Trend: Russia is aligning with Iran to counter the US military and Saudi Arabia energy policies.
Stratfor President George Friedman discusses the long-term strategy that Russian President Vladimir Putin is setting in place in John Mauldin's Outside the Box at InvestorsInsight. Excerpts below.
The two main Islamic powers between the Levant and the Hindu Kush are Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Russians have things they want from each, but the Saudis and Iranians have dramatically different interests. Saudi Arabia -- an Arab and primarily Sunni kingdom -- is rich but militarily weak. The government's reliance on outside help for national defense generates intense opposition within the kingdom. Desert Storm, which established a basing arrangement for Western troops within Saudi Arabia, was one of the driving forces behind the creation of al Qaeda. Iran -- a predominantly Persian and Shiite power -- is not nearly as rich as Saudi Arabia but militarily much more powerful. Iran seeks to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf -- out of both its need to defend itself against aggression, and for controlling and exploiting the oil wealth of the region.
Putting the split between Sunni and Shiite aside for the moment, there is tremendous geopolitical asymmetry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia wants to limit Iranian power, while keeping its own dependence on foreign powers at a minimum. That means that, though keeping energy prices high might make financial sense for the kingdom, the fact that high energy prices also strengthen the Iranians actually can be a more important consideration, depending on circumstances. There is some evidence that recent declines in oil prices are linked to decisions in Riyadh that are aimed at increasing production, reducing prices and hurting the Iranians.
This creates a problem for Russia. While Moscow has substantial room for maneuver, the fact is that lowered oil prices impact energy prices overall, and therefore hurt the Russians. The Saudis, moreover, need the Iranians blocked -- but without going so far as to permit foreign troops to be based in Saudi Arabia itself. In other words, they want to see the United States remain in Iraq, since the Americans serve as the perfect shield against the Iranians so long as they remain there. Putin's criticisms of the United States, as delivered in Munich, would have been applauded by Saudi Arabia prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But in 2007, the results of that invasion are exactly what the Saudis feared -- a collapsed Iraq and a relatively powerful Iran. The Saudis now need the Americans to stay put in the region.
The interests of Russia and Iran align more closely, but there are points of divergence there as well. Both benefit from having the United States tied up, militarily and politically, in wars, but Tehran would be delighted to see a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that leaves a power vacuum for Iran to fill. The Russians would rather not see this outcome. First, they are quite happy to have the United States bogged down in Iraq and would prefer that to having the U.S. military freed for operations elsewhere. Second, they are interested in a relationship with Iran but are not eager to drive the United States and Saudi Arabia into closer relations. Third, the Russians do not want to see Iran become the dominant power in the region. They want to use Iran, but within certain manageable limits.
Russia has been supplying Iran with weapons. Of particular significance is the supply of surface-to-air missiles that would raise the cost of U.S. air operations against Iran. It is not clear whether the advanced S300PMU surface-to-air missile has yet been delivered, although there has been some discussion of this lately. If it were delivered, this would present significant challenges for U.S. air operation over Iran. The Russians would find this particularly advantageous, as the Iranians would absorb U.S. attentions and, as in Vietnam, the Russians would benefit from extended, fruitless commitments of U.S. military forces in regions not vital to Russia.
Meanwhile, there are energy matters: The Russians, as we have said, are interested in working with Iran to manage world oil prices. But at the same time, they would not be averse to a U.S. attack that takes Iran's oil off the market, spikes prices and enriches Russia.
Finally, it must be remembered that behind this complex relationship with Iran, there historically has been animosity and rivalry between the two countries. The Caucasus has been their battleground. For the moment, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is a buffer there, but it is a buffer in which Russians and Iranians are already dueling. So long as both states are relatively weak, the buffer will maintain itself. But as they get stronger, the Caucasus will become a battleground again. When Russian and Iranian territories border each other, the two powers are rarely at peace. Indeed, Iran frequently needs outside help to contain the Russians.
In sum, the Russian position in the Middle East is at least as complex as the American one. Or perhaps even more so, since the Americans can leave and the Russians always will live on the doorstep of the Middle East. Historically, once the Russians start fishing in Middle Eastern waters, they find themselves in a greater trap than the Americans. The opening moves are easy. The duel between Saudi Arabia and Iran seems manageable. But as time goes on, Putin's Soviet predecessors learned, the Middle East is a graveyard of ambitions -- and not just American ambitions.
Russia wants to contain U.S. power, and manipulating the situation in the Middle East certainly will cause the Americans substantial pain. But whatever short-term advantages the Russians may be able to find and exploit in the region, there is an order of complexity in Putin's maneuver that might transcend any advantage they gain from boxing the Americans in.
In returning to "great power" status, Russia is using an obvious opening gambit. But being obvious does not make it optimal.