they had a working relationship between Moscow and Israel.

So, Hanna, maybe, if you could outline how has Russia approached the war in Gaza. And have they made inroads, at least from a kind of public diplomacy perspective. Have they made any gains in the region because of October 7th? And, maybe you could just describe their approach to this.

Dr. Notte: Yeah, happy to. I think at a broad level, I would say that Russia has used October 7th and events subsequently in order to denigrate the United States and the West more broadly. Both in terms of blaming this new outbreak of violence on past U.S. foreign policy, on the U.S. monopolization of the of the peace process and how we got here. But also in terms of how the United States and Western countries have navigated the scene since October 7th. And to tap into these powerful, not just regional, but global grievances over the Palestinian issue.

We know how that issue has played. There's perceptions of Western double standards in terms of how Western governments have dealt with the war in Gaza compared to the war in Ukraine. We have some left-leaning Latin American government severing their ties with Israel, we have the South African case against Israel. And I think Russia looks at all of this and understands it very well, and sort of taps into that and benefits from that, actually, without having to do very much. Now, does that score Russia points in the region? That's a whole different question. And my sense, and I'm very curious in Jon's points on this because he also speaks a lot with folks from the region.

There might be a bit of a bifurcation, perhaps, between just sort of average people and elites. I mean, certainly my perception has been that when you speak with Arab elites about how Russia has navigated this, there is no illusion about Russia being cynical and instrumental and exploiting this. And, you know, we haven't forgotten Russian bombing of hospitals in Aleppo and what Russia has done in Syria. And so there is, on one level, I think, that perception that it's a cynical approach to what is happening. But then, on the other hand, you do have this perception that, well, at the end of the day, the Russians are our guy on the UN Security Council.

They are the ones who are standing up for the cause of the Palestinians, and not just since October 7th, but also prior to that. And so, that does seem to score Russia some points, but I find it so hard to pinpoint to what extent that really translates into any meaningful Russian gains. Something that we've seen is Russia using the UN Security Council and the UN in particular, in order to use that as a platform to make its points on that conflict, facing off with us over various draft Security Council resolutions. What we're not seeing is Russia actually active as a diplomatic force to try to defuse this crisis.

So I don't think that if you go to the region, you will actually see anyone seriously looking towards Moscow or towards Beijing, for that matter, to actually get us out of this crisis. So, it seems to me that the United States is in the non-enviable position of simultaneously being the most hated power in the region right now, but also the one that everyone actually looks towards when it comes to being a diplomatic heavyweight and having leverage over the different parties. I mean, the Russians hosted intra-Palestinian meetings in Moscow, but from what I understand, that was also not a really serious undertaking. That was something that built on their previous engagement with the Palestinians, but not a serious effort.

Dr. Alterman: I think Hanna has it exactly right. There's a way in which I think a lot of people see Russia as a cynical actor in the region, but they see the United States as a sanctimonious actor in the region. And given a choice between cynical and sanctimonious, a lot of people in the Middle East say, "Well, it's a cynical world out there, and why are the Americans consistently so sanctimonious." I hear that in foreign ministries in the region, people watch RT and not CNN. There really is this sort of sense that the Russians can tap into the sense of unease which the region certainly feels since October 7th. There is a profound sense of U.S. double standards, a profound sense that the United States is standing by while tens of thousands of civilians are slaughtered.

And the United States could stop it and isn't stopping it. And therefore, I think the Russian cynicism feels right for the moment to a lot of people in the Arab world. As Hanna exactly correctly said, when you're looking for somebody to actually move a solution to the problem, the Americans are moving a solution. Tony Blinken is on his eighth visit to the Middle East, and every time he goes, that's where the diplomacy goes, that's where the solution set is. Still far away? I think we have a long way to go, but there is a sense that Russian and Chinese diplomacy, for all that people talk about Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East, when there's work to be done, people turn to the United States.

But realistically, people also look and say, "When's the last time the United States actually fixed the problem in the Middle East?" Iraq has been a disaster and there's sort of this cascading sense that there's not really an alternative to the United States when it comes to threats from Iran, all those things. There's a sense the United States has to do it, but there's also this constant reinforcing of the inadequacy of the United States. That wasn't the feeling after 1991 when the US pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait with a coalition of more than three dozen countries.

But I think that the Middle East looks generally at the United States and says, "Your batting average is really low, and we need it to be higher. We need you to be more effective than you've been." I'm happy to talk about the US-Russia relationship, or maybe Hanna wants to comment on this.

Dr. Notte: I mean, just two things to add to those excellent points. Because you asked at the outset whether this was a turning point for how Russia navigates the region. And I would say not quite, because Russian affinity with the Palestinian cause, and those contacts and hosting Hamas in Moscow, that all goes way back. And, you know, it goes back to Soviet times, but I would say that the Russians have, in previous instances of violence breaking out, been much more evenhanded in terms of how they would comment on the role of Israel and the Palestinians.

So, there is this sort of willingness to be quite harsh in terms of commenting on Israel. And I think one interesting question to watch going forward is, what does that mean medium- to long-term for the Russia-Israel relationship? It's my sense that both sides probably don't want that relationship to go south completely. They do still need to de-conflict in Syria, and I think that's something that the Russians want to continue to do. They do maintain contact, at least at the level of deputy foreign minister, ambassador in Moscow. I believe the Israeli ambassador attended Putin's inauguration a few weeks ago.

So, those contacts continue and perhaps neither side is prepared to let it go completely. Though I also hear from my Israeli contacts that the disappointment with how Russia has played this crisis runs really, really deep, and there's a great sense of frustration. The other point I wanted to make—

Mr. Bergmann: Hey guys, just quickly, just on that one thought, is that, you know, prior to October 7th, there was a lot of annoyance with the lack of Israeli assistance to Ukraine. Now, after October 7th, given Israel's at war, that's not really expected. But I do think that, you know, we're expecting a long war in Ukraine and hopefully the war in Gaza would come to an end relatively soon. I think that is one thing that will be sort of interesting. Where are we in 2025 and 2026 when it comes to the Israel-Ukraine relationship? At least on the military assistance side, where perhaps the Israelis might be willing to do a bit more when they weren't prior to October 7th.

Dr. Notte: Well, that's a great point. And the only other thing I wanted to add to what Jon said in terms of, you know, the Americans now have their work cut out for themselves, and that's who everyone's looking to in the region. And Russia has no interest in seeing US diplomacy succeed, I think, in diffusing those tensions. But Russia also can only go so far, I think, in throwing wrenches. And I think earlier this week was an interesting example where we saw that play out, where the UN Security Council passed a resolution to endorse this three-phase ceasefire plan. And everyone voted for it, and the Russians abstained rather than vetoing it.

And if you look at the Russian talking points explaining that decision, they are aware that there was Arab consensus behind that resolution. And so, they don't want to antagonize the Arabs on that issue, either. And so, they have to be, I think, careful how far they play that game of potentially torpedoing U.S. efforts.

Dr. Alterman: And I think Hanna is exactly right, that the Russians have too much stake in maintaining some sort of Israel relationship in the longer term. There is about 10 percent of the Israeli population of direct Russian descent, a lot of Ukrainians as well. There are economic ties which the Israelis have boosted through the years. There is this interest in deconfliction in Syria, they sort of have a similar view of the region, partly their skepticism of U.S. efforts to spread democracy. I think both Russia and Israel think strongman regimes provide security, it is a way to keep Islamists at bay.

Like the Gulf Arabs, the Russians are interested in maintaining a sort of balance. That balance has shifted away from Israel recently, but not irrevocably so. And it seems to me that we will get to a point in the not-too-distant future when the Russians and the Israelis will try to build back. I think as the Russians think about their global role, the Russians would like to be present at any sort of reconstruction project for Gaza as an issue of prestige, as indeed the Chinese will. Their instinct to undermine, to foil, to complicate will be there. And I think they will see people's desire to move forward, both the United States, Israelis and the Arab states, that'll be a way for Russia to get things, to get prestige, to get concessions.

And it all seems to me that this fits into the fact that Russia is a bottom feeder in the region. It is not wealthy, its reputation as a fighting force completely fell apart with Ukraine. It had been elevated a little bit by its performance in Syria, but Russia ultimately wants to be treated as a superpower in the Middle East. But it's a country with a GDP the size of Spain, smaller than Italy, right? And this is not a major force, they want to be treated like a major force. And I think countries in the region see an attraction in dealing with the Russians as a way to shape some of their relations with the United States.

But I don't think anybody in the region is under the illusion that we're back in the Cold War and you have a reasonable choice and you can do well with one or the other. Everybody is instead thinking, “What's the balance I have to strike between these two adversaries?” Except, I think that the Syrians and the Iranians are all in on Team Russia. But I think for most countries in the region, it's really a question of, “How do I strike that balance? What level of Russia, China, the United States do I want to have?” I think the bets, the core position is going to be a U.S. position. But there are hedges with Russia and China as a way to enhance leverage with the United States, where everybody feels much, much weaker.

Mr. Bergmann: Maybe I could just follow up on that a little bit, because it strikes me that the Russians are our prime diplomatic opportunists and like to see themselves as a global power and playing a big role in the world. They have a very large foreign ministry, Sergey Lavrov can be very active on the global stage, you know, during the Obama Administration, negotiating over Yemen, negotiating over Syria. And in some ways, it does strike me that the Russians could come in and say, "Look, we're sort of a balanced broker here, we have a relationship with the Hamas, we have a relationship with Israel."

Have they not tried, or is that just a completely ridiculous concept that they would even try to enter into a peacemaking role? Or is it just, they're very happy that the bag is sort of being left with the United States to try to resolve what seems like a very intractable conflict.

Dr. Alterman: I mean, my view is they were delighted to be part of the quartet when that was the thing in the early 2000s. Their problem is, when I was in Beijing in the early 2000s, all the Chinese were saying, "We'd like to be part of the quartet." And partly I wondered what the quartet was actually going to get done. And partly, I wondered, so you want a quintet? I'm not really sure how this works, but it'll be interesting when the dust starts to settle. Not only what role the Russians play, but what role the Chinese play, and where there's competition between the two over their future roles in the Middle East. It could work out the way the JCPOA worked out.

And what happened at that point was the Russians were active in a constructive way, and the Chinese kind of followed through. And the Russians would say something, the Chinese would nod. But part of me wonders if the way this is going to play out, is the Chinese aren't going to be content to just hold the Russian coattails. And instead, are going to envision themselves with a more central role and how Russia would respond to that. Again, it depends on things that haven't happened yet, and I don't know when it's going to happen. But I could imagine that this one ends a little bit differently than the last one did.

Dr. Notte: A few thoughts on this. So first of all, I would say that already, for years prior to October 7th, I think the Russians understood that when it comes to convening power on the Israel-Palestine file, their leverage was always going to be much more limited than that of the Americans. Which is why they lamented the Abraham Accords or the diplomacy leading up to that and the U.S. diplomacy on that file. And try to really carve out a niche for themselves in order to stay relevant with intra-Palestinian meetings in Moscow that were convened, not just since October 7th, but also prior to that.

On the other hand, I would say, when it comes to Russia and China and the potential competition here, I'm not quite sure. It's possible but so far, it seems to me that looking at Russian reactions to Beijing playing a role in Iran-Saudi rapprochement, or even now Beijing hosting an intra-Palestinian meeting subsequent to the one that happened in Moscow. I haven't seen a whole lot of criticism coming out of Russia. The sense that I get is that right now, as long as it's not the Americans, as long as it's China, that's in the broad scheme of things good for us. Whether that turns into greater competition down the line, I think is an open question.

Dr. Alterman: Right. But it's going to be the Americans. I mean, there will be a central American role in the reconstruction of Gaza, and there will be a central Arab role. And the extent to which the Chinese seek to assert themselves, the extent to which the Russians are going to feel comfortable with the Chinese asserting themselves or overshadowing the Russian role, I think is a potential friction point to watch.

Dr. Notte: Yes, possibly. And I think what you see Russia calling for now is international conferences that involve all P5 and regional countries on that particular issue. Because they also know that, when it comes to Israel, they've sidelined themselves as a viable mediator for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Bergmann: I want to maybe bring this back to Iran a bit. I think there's sort of growing concern about Russia's use of proxies, both using hybrid tactics in Europe. There's been lots of incidents of sabotage and arson and potential attacks on critical infrastructure. Basically, Western concern about Russia's response to the West. And there's been concern about in the Sahel in North Africa, where there's been a number of military coups where Russia has been seen as supportive in playing a role, sort of boosting these regimes militarily.

And so, if you kind of view Russia-West through the lens of “We're kind of in this proxy struggle,” it strikes me that the Middle East is a potential place for that kind of U.S.-Russia-Western proxy struggle to take place. Now, maybe you could talk a little bit about Russia's relationship with a lot of Iran's proxies, whether it's Hezbollah, whether that's in Yemen. And does Russia potentially play a role in potentially either stoking conflict, or does it have an interest in trying to sort of facilitate a larger conflagration in the region? Or potentially Iran-Israeli conflict that we seem to be on the cusp of.

So, how do you kind of see Russia's role in the current strategic problems I described, or the security problems in the Middle East right now?

Dr. Notte: I mean, I would answer that question in two parts. Enhancing its ties with Iranian partners and proxies somewhat? Yes. Stoking a regional escalation or regional war? No. So, I think what we've seen over the last two years and then certainly since October 7th is perhaps a greater Russian willingness to embrace some of Iran's partners and proxies. I mean political contacts with Hezbollah, with the Houthis, with Hamas go back many years. I don't think that we've ever had something that you could call systemic security assistance by Russia to those actors. And I don't think that that's what we're seeing now, I haven't seen any evidence to indicate that.

Though you see more reports of the odd weapons system, perhaps being passed by Wagner or by Russia to Hezbollah, for example. Certainly, at the political level, I think Russia has been quite vocal in defending taking the side of Hamas and the Houthis on the UN Security Council. And it has hosted delegations from both Hamas and the Houthis in Moscow, which is also, I think, quite an interesting signal. So, the way I would put it is there's somewhat of a greater desire or willingness to egg on the Axis of Resistance and use its potential to sort of be a spoiler in regional affairs than perhaps was the case prior to the war in Ukraine.

Having said that, when you ask me about Russian calculus regarding an escalation in the region, whether that's a war between Israel and Hezbollah, which is having a lot of people concerned now. Or even some confrontation between Israel and Iran, it might be tempting to think that that would be in Russia's interest, because you could sort of say, well, if that happens, then U.S. military resources and bandwidth is going to be even further averted away from Ukraine and towards the Middle East. After October 7th, we saw the United States moving Patriot batteries to the region. Then in mid-April, when we had the recent exchange of strikes between Israel and Iran, the United States also came to the defense of Israel.

And so, if we have a broader war, there might be further resources going to the region that could be good for the Kremlin, as could an increase in oil prices that might result from such an escalation. I think the World Bank said in late April that if there's a serious escalation in the Middle East, then the oil price might go above $100 a barrel. Now, having said that, I'm not so convinced that it would be really beneficial for Russia, because if we see escalation, there are certain risks for Russia. And let me name three that I can see. If you have a war between Israel and Hezbollah, it's hard for me to see how such a war would not make Syria a secondary arena for that confrontation.

I mean, already since October 7th, we've seen Israel step up its strikes on Iranian partners on infrastructure that the Iranians use in Syria quite a bit. You know, Israel has really stepped up a notch. And if we were to see a proper war, certainly the effect on Syria wouldn't be anything like the effect would be on Lebanon but still, we could see a scale up in Israeli operations. And I'm not sure if you're Russia and you continue to care about your assets and your influence in Syria, that is something you want to see. So, that's a first thought that I would have.

The second is that, depending on how such an escalation shakes out, it could decimate Iran's defense infrastructure, at least to some extent. If there's a war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iranians would be quite preoccupied supporting their partner with missiles and drones. And if Iran is attacked, then depending on what is being targeted, I think that could also be quite painful. Now, if you're Russia, do you really want to see that happen to your partner? You could make the argument that the Russians have already become somewhat less dependent on the Iranians because they've indigenized some of that UAV production. They're also getting shells from the North Koreans.

Okay, fair enough. But I still think that for as long as the war in Ukraine is ongoing, and you sit in Moscow, you don't want to see that happen, especially if you don't know how it's going to shake out. And the last point I make is that Russia has really benefited from Iranian-Gulf Arab rapprochement and Iranian-Saudi rapprochement. Because it makes it easier for the Russians to thread that needle between accruing geoeconomic benefits from dealing with the Gulf States while also dealing with Iran. Now, depending on how regional escalation shakes out, and I'm curious as to your thoughts on this, it could put Iran-Gulf Arab rapprochement at risk. And it could then make Russia's own balancing act between those different actors somewhat more tenuous or precarious.

So, I think my point here is that Russia would have very limited control over how things shake out, and it certainly doesn't want to get involved in any regional conflagration with its own military assets, because the priority is the campaign in Ukraine. So, Russia would also certainly stand to lose. Regional war might be bad for Russia's enemies, but it could also be quite painful for Russia.

Dr. Alterman: I think Hanna has it basically right. I think we make a mistake when we project American ambition onto the Russians. I don't think the Russians think that they can remake the region. You know, we invaded Iraq to remake Iraq, we invaded Afghanistan to remake the greater Middle East, we had a global war on terror. There was really this sense, we had the forward march of freedom and we had all this sense that we're going to reshape things, and by dint, both of military efforts and political efforts and assistance and all those things, that we can change the region.

I think Russia makes small bets, really small bets, with very limited tools, very limited risks. And they try to get small gains from small bets, and they will react to whatever opportunities they have without taking large risks. It seems to me that on the issue of proxies, the Russians aren't really as comfortable as the Iranians are with proxies. The Iranians love the sort of deniability, what some of my friends call implausible deniability, right? We don't really control them. I think the Russian use of proxies is Wagner, which they obviously control.

I don't think they like the idea of guys with beards running around doing what they want to do, attacking things. To my understanding, the Iranians love that. I don't think that's where the Russians want to go, and that is a barrier to the Russians being all in with the Iranian strategy, partly because of some of the risks that Hanna was talking about.

Mr. Bergmann: No, I think that's a great point. And the only thing I think I might add is that I do think that the Russians do have an inflated view of themselves. And as a revisionist power, I think might see real opportunity in an Israel-Iran conflict. And I think in unpredictable ways perhaps, but it's not as if they necessarily have the ability or power to actually stoke that on the sideline.

Dr. Alterman: And it's not like the 1973 War where they see themselves as sort of right there at the table. I think again, their engagement was with Libya, their engagement was with Syria, their engagement is in places that are completely falling apart. And then their investment in Syria: fewer than 5,000 troops and I think fewer than was it two dozen fixed wing aircraft?

Mr. Bergmann: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Alterman: Maybe one dozen.

Mr. Bergmann: Yeah.

Dr. Alterman: A tiny investment changed the course of the war, got a permanent naval base, I mean all those things. It's a remarkable economy of effort. You don't have the ambitions the United States has, you don't have the outcomes the United States is seeking. But you're making progress in a world that you're convinced is stacked against you. And the Americans have an optimistic world, an optimistic view that we can make this all work out. And to my mind, I'm not a Russia expert, to my mind, the premise of the Russian stuff is, “It's all miserable let's make it a little better.”

Mr. Bergmann: Yeah. Final question because we're at time. Do you see the Russian-Iranian relationship staying where it is, or on an upward trajectory to become closer and to get stronger? Hanna.

Dr. Notte: I see it on a slight upward trajectory, not going towards a full, I don't know, military alliance. But certainly moving past some of the transactionalism that we've seen in the past. Because again, to come back to Jon's point, I think they just fundamentally united in a common purpose, which is to undermine the United States, the West and what they see as an unjust and stacked against them global order. And that's a very powerful uniting factor that perhaps overcame some of that historical mistrust and the other breaks that we saw and that we still see in the relationship.

Dr. Alterman: Exacerbated by the persistence of the current government in Iran and the ongoing nature of the Ukraine war. If either one of those things change, I could see a shift in the relationship. But as Hanna says, as long as we have that logic, the strategic alignment, it seems to me that we'll have a gradual increase in integration.

Mr. Bergmann: Well, we're going to have to leave it there, unfortunately. Hanna, thank you so much for joining us, for being here in D.C. from your home in Berlin. Jon, thanks so much for joining us. And a massive thank you to all of you who tuned in to watch this event. And if you did, I suggest taking out your phones right now because you should subscribe to our podcast. We have Russian Roulette here and also Jon's podcast, Babel: Translating the Middle East. And you can get those wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you so much for joining us, and have a great afternoon.