Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 227

In a sign that Russia’s bid to play a greater role in the Middle East peace process may be stalling, Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami yesterday postponed–for the third time–a planned visit to Moscow. Russia is formally a cosponsor along with the United States of the Middle East peace effort, but has contributed little in recent years to events there. Russian diplomacy reached a nadir of sorts this past October, when Moscow was not invited to participate in the Sharm el-Sheikh peace summit held in Egypt. Moscow has both redoubled its efforts to become a player in the region since that time, and appeared to have made a breakthrough late last month when, during a visit to the Russian capital by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, President Vladimir Putin managed to arrange a phone call between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

More recent news reports have said that Russian diplomats hoped to use the Ben Ami visit to outline a new Russian plan aimed at ending more than two months of violence in Israel. That Moscow may not get the opportunity to do this any time soon was suggested by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s vague announcement yesterday that a new date for Ben Ami’s visit to Russia would be fixed “in view of developments in the Palestinian territories and the internal situation in Israel.” The Israeli government attributed Ben Ami’s earlier postponements to internal Israeli developments as well.

Although the Barak government’s domestic problems are probably the primary reason for the Ben Ami visit postponements, factors more directly related to Russia’s own Middle East policy might be involved as well. One is that Russia has pushed for the convening of an international peace conference devoted to mediating between the Israelis and Palestinians. Israel has rejected that idea. In addition, Russia has reportedly backed Palestinian demands that international observers be dispatched to Palestinian territories to monitor a ceasefire accord. The Israelis have rebuffed that plan also (AFP, November 28, December 2, 5; The Jerusalem Post, November 29; Russian agencies, November 28).

What is less clear is whether Israel may also be reacting negatively to recent reports that Moscow intends to renew selling arms to Iran, and that negotiations between Moscow and Tehran on this issue could begin as soon as this month. Over the past five years Israel has joined the United States in condemning Russia for what are said to have been continuous leaks of Russian missile and nuclear technology to Iran. Israeli unhappiness over these Iranian-Russian arms dealings has apparently been a factor in its unwillingness to allow Russia a greater role in Middle East peace negotiations. Indeed, Israel has at times sought to wean Moscow away from its arms dealings with Iran by offering in return the prospect of increased Russian-Israeli military-technical cooperation. That policy seems to have borne little fruit.

That arms talks between Moscow and Tehran are looming was further corroborated this week by an Iranian Foreign Ministry announcement. As earlier reports had suggested, the report said that Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev was expected to visit Tehran soon. “We will discuss joint security problems… as well as cooperation,” the ministry spokesman said. Precisely when Sergeev will arrive has apparently not yet been fixed. Russian Defense Ministry sources have suggested it could be as early as December 27. Iranian and other sources have said the visit would occur in January (AFP, December 5).

Russian sources, perhaps not surprisingly, are playing up the value of the arms deals which Russia and Iran will reportedly be negotiating. The chairman of the Russian State Duma’s defense committee, retired General Andrei Nikolaev, told reporters on December 4 that military cooperation with Tehran could prove “very lucrative” for Moscow, and that sales revenues could reach US$7 billion over the next few years (AFP, December 5). The Russian Defense Ministry newspaper Krasnaya zvezda (Red Star) put the total even higher, saying that new arms contract with Iran could amount to US$8 billion (The Guardian, December 5). In an effort to dissuade the Russians from going forward with these plans, U.S. experts were scheduled to travel to Moscow this week for talks with their Russian counterparts.

A report in the British daily The Guardian, meanwhile, points out that Moscow’s move to reach new arms agreements with Tehran is part of a broader recently launched Russian initiative which targets those states deemed wayward by the U.S. government. The report refers to recent statements by various senior Russian officials who have alluded to possible future Russian arms dealings with Libya, Cuba, Iraq and Yugoslavia. Moreover, the newspaper quotes Russian sources as suggesting that the United States has driven Moscow to pursue arms dealings with these countries by shutting Russian arms out of the lucrative markets the West controls (The Guardian, December 5).

The stakes are particularly high for Moscow in this area due to the Russian government’s inability to provide adequate funding either for defense procurement in Russia or for maintenance of the country’s hard-hit defense industrial sector. That means that the survival of key defense enterprises may depend on their ability to peddle arms abroad. For the same reason, it may also mean that the fate of Russia’s military reform plans, and the ability of the government ultimately to reequip what it hopes will be a slimmed down but more effective fighting force, will depend to some extent on this same ability.