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Russia: As Middle East Heats Up, Moscow Maintains Balancing Act

Russia has asked Hizballah to stop its rocket attacks on Israel (Fars) PRAGUE, August 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As tensions rise in the Middle East with the conflict between Israel and Hizballah and the continuing Iran nuclear crisis, Russia continues to play a careful game.

Moscow has called on Hizballah to stop its rocket strikes against Israel and return the captured Israeli soldiers, while it has also appealed to Israel to stop its aerial and artillery bombardment of Lebanon and withdraw its troops from the south of the country.

Even Yevgeny Primakov, one of Russia's leading experts on the Islamic world and known for his pro-Arab stance, said that Hizballah should be disarmed and did not exclude the possibility that Russian troops could participate in a multinational force on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

And Moscow, together with Beijing, on July 31 supported a U.S.-backed UN Security Council resolution on Iran demanding that Tehran stop its nuclear program in the course of a month or face international sanctions. Moscow said, however, it could not support the sanctions as it is "against a language of threats and ultimatums toward Iran."

Now, a new wrangle between the United States and Russia over Iran is possibly on the horizon. On August 4, the United States announced that it has imposed sanctions on two Russian arms companies that had violated a U.S. Congress ban on selling material to Iran that could be used to make weapons of mass destruction. Moscow has denounced the sanctions as "groundless."

These diplomatic maneuverings are consistent with Russia's policy in the Middle East, which attempts to strike a balance between the major protagonists: Iran, Syria, Israel, China, the European Union, and the United States.

Taking Sides

But if war escalates in the Middle East, Russia would most likely have to abandon its balancing act. That would probably mean that Moscow, if not allying itself directly with Israel and the United States, would distance itself from Iran and its Arab partners -- just as Moscow did with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad has called for the destruction of Israel

In many respects, Moscow's policy converges with the position of the United States. Both countries do not want to see nuclear weapons in the hands of Tehran's ayatollahs. Especially as Iran poses a more immediate threat to Russia as its medium-range missiles could penetrate into the European part of the country.

Moreover, if Iran obtained nuclear weapons it could become less dependent on Russia diplomatically and militarily and could compete more fiercely against Russian interests in Central Asia and the Caspian basin.

Revolutionary Ideology

Russia and the United States are also united by their antipathy toward the "revolutionary Islamic" ideology propagated by Tehran and Hizballah.

Shi'a Hizballah, which was the brainchild of Iran and created in the early 1980s, originally aimed to drive Israeli troops from Lebanon and pioneered the use of suicide bombers, known as shaheeds. In 1983, suicide bombers carried out two terrorist acts in which 242 U.S. servicemen and 58 French paratroopers were killed in two strikes in Beirut. The identity of the bombers was never proven and a number of groups claimed responsibility. Many within past and current U.S. administrations believe Hizballah was responsible for the attack.

Hizballah's ideology incorporates traditional Islamic elements along with radical leftist and Marxists teachings. The group sees its allies not only among Islamists, but has the support of various leftist, Marxist, and antiglobalization groups in the West.

Russia could, however, feasibly benefit from an escalation of hostilities in the Middle East. As a major energy exporter, Russia would benefit from the likely major rise in oil and gas prices. China and the EU, on the other hand, would likely face severe economic difficulties.

Not only would Russia profit financially, but could gain new geopolitical ground, with the EU more dependent on Russia for energy. That could also push China to rely more on Russian energy resources, causing Beijing to invest in building pipelines in Russia's Far East.

Kidnapping Of Soviet Diplomats

Kidnapping Of Soviet Diplomats
Iran's Ayatollah Ruhalah Khomeini in 1979 (epa file photo)

A BOMB FOR QOM? Russia has had direct experience in dealing with Hizballah. In 1985, extremist groups in Lebanon linked to Hizballah kidnapped four Soviet diplomats, one of which was later killed.
International media at the time reported that the kidnappers received parcels with the decapitated heads of their close relations in order to secure the diplomats' release. However, speaking to TV-Tsentr on July 8, KGB Colonel Yury Perfiliev, who at the time headed the KGB's Beirut station, said the media reports were just a KGB bluff aimed at pressuring the kidnappers.
But according to Perfiliev, he met with the then-leader of Hizballah, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadallah, and told him that the Soviet Union could not tolerate such a humiliation. He said that if the kidnappers were not released then the Soviet Union could accidentally fire a nuclear missile in the direction of the Iranian city of Qom, where Ayatollah Khomeini and other top Muslim clerics lived. The three remaining prisoners were subsequently released.