Iran and Israel Deal with the Rampaging Russian Bear

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced some unusual bedfellows, the strangest of whom are Iran and Israel. Perhaps the term “bedfellows” is an exaggeration, but these bitter enemies face two overlapping challenges. The first is how to manage ties with Moscow without harming their wider diplomatic relations. This is easier for Iran given its close partnership with Russia in Syria and the enthusiasm of Iranian hardliners, who are pleased to see an American European partner—Ukraine—take a beating. By contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is trying to play the role of mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Yet he must not take steps that complicate the diplomatic moves of the Biden White House.

The second challenge is how to respond to Moscow’s bid to effectively condition its support for the Vienna nuclear talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the outcome of the Ukraine crisis. While neither will mourn their collapse, Israel and Iran have good reason to fear the aftermath of failed talks. Their shared ambivalence initially helped to support the efforts of American (and probably Russian) negotiators to build a firewall between the Vienna talks and Putin’s war in Ukraine. That wall has now been breached, and thus the negotiations, as European officials put it, are on “pause.” This pause may turn out to be permanent.

The chances for diplomacy in Ukraine seem poor, while a resumption of the Vienna talks will partly depend on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hardliners in Israel and Iran might celebrate the demise of the JCPOA. But without an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program—and in the wake of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s March 10 declaration that “Regional involvement gives us strategic depth and more national strength”—the prospects for a major military confrontation between Israel and the US, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other, could quickly escalate into a wider regional conflict. Thus, at least for the moment, a good case could be made that the interests of Israel and Iran would be best served by a diplomatic solution that ends the bloodletting while allowing for a face-saving formula in Vienna. Yet the chances for diplomacy in Ukraine seem poor, while a resumption of the Vienna talks will partly depend on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Emboldened by what he probably sees as Russia’s “victory” in Ukraine—and determined to make the United States and its allies pay for the US-led “economic war” on Russia—Putin might lash out in ways that could complicate the calculations of Israel and even Iran. The outcome of the Ukraine conflict will have enormous repercussions for both countries, not to mention for the wider Middle East.

Bennett Plays the “Mediator” Card While Keeping One Eye on Vienna

A hardline Israeli commentator recently complained that while “every single Israeli media outlet sent correspondents to Ukraine and the war zones…not a single Israeli news outlet has sent correspondents [to Vienna].” Surmising the same judgment, Retired Israeli Brigadier General Assaf Orion argues that Israel should have been focusing on the nuclear negotiations rather than on Ukraine.

Apart from highlighting difficult questions of prioritization, these remarks underscore a wider debate in Israel’s government and security establishment about the costs and benefits of opposing what officials anticipate would be a flawed nuclear agreement. In late December 2021, Prime Minister Bennett laid out Israel’s position. “We want a good deal,” he said. “Is this expected to happen in the current parameters? No.” But in contrast to the previous government, which was looking to fight with the United States, Bennett promised a “quiet” approach, one that suggested that Israel would not be precluded from using the military option to address Iran’s nuclear program. Although pitched with the Biden Administration in mind, this more low key approach was also designed to facilitate Israel’s expanding diplomacy with Gulf Arab states, such as the United Arab Emirates, as well as to minimize obstacles to Turkey’s recent opening to Israel, which was marked by President Isaac Herzog’s March 9 state visit to Ankara.

In the two weeks preceding Herzog’s visit, the increasingly dire situation in Ukraine was putting Bennett’s government in a tricky spot.

In the two weeks preceding Herzog’s visit, the increasingly dire situation in Ukraine was putting Bennett’s government in a tricky spot. On February 22, Israeli officials were still debating how to respond to the crisis. “We can’t just ignore what the Russians did,” an Israeli official noted. Two days later Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced that Russia’s attack is “a serious violation of the international order.” But his remarks hardly signaled a decisive shift in position. Indeed, it was quickly followed by a Tweet from Yair Netanyahu (son of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) who asserted that “Lapid does not represent the majority of Israeli citizens.” Shortly after, Bennett declared that “like everyone else, we pray for peace and calm in Ukraine” but made no mention of Russia, much less of Putin.

March 5 Changed Everything

Russia’s escalating assault during the first week of March put pressure on the Israeli government to remedy this ambiguity. Bennett’s March 5 meeting with Putin in Moscow, and his subsequent offer to serve as a mediator, suggested that he might go the extra mile to placate the Russian president. On that same day, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threw a diplomatic left hook. Moscow, he insisted, wanted a written guarantee that sanctions “launched by the U.S. will not in any way harm our right to free, fully fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran.” While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that the sanctions the US had imposed on Russia “have nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal,” Lavrov effectively linked the two, thus giving Tehran an incentive to harden its demands or even quit the talks. Suddenly the negotiations, which according to numerous reports were on the brink of success, were endangered, thus opening up the possibility that the agreement that Israel dreaded might never happen.

Days later, in a phone call, Bennett suggested to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that he consider Putin’s proposals for ending the conflict, an idea that got a curt “I hear you” reply. There remains much confusion regarding this report, which prompted Ukrainian officials to deny that Bennett was pressuring Zelenskyy. Whatever the details, Bennett is determined to stay on good terms with both Moscow and Washington, a point underscored by a statement from his office that his Moscow trip had the “blessings” of the Biden Administration. At the same time, having thrown a monkey wrench into the Vienna talks, by default or by design, Moscow has given Bennett an additional incentive to work with Putin and Lavrov. Bennett has certainly demonstrated his tactical juggling skills, even if his ultimate strategy remains unclear.

Bennett is determined to stay on good terms with both Moscow and Washington, a point underscored by a statement from his office that his Moscow trip had the “blessings” of the Biden Administration.

Iranian Leaders Dodge Moscow’s Monkey Wrench

It was not surprising that Iranian officials blamed the United States for the “pause” in the Vienna talks that followed Moscow’s linkage of the negotiations with the Ukraine crisis. At the same time, it seems that Iranians were caught off guard by Lavrov’s statement. After all, Russian leaders had previously criticized the Iranian government for being slow to define its basic positions. Moscow may very well have pushed Iranian negotiators to reach an agreement whose basic outlines were apparently drawn in the two weeks preceding Lavrov’s statement. The table thus was set, only to be upset.

There are two reasons Iran wants a deal. First, despite Khamanei’s assertion that Iran needs nuclear power, the entire economy will rely on oil and gas sales for the foreseeable future. While Iran has mitigated the effects of imposed US sanctions by selling oil to China, President Ebrahim Raisi has hitched whatever legitimacy his government has to the promise of solving Iran’s severe economic problems. Absent a revived JCPOA, sanctions will remain, and thus it will be much harder for him to honor this pledge. Second, if the Vienna talks fail, the prospects for a US-Iranian military confrontation will grow. For both reasons some kind of compromise is probably a better alternative to the black hole of no agreement.

In all likelihood, these considerations shaped Iran’s initial response to Lavrov’s March 5 remarks. The precise tone or content of this response is not easy to gauge but it certainly registered ambivalence. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman insisted that Moscow had been constructive “so far,” and that it was “clear that Vienna talks are on their way and Iran’s peaceful nuclear cooperation shouldn’t be limited or affected by any sanctions including Iran’s cooperation with Russia.” Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian asserted that Iran would not allow “any foreign elements to undermine its national interests.” Reuters reported that an Iranian official said in no uncertain terms that “there is an understanding that by changing its position in Vienna talks Russia wants to secure its interests in other places. This move is not constructive.” This author’s review of Farsi news sources did not reveal any statement by Iranian officials that was explicit as this one reported by Reuters. But there is no doubt that Iranian officials had to maneuver to avoid being hit by Lavrov’s monkey wrench as it flew their way.

Moscow’s Linkage Reveals A Deeper Iranian Debate

Lurking just beneath the surface of these responses is a deeper strategic debate regarding the very direction of Iran’s engagement with the wider global community. Three days after Lavrov’s statement, President Raisi articulated a tough if pragmatic hardline position. In a speech focusing on economic problems and the need to remove sanctions in a “dignified fashion,” Raisi declared that “some accuse us of looking one-dimensionally at the East… This is not correct. The administration is looking to develop relations with all countries and create balance in the country’s foreign policy.” Moderate conservative politician Ali Motahari took this position one step further in a Tweet that turned the linkage argument on its head. “Iran,” he declared, “must condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in order to demonstrate its independence. Currently, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting reports the news like one of the Russian colonies. Let us always remember the separation of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia from Iran by Russia and the Soviet support for Saddam in his attack on Iran.”

Iran’s explicit critiques of Russia have diminished as Moscow has pressed its offensive in Ukraine.

These sentiments were given free rein in a hardline publication that mocked Zelenskyy. “Zelenskyy’s lifestyle as a hedonist,” it wrote, “made him an effective tool in the hands of the Western mafia, especially the Americans.” The publication not only mocked him as a “Jew and has deep ties to Jewish officials and the rich, such as George Soros,” it taunted him for relying on the “Zionists,” (i.e., Israel), even after they “refused to…sign a UN resolution against Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.” This claim was not completely true since Israel did in the end vote for a UN General Assembly resolution to condemn the invasion. But the article served the purpose of underscoring the essential point that if the Jewish president of Ukraine was so easily betrayed by the implied perfidy of the United States or Israel, Iran has every reason to resist signing a new JCPOA agreement with the Biden Administration.

Iran’s Supreme Leader has joined the clamor in his most recent speeches. He not only argued that the US had created the Ukraine crisis, he declared that “regional presence” is the very basis of Iran’s “strategic depth” while denouncing the “suggestion that says that we must compromise…because if we show a little bit of toughness, they will impose sanctions on us. In my opinion, these would be grave mistakes.” These words have been widely and perhaps correctly interpreted as a warning against returning to the Vienna talks, or at the very least, a rejection of making any compromises with the United States.

A Grim Horizon

While it is too early to write the epitaph of the Vienna negotiations, Russia’s assault on Ukraine has clearly stiffened the backbone of Iranian hardliners who reject engagement with the West (and the United States in particular) in favor of the very “Eastern” approach that Raisi assailed. Global politics have again tipped the balance of power in Iran’s political arena in ways that could invite further discord between Iran and its neighbors. If reports that Russia is planning to recruit Syrian fighters for urban combat in Ukraine are true, this news suggests that the grim link between events in Ukraine and Middle East conflicts is growing day by day.

While it is too early to write the epitaph of the Vienna negotiations, Russia’s assault on Ukraine has clearly stiffened the backbone of Iranian hardliners who reject engagement with the West.

Israel and Iran have both endeavored to manage this link in ways that underscore the tricky challenge of dealing with Russia as they manage their regional and global relations. If domestic politics have played a role in shaping the responses of both states to the Ukraine crisis, Israeli leaders still have an interest in pushing for a ceasefire and some kind of compromise. By contrast, Tehran has effectively backed Putin’s war. This could put Iran at odds with other neighbors—especially Turkey—while inviting growing tensions with European states. Iran’s ultra-hardliners might welcome this development. But as Raisi and other Iranian leaders surely know, Tehran could pay a heavy diplomatic and economic price if it tries to embrace a rampaging Russian bear.