Analysis

How Russia's Iranian arms deals in Ukraine are scrambling alliances in the Middle East

Where Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey now stand

Russia, running low on munitions, has started buying "kamikaze" drones and, according to the U.S. and Britain, various forms of missiles from Iran. Tehran is even sending military advisers to help Russia's military utilize the drones against Ukraine's cities and power and water infrastructure, the U.S. claims. Iran officially denies that it is arming Russia, but Russian, Iranian, Ukrainian, and Western officials say the sales are very real — and the drones being used in Ukraine match Iranian Shahed-136sUAVs. 

Russia may get what it needs from Iran, which has created its own sanctions-resistant weapons industry amid years of international embargoes, to prolong its Ukraine war as Ukrainian forces claw back seized land. But Russia's invasion, and the introduction of Iranian arms into the conflict, has resultingly scrambled the tangled web of relationships in the Middle East. 

Already "Russia's dominium over its old Soviet empire shows signs of unraveling," especially in Central Asia, as Moscow gets mired down in Ukraine, The New York Times reports. Here's a look at some of the fallout from the Ukraine war in various Middle Eastern countries

Syria: Proof of Russia's eroding regional influence 

Russia has maintained a military presence in Syria since the 1970s, but Russian President Vladimir Putin poured his troops and military equipment into the country to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in 2015, turning the tide in Syria's civil war. Russia "still keeps a sizable presence" in Syria, but it "recently redeployed critical military hardware and troops from Syria," the Times reports, "underscoring how its faltering invasion of Ukraine has eroded Moscow's influence elsewhere and removing one of several obstacles to Israeli support for Ukraine."

Western diplomats and a senior Israeli defense official say Russia has pulled at least 1,200 soldiers, several Russian commanders, and an S-300 air defense system out of Syria for transfer to Ukraine, the Times reports, "while Russia's military leadership in Moscow has become less involved in day-to-day management of operations in Syria." The removal of the S-300 allows Israel, which considers Iran and Syria enemies, greater freedom to conduct airstrikes on Iran-backed, pro-Bashar militias inside Syria.

Israel: Protecting a strategic relationship with Moscow

"The ripple effects of the presumptive Iranian drone attacks have also hit Israel, a top U.S. ally with strong links to Russia," the Los Angeles Times reports. Russia and Israel communicate to avoid conflict between their militaries in Syria, and Israel wants to avoid Russia cutting off the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel, as it has effectively threatened to do. 

To protect its strategic relationship with Moscow, Israel has stayed mostly on the sidelines of Russia's Ukraine war, giving Ukraine some humanitarian aid but refusing its pleas for sophisticated air defense systems and other military equipment. Israel has also "refrained from enforcing strict economic sanctions on Russia and the many Russian-Jewish oligarchs who have second homes in Israel," The Associated Press adds. "But with news of Moscow's deepening ties with Tehran, Israel's sworn foe, pressure is growing on Israel to back Ukraine in the grinding war." 

Russia's purchase of Iranian missiles and suicide drones touches a special nerve in Israel. "We're looking at it closely and thinking about how these can be used by the Iranians toward Israeli population centers," Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht tells AP. Some lawmakers in Tel Aviv are now advocating for arming Ukraine, but Israel's government has so far declined to take that step.

"An enemy of both Iran and Syria, Israel regularly strikes targets in Syria to prevent Tehran from cementing a foothold close to Israel's northeastern border," and the Russian S-300 guarding Syria "was a major reason Israel has rebuffed Ukrainian requests for military hardware since the Russian invasion began in February," the Times reports. That calculus appears to be changing. 

Saudi Arabia: Teaming up with Putin?

Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf neighbors also consider Iran a primal threat, and Iranian missiles and drones have hit Saudi and UAE targets from Iranian-backed militias in Yemen. But Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the effective ruler of the kingdom, seems to be sidling closer to Russia, at least from the perspective of the Biden administration, which is furious that the Saudis teamed up with Russia to cut oil production and raise fuel prices ahead of winter cold and Western elections. 

"Saudi Arabia and Iran don't agree on much, but both are siding with Russia in its war on Ukraine," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted, pointing to Saudi Arabia's "short-sighted" OPEC+ production cut. "Saudi Arabia is helping Russia fund the development and purchase of Iranian weaponized drones that will eventually be turned on Saudi Arabia and require American military aid to defend against. Russia/Saudi Arabia/Iran v. America/Saudi Arabia. Insane."

The eight-decade-long Saudi-U.S. relationship is also strained, partly because President Biden and bin Salman clearly do not like each other, The Wall Street Journal reports. But the traditional oil-for-military aid formula has also changed since the 1940s. "The Saudis once sold the U.S. over 2 million barrels of oil every day, but that's fallen to less than 500,000 barrels a day," the Journal notes. "The U.S. grew to become the world's biggest oil producer, and China is now the biggest buyer of Saudi oil, followed by India." 

The Saudis protest that they are providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine and merely following their own economic interests by raising oil prices. "These decisions are protecting Saudi Arabia's own commercial interests and make tremendous sense from Saudi Arabia's own economic perspective," Sadad Ibrahim Al Husseini, a former Saudi Aramco executive, tells The New York Times. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA Middle East analyst, agrees. "The Russians and Saudis have a similar interest in driving up the price of oil, and the Ukraine war has only reinforced that," he said.

Turkey: In the middle of a 'balancing act'

Turkey is "another Middle East power facing a balancing act" with Iran's sales of attack drones to Russia, the Los Angeles Times reports. Ukraine has purchased Turkish missile-capable Bayraktar TB2 drones and is using them to "hunt Russian troops" to great effect. "At the same time, Russia is a vital economic trading partner: It provides almost half of Turkey's natural gas and almost three-quarters of its wheat," and "some 4.7 million Russian travelers visit Turkey every year," the Times notes. 

"Turkey is the one traditional American ally in the region that has helped Ukraine, both through selling highly effective drones and by working with the U.N. to mediate an agreement allowing Ukrainian grain to reach Middle Eastern and African customers," the Atlantic Council's Mark Katz writes at the New Atlanticist. "But Ankara is also not abiding by Western economic sanctions" and "has been able to take advantage of each side in the war." 

"The Biden administration would much prefer that its traditional allies in the Middle East were more supportive of Ukraine and critical toward Russia rather than stay neutral or balance between the two sides," Katz concludes. "But this is better than those allies coming out in support of Russia the way that Iran has — and this may be the best that Washington can expect."

Iran: Sending a warning to its foes

"Drone sales have also prompted geopolitical recalculations" for Iran, which until September "had a relatively amicable relationship with Ukraine," the Los Angels Times reports. After Ukraine started shooting down Shahed-136s aimed at its cities and infrastructure, "officials in Kyiv downgraded relations with Tehran, stripping the Iranian ambassador of his accreditation and reducing diplomatic personnel at the embassy," and a full severing of diplomatic ties is on the table. 

And it's not clear what kind of math Iran is using to burn that bridge, and the possibility of eliminating sanctions with a renewed nuclear deal, the Times reports. "Before the drone sales, trade between the two countries was $4 billion, hardly worth the financial hit from more sanctions." Recent polling also indicates a majority of Iranians view Russia's invasion of Ukraine as illegitimate and don't see the point of being so close to Russia, Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, tells AI-Monitor

Iran is likely signaling "to both the West and Russia that it's a power to be reckoned with," said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. By letting Russia battle-test its advanced weaponry in Ukraine, Tehran is showing Israel, the Saudis, and other foes that if they move forward with their burgeoning security partnership "aimed at countering and weakening Iran, we've got some news for you. We are capable of causing great damage."

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