The struggle for dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran – one the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, the other of the Shi’ite – is being conducted up and down the Middle East. In Syria and Yemen, the conflict has descended into open conflict. In Iraq it is largely a struggle for political superiority. Elsewhere the two countries are competing by proxy, providing varying degrees of support to opposing sides in disputes in Bahrain, Qatar, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
This long-time rivalry has itself been caught up in a wider geopolitical struggle –Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev has called it the “New Cold War” – namely, American support for Saudi Arabia and its allies as opposed to Russian support in Syria’s civil war for Iran, Hezbollah and President Bashar al-Assad.
The analogy with the original super-power standoff, however, is far from exact, because the position of the two principals – US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin – are ambivalent. Trump admires strong man Putin, and was quite prepared in July 2017 to sign a joint US-Russian cease-fire agreement covering south-western Syria. Unfortunately Trump realized too late that one effect of the deal was greatly to strengthen Iran’s position in Syria, the last thing he wishes. An attempt by Trump to readjust the balance may have led to a further joint US-Russian agreement in November, under which Iranian forces were barred from operations on the Golan Heights.
Putin’s acquiescence in this curbing of Iranian expansionism demonstrates his own nuanced position. He is collaborating closely with Iran in the Syrian civil conflict because both are intent on benefitting from the eventual re-establishment of full Syrian sovereignty. His cooperation does not extend to endorsing Iran’s toxic anti-West, anti-Israel policies. Nor does he want to be seen by the Sunni majority in the Middle East, or by Russia’s millions of Sunni Muslim citizens, as enabling the Iranians to build a Shia crescent across the region. And Putin has rejected Iranian demands to share Russia’s long-established naval base at Tartus.
So Russian and Iranian interests do not always coincide, but the Kremlin is not about to ditch its current alliance with Iran. At the same time it remains keen to maintain good relations with Israel. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been trying to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria. According to well-placed sources in Moscow, Putin is planning to propose a formula under which no foreign country will be allowed to turn Syria into a platform for attacking neighboring states. This is unlikely to satisfy Netanyahu, since it would still leave Iran powerfully placed politically inside Syria, although it could prevent them from establishing air and missile bases there.
Putin by no means shares Iran’s declared intention to eliminate Israel from the Middle East. On the contrary, he seems intent on expanding Russian influence in the Jewish state. One example is the 20-year deal signed in 2013 between Russia’s Gazprom and the Levant Marketing Corporation, allowing for the exclusive purchase by Russia of three million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Israel‘s Tamar offshore gas field.
LNG is a major player in the developing political configuration in the Middle East and beyond. For example, Netanyahu visited Moscow in April 2016, and while Syria was the nominal subject for discussion in his closed-door meeting with Putin, media speculation centered on the possibility that they were also exploring whether Russia’s Gazprom might have a major hand in developing Israel’s Leviathan LNG field in the Eastern Mediterranean.
That possibility has since been exposed as a pipedream (literally), since plans for new multi-national pipelines from Israel’s Leviathan LNG field to the EU have been agreed, and they will break Gazprom’s virtual monopoly in supplying Europe with gas. Two Leviathan projects are in prospect: one pipeline going via Cyprus to Greece and Italy, the other running to Turkey, where it will join the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) and from there to Europe. The agreement to construct the first was signed in April 2017 by the energy ministers of Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy. It is estimated that the project will take about eight years to complete, and cost some six billion euros.
As for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his energy ambitions stretch far beyond the shores of Israel. He dreams of using TANAP to transport gas not only from Azerbaijan and Israel, but also from Qatar. In the current stand-off between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, supported by the Gulf states, Erdogan has placed himself firmly on Qatar’s side, even to the extent of sending troops there. Qatar has the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, reserves that will enable it to maintain production for 160 years, and media speculation has it that together with Turkey it is indeed resurrecting the dream of a gas pipeline from Qatar to Turkey.
In the current political climate it stands little chance of realization. Such a pipeline would have to run through Saudi Arabia and Syria. Even if the standoff between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is one day resolved, as long as Putin retains his dominance in Syria he would never approve the project. Gazprom’s current dominance of the European gas market is already heavily threatened by the Leviathan-based projects. Another competitor drawing on Qatar’s LNG reserves could deliver Gazprom its death blow in Europe. Putin will ensure that it never happens.
In this area, too, the US does not find itself at odds with Russia. The US is well on the way to becoming completely self-sufficient in energy – a situation estimated to arise as soon as 2021 – but at the moment is still importing LNG and crude oil. The US may have started to export petroleum products and coal, but this represents no threat to Russia’s Gazprom.
So Trump is content to allow the LNG head-to-head in the Middle East play itself out, estimating that the end game will see Russia diminished, at least commercially, as Israel’s oil-based products begin competing in the European market. For the rest, Trump does not like Putin‘s liaison with Iran, but it is clearly a marriage of convenience. There is no love lost between the parties.
By and large the waters in the Middle East are muddied. As for a new Cold War, the situation scarcely seems to match up to the historic model.