On the face of it, any improvement in diplomatic relations between countries that are friendly to Israel and the Iranian regime would be considered bad news for Jerusalem. In this context, you may have expected to hear grumblings about the scheduled visit Wednesday by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Tehran. Putin will be in Iran to attend a trilateral summit along with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev. But, intriguingly, Israeli officials have remained silent.
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Putin and Aliyev have much in common. Both are post-Soviet autocratic leaders of nations rich in oil and gas, but poor in democracy and free speech. And under both of them, their two countries have built increasingly close economic and security ties with Israel. Neither are likely allies, but geopolitical dynamics have pushed both Russia and Azerbaijan closer to Israel.
or over a decade now, the Jewish state has enjoyed increasingly warm relations with secular, Shi’a Azerbaijan. Israel imports a majority of its oil from that country and, according to Aliyev himself, has sold in recent years some $5-billion-worth of arms to his army, including – foreign sources say – drones, radar systems and missiles.
For much of this period, Azerbaijan has had tense relations with its Iranian neighbor, but Israeli intelligence officials have still called the country “a back door for Israel to Iran.”
However, as Aliyev’s attempts in the last two years to gain greater acceptance by the West have foundered – largely due to reports of major human rights infringements and the suppression of any free democracy or media in his country – he has grown closer both to the Kremlin and the Iranian regime. Their first trilateral summit took place in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, in August 2016.
The warmer relations do not, however, seem to have come at Israel’s expense, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making his own visit in December to Baku, where he signed a series of economic cooperation agreements.
For his part, Putin has worked since coming to power in 2000 on improving Russia’s historically poor relationship with Israel. In the last two years, since Russia deployed its military forces to Syria, in support of the failing Assad regime, these ties have acquired a new urgency, with Putin holding the keys to Syria’s postwar fate.
Putin is interested in keeping both the interests of Israel and Iran in check. Netanyahu has demanded that Tehran not be allowed to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, and that any forces loyal to Iran, such as those of its proxies Hezbollah, not be allowed to operate near the Golan border.
Sources close the Kremlin have said in recent months that Putin is not planning to demand that Iran remove its military advisers or the Shi’a militias it controls from Syria, as they are among the main factors in ensuring the survival of the Assad regime in Damascus. However, the president is interested in preventing a major Israeli intervention in Syria and is prepared to guarantee that Syria will not become a base for attacks on Israel.
Russian officials have emphasized the fact that the Kremlin has not obstructed or condemned Israeli air strikes in Syria, and that coordination between the Israel Air Force and Russia’s military representatives in Syria have been smooth and efficient.
The future of Syria was the main issue on the agenda two weeks ago when Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu visited Israel for talks with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Despite the ostensible closeness between Netanyahu and the Trump administration, the prime minister's entreaties that the United States do more to curb Iran’s influence in Syria, have elicited little, if any action. The conclusion, which can be seen in the increasing frequency of meetings and phone conversations with Putin, has been that Israel has little choice but to rely now on its friend in the Kremlin.
So what message can Putin and perhaps also Aliyev be expected to relay from Israel in their meetings on Thursday with the Iranian leadership?
While Iran has grand plans to build its own airbase and seaport in Syria, and has extracted promises from Syrian President Bashar Assad for land on which to build them, Israeli intelligence analysts believe that a final decision has yet to be made in Tehran. Building the bases will cost the Iranian economy – only beginning to recover from long years of sanctions – precious billions.
Beneath the surface in Tehran, meanwhile, there is a power struggle over whether this investment is worthwhile. President Hassan Rouhani is much less eager than his rivals, the leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to spend this money on faraway bases instead of on renewing Iran’s dilapidated domestic infrastructure. Israel’s policy is to increase the pressure against base-building in Syria. After all, why spend all that money, when Israel may bomb them anyway.
The trilateral summit in Tehran will mainly be about economic issues. Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan share the coastline (together with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) of the natural gas-rich Caspian Sea. Iran in particular is anxious to further exploit these energy riches and get access to Russia and to Azerbaijan’s advanced pipeline networks. Thus, on the sidelines of the summit, Putin or Aliyev may well pass on a message that for the sake of Iran’s economic future, it may be best for it to give up on some of its Syrian ambitions.