On Monday, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton will meet with his Israeli and Russian counterparts in Jerusalem. A trilateral meeting such as this is odd to begin with, and one taking place amid the situation currently unfolding in the Middle East even more so. Also interesting is that this meeting is taking place in Jerusalem. While Russia maintains decent relations with Israel, a meeting of this sort in Jerusalem would seem to indicate a Russian indifference to Muslim sensibilities – something Israel and the U.S. display regularly. Still, they’ve agreed to meet in Jerusalem this time, optics aside. Topping the meeting agenda, purportedly, is Syria. But there’s plenty else going on in the Middle East for the three to discuss.
The officials will meet in the midst of intensifying tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Last week, the U.S. blamed Iran for attacks on two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, and this week Iran shot down an American drone. On Friday, news broke that the U.S. had been ready to launch airstrikes in response to the downed drone, but that U.S. President Donald Trump had called off the attacks at the last minute, feeling they would have caused disproportional casualties. That may be true, or the White House may have been bluffing an attack to unnerve the Iranians; Trump has been intimating a desire for talks with Iran and may have been trying to force Tehran to the table. Whatever the intent, tensions in the Persian Gulf remain high.
Meanwhile, Israel is engaged in massive war games that appear to be focused on the Syrian border. Israel sees the presence of Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah, in Syria as a direct threat to its security – a threat they’ve countered with periodic airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria. Israel has kept Russia apprised of impending attacks, and Russia, which controls Syrian air space and has generally been allied with Iran in Syria, has nonetheless allowed the airstrikes to go on for months.
There’s no doubt that all three countries will want to speak about Iran. The U.S. and Israeli positions are fairly clear. Israel wants Iran out of Syria and Hezbollah disarmed, while the U.S. wants to break the Iranian sphere of influence that currently stretches from Iran though Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. The question, then, is what brings Russia to the table. Moscow has said it will make the case for Iran (though whether Iran trusts Russia as its mouthpiece is another question altogether). But Russia’s main interests lay outside of the Middle East; it wants to regain its strategic buffer that collapsed in 1992, and it wants to see an increase in energy prices to stabilize its economy.
If we take the Russian interest seriously, then its approach to the meeting will be less about speaking for Iran and more about using Iran as a bargaining chip. Russia could actually benefit from a conflict in the Persian Gulf; it is not militarily exposed there, and a fight would surely drive up the price of oil, on which the Russian economy so heavily depends.
But the U.S. and Israel don’t want to fight Iran. The 2006 war with Hezbollah didn’t go well for Israel. Its forays into Lebanon didn’t put an end to the threat, and it doesn’t want another failed war. The U.S. has been mired in war in the Middle East for 15 years without a satisfactory outcome, and Washington’s strategy is to draw down its forces. But tensions with Iran have put pressure on the U.S. to increase its presence in the region. If the U.S. tries to deal with Iran in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq – let alone Iran itself – it will be tripling down on its failures since 2003. Even with the help of Israeli and Saudi forces, using U.S. military force to roll back Iran’s sphere of influence in the region would be enormously costly and likely impossible.
Simply put, the U.S. and Israel want to break Iranian power without assuming the risks of doing so. Russia holds the key. It is allied with Iran, but that alliance has made Iran dependent, not equal. Russia is the only major power not hostile to Iran, but that’s already changing in Syria. If Russia turns on Tehran, it would intensify Iran’s isolation and array forces against Iran that it could not resist.
In exchange for joining a powerful anti-Iran coalition, Russia will look to the U.S. – which can deliver its interests. Moscow will want an end to economic sanctions, a guarantee of U.S. neutrality on Ukraine, and likely a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Poland and Romania. While Russia may have interests in the Middle East, it’s these burning issues that it really cares about, and it is here that Russia will try to gain leverage. For the U.S., sanctions are not critical – neither Crimea nor eastern Ukraine are major issues – and while it doesn’t trust Russia enough to withdraw from Poland and Romania, Russia can probably live with that. Israel, for its part, would be happy with anything that massively weakens Iran.
The talks may well stick to far more trivial issues than this, and there will be no grand bargain on the table. Yet, senior security officials from these three countries are not meeting in Jerusalem to make some pious declaration. It seems they’ll be there to do business.