by Mark N. Katz

This memo was presented part of a workshop organised by the LSE Middle East Centre looking at the Saudi–Iran rivalry in the region on 7 May 2018. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin at Russia–Saudi talks, October 2017. Source: kremlin.ru

Ever since he first came to power at the turn of the century, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approach to rivalries between third parties has been neither to side with one against the other nor remain neutral, but to cooperate with both sides simultaneously. Each side in the rivalry is often unhappy about Russian cooperation with the other side, but what Putin seems to bank on is that each side fears not cooperating with Moscow will result in Russia aiding its rival even more –thus giving each an incentive to continue or even increase its cooperation with Russia. Putin’s approach to the Saudi–Iranian rivalry very much fits within this pattern. Yet while Putin’s approach to the Saudi–Iranian rivalry can be described as Machiavellian, it must also be said that Moscow genuinely prizes cooperation with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Moscow has valued good relations with Iran for several reasons. First and foremost, Moscow sees Tehran as a strong ally in opposing American foreign policy. At the same time, Moscow has seen Iran’s economic isolation from the West as an opportunity for Russian businesses to acquire stakes in Iran’s energy sector without having to face competition from the West. Indeed, some Russian commentators expressed fear that Obama’s success in achieving a nuclear accord with Tehran would lead to a wider Iranian–American rapprochement which would result in Iran relying far more on the West than on Russia economically.

But in addition to seeing Iran as an ally against the US, Moscow also regards it as an ally against two other common threats: secessionism and Sunni jihadism. Both Russia and Iran face secessionist movements inside their own countries, and so value each other’s not supporting them. Moscow in particular has been grateful that the Islamic Republic chose not to view the Chechen rebels as aggrieved Muslims whose cause should be supported. Moscow and Tehran also view groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) as common threats since these Sunni jihadist movements are not only anti-Western, but also anti-Russian and anti-Shi’a. It is in their joint defence of the Assad regime in Syria that Moscow is most strongly cooperating with Tehran in pursuing their common anti-American and anti-Sunni jihadist (which many of Assad’s Saudi-backed opponents are) aims.

At the same time, Moscow has valued good relations with Saudi Arabia for several reasons. Moscow has long sought to increase trade and investment relations with the Kingdom. Russian petroleum, arms and atomic energy firms (among others) all hope to benefit from this. Moscow also seeks good relations with Saudi Arabia so that it will not support Sunni Muslim opposition forces in Russia like it did in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Syria more recently. Further, Moscow values Riyadh for being a close ally of the US that does not follow Washington in everything, including its sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. And while Moscow long resisted Riyadh’s calls for Russia to join with OPEC in restraining oil production in order to prop up oil prices, it has more recently come to value cooperating with Riyadh against the common ‘threat’ from increased American shale oil – especially as prices have risen since this cooperation began. Further, while Moscow’s hopes that the Saudis would buy large quantities of Russian arms have long been disappointed, Riyadh’s recent expression of intent to buy the advanced S-400 air defence missile systems may have broken the dam on this issue (though it is still not clear that the deal will actually go ahead).

For the most part, Moscow has attempted to keep its relations with both Riyadh and Tehran on a bilateral basis and not choose between them. Moscow sells arms to Tehran, but it is also willing to sell arms to Riyadh. Moscow has completed a nuclear reactor for Iran and is willing to build it more but is also willing to build nuclear reactors for Saudi Arabia. Russian petroleum firms have long been active in Iran and seek to increase their involvement in Saudi Arabia. Russian cooperation with OPEC on restraining oil output benefits Saudi Arabia and Iran alike since they are both OPEC members. In other words: whatever Russia does for one it is also willing to do for the other.

Moscow, though, cannot completely compartmentalise its relations with Tehran and Riyadh since the Saudi–Iranian rivalry is actively being played out in other countries in the region, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. In Syria, Russia has clearly sided with Iran in supporting the Assad regime and against Saudi Arabia which has supported Assad’s Sunni Arab opponents. But Moscow has not allied so closely with Iran in other conflict situations. In Lebanon, Moscow has sought good relations both with the Shi’a movement Hezbollah which Tehran backs, but also with its Sunni Muslim and Christian rivals. In Iraq, Moscow has good relations with the Iranian- and US-backed government in Baghdad, but also with the Iranian-opposed and US-backed Kurdish Regional Government. In Yemen, Moscow recognises the Hadi government which is supported by Saudi Arabia, but also has good relations with its Iranian-backed Houthi opponents (as well as its UAE-backed southern ones). In Bahrain, Russian policy diverges notably from Iran’s: while Tehran proclaims sympathy for the Shi’a majority being ruled by the royal family which hails from its Sunni minority, Moscow has strong, supportive relations with the Bahraini monarchy. Finally, Moscow’s close ties to Israel puts it more in line with Saudi Arabia, which has been quietly cooperating with the Jewish state, and not with Iran.

But far from posing a problem for Moscow, the Saudi–Iranian rivalry has actually been useful to Russia in the sense that it has motivated both Riyadh and Tehran to court it more actively than may have been the case otherwise. This dynamic could well change though, if the Saudi–Iranian rivalry boiled over into open conflict between the two. If this occurred, the US (probably under any president, but especially under Trump) is highly likely to actively side with Saudi Arabia against Iran. This could lead to a situation in which Moscow could no longer retain good relations with both sides. For if Russia supported Iran in a conflict against a US-backed Saudi Arabia, Russia could quickly lose influence with Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies. But if Moscow attempted to remain neutral, this could make it look unreliable both to Iran and other governments seeking Russian support against the US. It could even conceivably result in Iran concluding, like Sadat, that since Moscow could not or would not enable it to prevail militarily against its American-backed opponent, then rapprochement with the US as a means of restraining that opponent is a preferable option.

But with President Trump recently announcing US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear accord (or JCPOA), it is more unlikely than ever that there will be any kind of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. Indeed, Trump’s move has benefited Putin both through causing a rift between the US and its European allies on the one hand, and through making Iran all the more dependent on Moscow on the other. Further, while Saudi Arabia’s (like Israel’s) approval of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA has seemingly put it at odds with Russia which continues to support it, this does not seem to have negatively affected Saudi–Russian (or Israeli–Russian) cooperation.

Still, while Moscow has benefited from the Saudi–Iranian rivalry resulting in both Riyadh and Tehran courting Moscow, Russia does not want their rivalry to escalate into an open conflict that poses difficult choices for Russia which Putin would prefer not to be confronted with. Moscow’s ongoing support for both Riyadh and Tehran, though, may actually contribute to the escalation of conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia that Moscow wants to avoid.


Mark N. Katz is Professor of Government and Politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. In January–March 2018, he was a Fulbright Scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and is currently the 2018 Sir William Luce Fellow at Durham University.


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