It may not be the Cold War, but it is beginning to look very like one. The United States is trying to build a network of alliances in the Middle East between Israel and moderate Arab countries. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone on the offensive, and is seeking to cement an alternative axis based in Tehran.
Putin’s move comes on the heels of U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia. As the world media covers Biden’s visits to Jerusalem, Jeddah and Riyadh, Putin is set to visit Tehran on July 19. He will be joined in Iran’s capital by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to meet with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, nicknamed “the butcher of Tehran” for having sentenced tens of thousands of people to death over the years.
The three leaders will take part in a summit that will ostensibly seek to broker an end to the 11-year Syrian civil war—the so-called “Astana peace process.” But it is difficult to believe that Putin would head to Iran for only his second foreign visit since he invaded Ukraine if the U.S. had not just made the attempt to strengthen the American presence in the Middle East.
And it was a genuine attempt. Biden was not only looking for the Saudis to increase oil production and thus bring down skyrocketing fuel prices. He was also seeking support for normalization with Israel and the formation of an “Arab NATO” that would include the Jewish state. This bold move is a direct and potentially effective challenge to Iranian imperialism, and Tehran knows it. So does Putin.
So, Putin is on the move. He wants to intimidate the potential members of an Israel-Arab alliance, because such an alliance threatens his ambition to establish Russian hegemony in Eurasia—an issue that is all the more pressing as the Russia-Ukraine war drags on.
It’s not surprising that Putin is nervous. Biden’s optimistic remarks about his trip sent a very strong message: The U.S. is deeply committed to the future of the Middle East. We have not disengaged. We are not weak. We are as strong as we have ever been and know we must be.
Besides his push for an Iranian axis, Putin turned to the weapon he employs most frequently—propaganda. Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, attacked Biden’s request for increased oil production, saying it betrayed promises Biden made to U.S. voters on renewable energy and climate change. But she went much further than this. She made the direst threat imaginable: that the U.S. and its allies are pushing the world toward nuclear war.
Putin’s allies in Iran also chimed in to blast a potential Israel-Arab security alliance. The deputy head of Iran’s terrorist Revolutionary Guards, Yadollah Yavani, threatened a “decisive response” to America, the “Zionist regime” and Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, just as Biden was set to take off for Jerusalem, we learned that Iran will supply Russia with hundreds of drones and train Russian forces in how to use them. Previously, such drones had only been in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas. Now, they are undoubtedly headed for Ukraine. Apparently, Iranian drones are always used against democracies and their innocent citizens.
Russia is lining up behind Iran diplomatically as well. Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian recently visited Russia, and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov said he is committed to seeing the removal of all sanctions on Tehran and the restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Sides are forming up. The potential flash points are multiplying. And let’s not forget that, behind the scenes, China is expanding its presence in the Middle East and Africa. There is an abyss of possible new developments, and none of them are peaceful.
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.