In the two and half years since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken extreme measures to avoid infection. Along with prolonged stays inside bunkers on the outskirts of Moscow and the Ural mountains and long tables separating him from his guests, the Russian leader has almost completely avoided traveling abroad.
Last month, he visited Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, two former Soviet-bloc countries Putin considers his “backyard,” but that visit was just an appetizer before the main dish—Putin’s trip to Iran.
One can argue, of course, that after the invasion of Ukraine, only a handful of governments across the globe are eager to welcome the person widely perceived as the cruelest, most prominent aggressor of the 21st century. The choice of Tehran as his first major diplomatic trip following his prolonged hiatus is indeed influenced by Russia’s diplomatic isolation in the wake of the bloody war in Ukraine. And yet, it’s not as if Putin is only courting the ayatollahs for lack of a better option.
The visit to Iran indicates the desire of both excommunicated countries to establish an effective anti-West camp, which would help both overcome the ravages of sanctions.
They will want to add more countries to this camp, namely those capable of giving and not just taking. Bashar Assad’s Syria, for example, is willing to join at any time, but what can it contribute? China, however, could join Russia and Iran in a united front against the U.S. and the West, which would be the optimal scenario from the perspective of Moscow and Tehran. But the Chinese don’t intend to serve the interests of others.
In the meantime, both sides of the Russia-Iran axis want to create synergy between the symbolic and practical levels. Putin’s very public trip to Iran, during which he met with the country’s true leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and its figurehead leader President Ebrahim Raisi, was meant to re-legitimize the Islamist regime. This, after the same regime was described as a real threat to world peace just a week ago, during U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East.
In addition to cajoling the Iranians, Putin is signaling to other countries threatened by Iran that choosing the side of the U.S. could be a mistake. In late June, Putin declared that his country’s relations with Iran were of a “deep strategic character.” This was an escalation in rhetoric, and the world is waiting to see if it’s supported by action.
The Iranians have already boasted of their ability to teach the Russians how to bypass economic sanctions. The burgeoning ties between Moscow and Tehran in the fields of oil and gas, and certainly in defense, will keep Israeli leaders awake at night. The alliance of outcasts could be a dangerous thing.
Ariel Bulshtein is a journalist, translator, lecturer and lawyer.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.
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