ATbar Russia’s Policy vis-à-vis Iran and Hezbollah
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Russia’s Policy vis-à-vis Iran and Hezbollah

19/03/2008 | by Kroupenev, Artem  
America’s tragedy of September 11, 2001 and in the aftermath of these attacks constituted a historic watershed in the development of Middle Eastern politics and brought about significant changes in the formation of a new structure of international relations – both regionally and globally. Since the threat of international terrorism became an imminent reality to all nations, many states, including Russia - which during the past decade has been a primary target of international terrorist organizations[i] - have implemented substantial revisions in their conception of national security and foreign policy. In Russia’s case, a key element of this new conception is the realization that the most effective force in combating the phenomenon of international terrorism may be the creation of a wide international counter-terrorist coalition[ii].

At the same time, Russian leadership openly stated concerns that such a coalition could be misused by a number of western states, mainly the US, to implement policies aimed against sovereign nations deemed detrimental to America’s national interests. Some Russian observers point to the statement by Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who asserted that countries, which refrain from public condemnation of terrorism and even actively support some terrorist organizations, should be isolated from the counter-terrorist coalition. In his statement, Henry Kissinger referred primarily to Iran, Iraq and Syria – countries that have a long history of favorable economic, political and cultural relations with Russia. In this respect and in light of its role as an active member of the counter-terrorist coalition, Moscow acts according to its interests and objectives, while it tries to avoid becoming what some Russian officials call a “passive instrument in the struggle of the West against international terrorism”.[iii]

The geopolitical position of the Russian Federation (RF) in the Middle East should be analyzed in the context of Moscow’s renewed global approach to foreign policy, which is likely to be maintained by Vladimir Putin’s successor, Dmitry Medvedev[iv]. This approach is expressed in Russia’s active attempts to establish a multi-polar international environment, in the framework of an increasing, multifaceted confrontation with the United States. These attempts occur on various levels of the political and economic spheres with the purpose of asserting Russia’s role as an influential player in global international affairs.

One of the methods employed by Moscow in materializing its foreign policy goals is strengthening bilateral relations with countries in the Muslim world, and more specifically with Iran. The latter is regarded as a key player in the region – in recent years, Iran and Russia have developed strong bilateral cooperation[v].

It is evident that today Russia and Iran are active economic partners. In this context, observers tend to specify military contracts (such as the November 13, 1991 agreement in which Russia was to provide technical assistance for Iran’s production of T-72 tanks and BMP-2 personnel carriers; the supply of some 40 units of aviation materiel in 2001-2005; as well as the 2006 agreement to sell 29 Tor M-1 anti-aircraft complexes and C-300 PMY-1 rocket systems[vi]) totaling around $5 billion. The latest of these military contracts signified a fundamental shift in Russia’s policy, as in 1995 President Yeltsin complied with Washington’s request to halt military supplies to Teheran. This is accentuated by the fact that recent military sales to Iran are not a product of economic necessity. Whereas a decade ago - following Yeltsin’s default – the Kremlin was practically bankrupt and in desperate need of additional sources of funding, today Russia boasts a surplus of some $480 billion in national gold and hard currency reserves[vii].

Observers also note the Iranian nuclear project in Busheir, where Russia is directly involved in construction and fuel supply projects totaling over $1 billion[viii]. In addition to cooperating on nuclear issues, Russian franchises operate in the Iranian energy sector - “Gazprom” is conducting the development of the South Pars gas project with investments worth over $700 million[ix]; “Lukoil” is making attempts to establish itself on the local market[x]; and “Technopromexport” is responsible for developing 10% of the Iranian energy production capacity[xi]. Russia also cooperates with Iran in the sphere of space launches and even the banking system. The yearly scope of trade relations with Iran is in excess of $1.5 billion. In addition, Russia has reasonable basis to assume that any military escalation connected to Iran would entail considerable financial benefits, as it would undoubtedly lead to an increase in fossil fuel prices. In this context, Russia’s statements in opposition to UN economic sanctions directed at Iran are understandable, and even anticipated[xii].

Despite Russia’s official position of strict non-proliferation of nuclear weapons to Iran, there exists an opposing point of view that overtly justifies Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This position is presented by Vladislav Inozemtzev[xiii]:

“In whatever extent we regard Iran’s nuclear and military ambitions, we must not forget that no state can be confident in its security as long as the United States openly declares it as an enemy of the “civilized world”. This is why Iran’s nuclear pursuit is understandable and, moreover, it does not contradict their international obligations.”

In this manner, through the sales of military equipment and the signing of energy-related treaties, Russia seeks to reestablish influence vis-à-vis its former Soviet-era clients in the Middle East, including Algeria, Syria and Iran. According to some observers, Russia tacitly supports Iran’s aspirations to become a counterbalance to the United States in the Islamic world[xiv] – a role that the Iranian regime has aspired to achieve since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. These factors contribute to the risk involved in US-Iranian confrontation. An actual American or Israeli attack on Iranian targets and blockade of the Straits of Hormuz would lead to considerable disruptions of fossil fuel supplies and record oil prices. Needless to say that Russia would receive grandiose benefits not only from a global hysteria in oil demand, but also from a sharp rise in anti-American sentiment in the Mashreq and Maghreb that is bound to emerge following any military action against Iran. Although, hypothetically, military defeat of the Iranian regime may become detrimental to Russian interest in the region, it is evident that Russia would reap tremendous short-term economic and political benefits from any acute escalation in US-Iranian hostility.

Russia’s implication in the formative processes of the new system of international relations defines its active role in Middle Eastern affairs. Today, the Middle East remains vital for the realization of Russia’s interests in the southern part of its post-Soviet territories. Following the disintegration of the USSR, developments in the international arena have brought Russia, the Central Asian countries and many Middle Eastern nations into a sphere of shared geo-political and military-strategic interests. Russia remains vitally concerned with the developments beyond its southern borders, as the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East are characterized by general instability, a zeitgeist of separatist movements, and high levels of economic and political interdependency.

During the last decades of the 20th century, terrorism and extremism became inseparable companions of Middle Eastern politics and substantially widened the scope of both potential and ongoing conflicts in the region. In this light, achieving stability of the developing political and strategic situation in the Middle East and Central and South Asia, including regions in direct proximity to the CIS - as well as the goal of establishing enduring Russian influence - all remain paramount to understanding Russian foreign policy in the Middle East. Russian leadership clearly realizes that by obtaining these goals, it will help neutralize fragmentation and degenerative processes inside Russia and within the wider borders of the post-Soviet geopolitical zone.

In addition, the Middle East remains important for Russia as a principal supplier of natural resources, a major hub of international communications and a lucrative market for Russian goods and services. In this respect, Moscow’s long term interests also include Russian involvement in economic development of Middle Eastern nations in the framework of bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

Many Russian officials are convinced that the escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in light of the reemerging Palestinian intifada and the practical impasse of the peace process, is empowering various radical Islamic organizations on the Middle Eastern political proscenium[xv]. Furthermore, these Islamist organizations and their surrounding political conditions reflect emerging international systemic processes and serve as painful points of contention for both regional and world powers.

In this regard, it is apparent that Russia’s close relationship with Iran has an ineluctable impact on Moscow’s position vis-à-vis Hezbollah, especially if we consider that Hezbollah remains a client of both Iran and Syria. Taking a hostile stance to Hezbollah, as well as declaring Hezbollah a terrorist entity, would therefore contradict the general line of Russian foreign policy in the region.

According to Russian observers, Hezbollah acts concurrently as the prominent Lebanese political party, a major Shiite social and humanitarian organization and an organized military force. The Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 is viewed as a kind of victory for Hezbollah and elevated the organization to the status of a regional player. Hezbollah is thus considered to possess real capacity to influence both internal Lebanese politics and regional affairs in general. Furthermore, Hezbollah is viewed as having the potential to become a major regional player in the foreseeable future. This viewpoint is reflective of Russia’s tendency to support Hezbollah’s legitimacy as a political organization[xvi].

Expository of this perspective is Moscow’s reaction to the summer 2006 War in Lebanon[xvii]. On July 12, 2006 Russian leadership issued a statement in which it took an equivocal position regarding the sides in the conflict. While it expressed general concern regarding the sudden escalation and armed confrontations on the Israel-Lebanon border and called for the rapid return of kidnapped Israeli soldiers, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) urged Israel to avoid utilizing disproportional force, or destroying the civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. Moscow appealed to Israel to resolve all disputes through entirely diplomatic channels, while highlighting the necessity to release Lebanese prisoners. In the same spirit, the statement lacked any mention of Hezbollah in connection to the unfolding military operations.

Not less representative of Russia’s policy was Moscow’s position in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War. Decisively refusing to participate in the formation of the UNIFIL military contingent, Russia resorted to deploying military regiments of “humanitarian character”. According to the former RF Minister of Defense, Sergey Ivanov, Russia’s refusal to send a contingent as part of a UNIFIL force complies with the UN mandate in Lebanon, as the mandate’s intention to disarm Hezbollah presents a practically impossible task[xviii]. This point of view was echoed by the Russian senator M. Margelov[xix]:

“The Humanitarian character of the mission is an optimal form of presence of Russian forces in the Region … clearly, our presence in Lebanon – a trusted partner in the region – is important not only from a humanitarian or military, but also from a political point of reference. Our forces have not been tasked to disarm Hezbollah, or to conduct any sort of military operations that may threaten the lives of Russian servicemen.”

It is thus evident that Hezbollah’s place within the course of Russia’s foreign policy interests in the Middle East is determined by complex tactical and strategic considerations. According to Russian officials, the RF maintains contact with Hezbollah[xx]. The Lebanese organization, in turn, willingly pursues connections with Moscow thereby invoking heated interest towards Russia’s position with regard to the Middle East peace process. With this in mind, it is noteworthy that with over a million Russian-speaking Israeli citizens, Russia enjoys a modest level of influence on the internal political life in Israel. Combined with its tested ties with Syria and Lebanon, Moscow’s affect on Israeli politics produces considerable leverage vis-à-vis Hezbollah’s position with regard to focal aspects of the political situation in the Middle East. In this respect, Russian diplomats highlight their role in convincing Syria and Iran to reduce support of radical organizations that acted against the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians in the late 1990s. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, V.V. Posuvaluk conducted a number of meetings with Hassan Nassrallah in this context. In addition, high-ranking representatives of the Russian MFA met with Hezbollah leadership in 2000-2001 in order to discuss the release of prisoners held in Israel and Lebanon as part of an effort to diffuse tensions in the region[xxi].

According to Russian sources, Moscow considers Hezbollah as having realistic chances of becoming a formidable political force – not only in Lebanon, but in the whole Middle East in general[xxii]. In this perspective, Hezbollah could represent the interests of both the Shiite minorities, and of the Sunni majority; and Moscow has made efforts to establish relations with Hezbollah. Russian analysts believe that contacts with Hezbollah create interest towards and awareness of Russia’s opinion in the region. Similar considerations are behind Russia’s involvement with Iran, Syria and Lebanon, which, according to Russian politicians, serve as a launch pad for constructive cooperation with many other Arab nations. In other words, Moscow harbors hopes that by maintaining reciprocal relations with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, it will gain sufficient political capital in order to entrench its positions in the Middle East and gain leverage in the context of regional political dialogue.


[i] Schweitzer, G. E. and Sharber, A. C., (2006) Editors, “Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop”, Committee on Counterterrorism, Challenges for Russia and the United States, Office for Central Europe and Eurasia, National Research Council, in cooperation with the Russian Academy of Sciences

[ii] International Affairs Journal, (2003), “"New Terrorism Rejection Philosophy Shaped Up", International Affairs Journal, Issue No. 9-10, retrieved from:

[iii] Ahmedov, V.M.(n.d.), “Ливанская «Хизбалла» каквоенно-политический «центрсилы» на ближнем востоке: эволюция и перспективы в свете ближневосточных интересов России” (Lebanese Hezbollah as a Military-Political Center of Power in the Middle East), retrieved from the Institute of Social Systems (MGU) website:

[iv] The Jamestown Foundation, (2008, March 13), “Medvedev Dares not Venture into International Arena”, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 5, Issue 48

See also: Matein, H., (27 February 2008,), “После выборов Путин сможет управлять политикой Кремля”, (After Elections Putin Will Be Able to Direct Kremlin’s Policies), retrieved from

[v] Dehghanpisheh, B., (2007), “Bear Hugs”, World Press Review, VOL. 48, No. 06, retrieved from:

[vi] Aksenov, P., (15 May 2005), ”Ход "Тором"”, Rambler Media Group, retrieved from Lenta.Ru:

[vii] The Economist, (28 February 2008), “Smoke and mirrors”, The Economist Print Edition

See also: Matein, H., “After Elections Putin Will Be Able to Direct Kremlin’s Policies”

[viii] CNN Online, (17 December 2007,), “Russia delivers nuclear fuel to Iran”, retrieved from:

[ix] RBC Online News, (19 February 2008), “Газпром будет добывать нефть в Иране”, (Gazprom Will Extract Oil in Iran), retrieved from

[x] Arsenov, V.V., (2005), “Энергетическая стратегия Ирана в Каспийском регионе”, (Iran’s Energy-Related Strategy in the Caspian Region0, Institute of the Middle East, retrieved from:

[xi] Inozemtzev, V., “Russia-Iran: Economy and Geopolitics”, Business Week (Russian Edition), January 2006.

[xii]Aihodjayev, T, (2003), “Информационное противостояние варабо-израильском конфликте на Ближнем Востоке”, (Abstract: Information War in the Arab-Israeli Conflict in the Middle East), Moscow Diplomatic Academy, 2003, retrieved from

[xiii]RBC Online News, “Gazprom Will Extract Oil in Iran”

[xiv] Matein, H., “After Elections Putin Will Be Able to Direct Kremlin’s Policies”

[xv] Ahmedov, V.M., “Lebanese Hezbollah as a Military-Political Center of Power in the Middle East”

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Russian MFA Press Release, (2006, July 12), “Всвязи с последними событиями на ливано-израильской границе”, (Regarding the latest developments on the Israel-Lebanon border), retrieved from:

[xviii] ANN News, (27 October 2006), “СергейИванов: Россия имеет позитивный опыт миротворческих операций”, (Sergey Ivanov: Russia has a positive experience in conducting peace-making operations), retrieved from:

[xix] ANN News, (12 September 2006), “Михаил Маргелов: Перед Россией нет задачи разоружать Хизболла”, (Mikhail Margelov: disarming Hezbollah is not one of Russia’s objectives), retrieved from:

[xx] Simonov, P., Rozen, S. (2006), “Россия готова освободить израильских пленников "Хизбаллы", (Russia is Ready to Help Free Israeli Prisoners of “Hezbollah”), Retrieved from Axis News website:

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ahmedov, V.M., “Lebanese Hezbollah as a Military-Political Center of Power in the Middle East”