* By Agha Hussain

Is Eurasian integration Israel’s answer to strategic deadlock in the Levant?

December 26, 2020 - 10:34

TEHRAN-- Making US Middle East policy near-indistinguishable from its own had certain immediate advantages for Israel, but long-term caveats. The bonus was constant US financial, military, and diplomatic insurance for Israel’s aggressive militarism in Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon – the major venues for Israel’s desired settlements-expansion policy.

The caveat was that once the Israeli and US military might failed to get the desired results, Israel would have little in the way of diplomatic channels, economic interdependencies, and multilateral alliances to chart a new path toward those same results.

In the context of a broad strategic deadlock against its foes in its regional Levant neighbourhood, Israel has been subtly embracing ‘Eurasian integration’ as a shift away from the US in sight of finding alternate, more gradual paths toward weakening its enemies.

The Levant deadlock

In Gaza, the steadily improving military capabilities of armed organizations have led to a severe reduction in Israel’s appetite for military operations. Settlement expansion in Gaza, unlike the West Bank, has thus remained out of Israel’s grasp and this rebukes Israel’s ideal ‘Deal of the Century scenario for a disarmed, completely divided Palestine.

Syria’s status as the base and conduit for Iranian military and economic supplies to Gaza and in particular Lebanon has consolidated following Iran’s gains there during the Syrian War (2011-present). Hundreds of Israeli airstrikes in Syria on ‘Iranian targets’, including Iran-aligned paramilitaries, have done little to dent Iran’s presence there which Israeli analysts fear will soon include underground cruise and ballistic missile sites.

Israel, whose 1982-2000 occupation of Lebanon and failed re-invasion attempt in July 2006 sparked Iran’s Levant axis, to begin with, thus finds itself confronted near its borders instead of comfortably expanding them.

Israeli historian Michael Oren indicated why this scenario marks a problem for the geographically-small state of Israel in a December 2019 analysis in The Atlantic:

‘If rockets fall near Ben-Gurion Airport, as during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza, it will close to international traffic. Israel’s ports, through which a major portion of its food and essential supplies are imported, may also shut down, and its electrical grids could be severed. Iran has honed its hacking tools in recent years and Israel, though a world leader in cyberdefense, cannot entirely protect its vital utilities. Millions of Israelis would huddle in bomb shelters. Hundreds of thousands would be evacuated from border areas that terrorists are trying to infiltrate. The restaurants and hotels would empty, along with the offices of the high-tech companies of the start-up nation. The hospitals, many of them resorting to underground facilities, would quickly be overwhelmed, even before the skies darken with the toxic fumes of blazing chemical factories and oil refineries.’

Moreover, the level of escalation required for the US-Iran war Israel has long pushed for as a means of cutting Iran off from the Levant seems to constantly elude Tel Aviv.

In Iraq, senior US military commanders urge against all-out war against Iran-aligned Iraqi factions and in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf Arabs (GCC) who host the US’ bases still see a US-Iran war in that space as a red line in spite of their newly-public alliance with Israel.

Thus, Israel now needs foreign partnerships aside from the US which can be leveraged against its enemies somehow. Here, the much-vaunted ‘Eurasian integration’ trend in global affairs of states diversifying away from the US and toward powers such as Russia and China comes into play for Israel in a major way.

Israel, Russia, and the containment of Iran in the Levant

 In terms of countering the Iranian advance in the Levant which analysts such as Oren warn about, Israel has found significant utility in Eurasian heavyweight Russia’s Syria policy.

Russia acted for very different reasons to Iran in supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad against the rebels seeking his ouster in the Syrian War. Iran sought Assad’s continued rule to keep its anti-Israel Levant axis stable, a notion Russia disagreed with.

Not only did Russia ensure Israel that its September 2015 campaign against the rebels – which Israel supported owing to their hostility to its enemies – did not challenge Tel Aviv, but also set up a mechanism with the latter to coordinate their military actions in Syria. This along with several other aspects of Russia’s Syria policy soon came to benefit Israel’s goal to contain Iran in Syria greatly.

Russia believes with a clear conviction that Iran in the form of its own military and Shia paramilitaries it recruited from other states must leave Syria. This renders clearer Russia’s passive facilitation of Israeli airstrikes in Syria using their military coordination mechanism; Israel constantly ‘justifies’ the strikes by claiming they solely target Iran.

Iran has occasionally lashed out against this Russian-Israeli coordination. In 2018, Chairman of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh stated to Iranian media that Russia rendered inactive the S-300 anti-air defense missile systems it provided Syria just prior to incoming Israeli airstrikes, thus enabling them.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense in 2018 also confirmed acting upon Israel’s direct request in pushing for Iran-led paramilitaries to move further away from the Golan Heights – the Syrian territory Israel has illegally occupied since 1967.

Evidently, Russia has been generous toward Israeli interests in Syria. Despite the centrality to Russia’s Syria policy of promoting de-confliction and de-escalation between the foreign powers involved in Syria, it clearly makes an exception for Israel against Iran. Thus, what is behind this generosity which is so valuable to Israel against Iran’s Levant axis?

The answer may well lie in a subtle yet consistent trend of special benefit to Russia’s standing in strategic parts of Eurasia from Israeli policies toward Iran.

The Israel-Russia consensus on Iran: made in Eurasia?

While rarely observed, a roadmap of Israel’s attempts to weaken Iran over the last twenty-odd years reveals several strategic assists to Russia made in line with this objective.

Moreover, these assists have been particularly intimate for Russia, not only boosting its capacity for power projection in its traditional Eurasian backyard but doing so in practical defiance of an increasing ‘New Cold War’ approach toward Russia in Washington.

Russia and the post-Soviet Caspian Sea energy trade

After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the former Soviet republics in with the lion’s share of Caspian Sea oil and gas fields were immediately courted by oil multinationals. This held major implications for Russia.

These newly independent states on the Caspian littoral, namely Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, had no export outlet for their oil and gas except pipelines through Russia and no financial or technical capacity to get their energy to world markets.

Their reliance on Russia to keep their almost entirely energy industry-based economies afloat meant Moscow could count on them not to stray too far into the US’ orbit.

The globalization of the Caspian energy trade by multinationals changed this. Now, the Azeri, Kazakh, and Turk leaderships had the option of accessing larger, more competitive markets worldwide willing to pay higher for oil and gas than Russia as well as building the necessary infrastructure to transport their energy to those markets.

Notwithstanding the inevitably large share of the work and thus profits the multinationals would get owing to their superior capacity, the former Soviet satellites stood to gain more in profits and foreign business ties than the existing arrangement with Russia.

Thus, Russia’s grip on its Central Asian and Transcaucasian neighbours was bound to weaken. Retaining some degree of this economic stake in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan was important, since combined with Russia’s military superiority it could yet deter these states from a worrisome tilt to the US.

To thus preserve its economic stake and Soviet-era influence in the region, Russia needed as many future export pipelines for Caspian energy to pass through its territory as possible. This, of course, would require getting multinationals on board with this idea.

In this endeavour, a major obstacle stood in Russia’s way: Iran.

Russia’s Iranian problem in the Caspian Sea

The multinationals and post-Soviet Caspian states had an efficient export route to the open seas for trade with buyers worldwide in Iran. This made Russia redundant.

This route went south from the Caspian Sea via Iran to the Persian Gulf. From there, both the two most prized geographical markets in Europe and Asia were easily accessible by shipping as the most efficient mode of transport for massive amounts of heavy cargo.

This southern route was superior to the northern ones Russia sought which transited it. The latter involved a longer land journey to the sea, using poorly-maintained Soviet-era pipelines, the transit through which Russia charged heavy transit fees on, and even block rival energy exports from the European market to preserve Russia’s monopoly therein.

Additionally, the Russian route terminated at the Black Sea from where shipment to Europe involved passage through Turkey’s congestion-prone Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, and its journey to Asia was extremely long as evident from the map.

Iran also had other costs-and-efficiency advantages over Russia as the transit for Caspian Sea energy to the outside world.  

Speaking at a Middle East Policy Council panel of experts in September 1997 at Capitol Hill, Harvard economist, and energy consultant Dr. Thomas Stauffer said of the Iran route:

            ‘It's easy; it's cheap; the infrastructure is all there.’

Stauffer explained the viability of Iran for the multinationals and Soviet Caspian states seeking to avoid the Russian route, stressing a ‘swap’ of oil at Iran’s northern refineries in exchange for oil at its Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf as a cheap arrangement. The oil would then be easily shipped as exports to the world markets via open waters.

Stauffer added that Iran had the pre-existing infrastructure for this arrangement, while the infrastructure in Russia was poorly maintained and subject to heavy transit fees charged by Moscow. This could even necessitate building long, expensive new pipelines.

Thus, Russia seemed to be left behind in the Caspian energy trade. However, it soon found its fortunes reversed by a new Israeli policy against Iran, namely sanctions, in the 90s.

Israel’s anti-Iran sanctions drive preserves Russia’s Caspian stake

The US imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas industry starting in 1995. Israel via its Washington lobbyists was the exclusive policy driver - and overseer in the years to come - of these sanctions which cost US companies their oil contracts with Iran.

While part of Israel’s geopolitical conflict with Iran in the Levant, the sanctions indirectly assisted Russia’s struggle to retain economic hegemony in the Caspian Sea region.

Iran was rendered a perilous destination for the investment multinationals needed to utilize its infrastructure and geography to export Caspian energy. This increased the chances of continued regional reliance on Russian routes and pipelines for energy export.

For example, sanctions cost Kazakhstan and its partnering companies, who had the largest and most easily extractable oil field at Tengiz, the swap arrangement with Iran to get exports going from the Persian Gulf. Thus, it was left with Russia as the only export outlet for its energy which it needed to sell urgently to gain hard currency and keep its economy running.

This led to the Tengiz-Novorossiysk oil pipeline, completed in 2001 by the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) involving US and European companies. Russia thus retained influence over a former Soviet client state with a dominant 24% stake in the pipeline.

On this opportune alignment of Russo-Israeli interests in the Caspian Sea against Iran, Dr. Stauffer stated:

Here the United States, the Israelis, and the Russians all agree. The Russians don't want any competing export outlet. But their fallback position is that if there must be access to Caspian oil, then it should go through the Russian pipelines.’

If not made readily apparent by the Caspian example, Russia would in the years to follow receive direct affirmations of the bonuses it could reap from Israel’s crusade against Iran in terms of its own objective to enhance its influence in Eurasia against the US-NATO.

Israel, the Russia-Georgia War, drones, and Iran

In August 2008, Russia won a 5-day long war with Georgia. Bordering Russia in the southern Caucasus, the former Soviet republic had been on an increasingly pro-NATO, anti-Russia trajectory and ultimately provoked Moscow militarily.

 Russia’s long-term gain was significant. It credibly established that it could and would act harshly against NATO attempts to court former Soviet states straddling its Eurasian borders into becoming NATO’s ‘containment’ allies against Russia.

Prior to the war, Israel gave the data link codes of the Hermes 450 Israeli spy drones Georgia used to Russia in exchange for Russia giving Israel the codes of the Tor-M1 anti-air defense systems it had sold Iran. This offset what following the war was widely observed by military analysts to be Russia’s shortcomings in intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities.

For Israel, the Georgia assist gave it a two-prong advantage against Iran.

 It showed Russia that compromising its ties with Iran could mean Israel propping it up in the New Cold War, thus staving off a potential Iran-Russia alliance driven by maltreatment from the US. This played into Israel’s policy to globally isolate Iran.

Subsequently, it set the stage for Israel to pitch greater incentives to Russia – still in the New Cold War context – in exchange for greater Russian compromises vis a vis Iran. Fortunately for Israel, it received a chance to do so soon after the Russia-Georgia War when Russia requested to buy Israeli spy drones.

Leveraging Russia’s military tensions with the West and thus lack of options to import modern weaponry, Israel offered to sell it spy drones – but only if Russia agreed to halt delivery of its famous S-300s to Iran as per a sale made years prior. The S-300 is a superior anti-air defense system to the Tor-M1 and Israel was determined to keep it from getting into Iranian hands and thus those of Hezbollah and the Palestinians.

Fortunately for Israel, it soon found an ideal opportunity to test and demonstrate the durability of this Israel-Russia bargaining model to any potential sceptics in Tel Aviv.

Testing the limits of the Israel-Russia consensus on Iran

In July 2009, news of the hijacking of the Maltese-flagged, Latvian-owned Arctic Sea in the Baltic Sea broke globally as the first instance of piracy in modern European history. However, it was Russia’s reaction to the incident which soon revealed its actual significance.

 A Russian frigate apprehended the hijackers three weeks later as the ship drifted in the Atlantic Ocean – far away from Russia’s maritime jurisdiction. It then returned the ship to the Novorossiysk Port on the Black Sea. This strenuous cover-up rendered doubtful Russia’s claim that the ship was merely carrying timber from Finland to Algeria.

The chief of the European Union’s chief piracy watch, Tarmo Kouts, stated that Israel hijacked the ship since it was secretly carrying missiles to be sold to Iran. That the ship was carrying weapons for Iran and was intercepted by Israel was also corroborated by Mikhail Voitenko, a Russian maritime expert who covered the ship’s hijacking. Voitenko was then threatened into fleeing Russia, ostensibly for exposing black-market arms dealers.

On 7 September, Israeli Prime Minister (2009-present) Benjamin Netanyahu took a private jet to Moscow for a secret visit with President Dmitry Medvedev.

Late British historian and Middle East expert Patrick Seale put the visit in the context of the hijacking affair, citing US intelligence sources and stating that Netanyahu’s visit was meant to secure the release of the Mossad-recruited hijackers. Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Russia a month later, also in connection with the hijacking affair.

Ultimately, Israel and Russia emerged from the situation with a resounding affirmation of their bargaining model vis a vis Iran. Accordingly, Russia canceled its S-300 sale to Iran in September 2010. The next month, Israel agreed to sell $400 million worth of spy drones to Russia.

By the time Iran finally received S-300s from Russia in 2016, the chaos in Syria and Iraq prevented it possibly moving it to Syria to use against Israel just as Russia’s role containing Iran in Syria for Israel’s sake was growing.

Israel, Iran, and China

Considering the importance to Israel of economically-isolating Iran as a means of weakening Iran’s Levant axis, Israel presently requires an effective roadmap to offset the recent 25-year Sino-Iranian trade-and-strategic pact.

China’s well-established willingness to trade with and invest directly in states sanctioned by the West means that Israel cannot rely on US sanctions to disrupt China-Iran ties.

Conversely, enthusiastically embracing US rival China’s sprawling global trade-and-transport Belt Road Initiative (BRI) may provide Israel a route toward this end.

Should Israel convince Beijing of the centrality of its national security to BRI’s progress, it can bargain for it to compromise its ties with Iran. This is because Israel’s concept of its national security de facto includes the need to subdue Iran, a view with the US, Russia, and the GCC’s backing and which Israel could thus present effectively to Beijing.

 Fortunately for Israel, it is well equipped to court China on a strong footing in this regard, centring itself in the BRI’s very structure.

Israel at the heart of the BRI

Israel has prior experience in positioning itself as a geographically pivotal state connecting the East and West – a key Chinese BRI aim - from a trade-route perspective. In fact, Israel’s afore-discussed intervention in the 1990s-early 2000s to force the case for east-west Caspian Sea energy trade routes cutting out Iran serves as a key example of this.

Unlike Russia’s Tengiz-Novorossiysk oil pipeline, the actual route Israel promoted and enabled despite numerous financial and security hazards was the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. It was completed in 2005, taking oil (and gas via a parallel line) from Azerbaijan’s Caspian fields across Georgia to Israeli ally Turkey’s Ceyhan port on the Mediterranean Sea.

Caspian energy delivered to Ceyhan by the BTC, but intended for Asia instead of Europe, travels south to the Red Sea and onward to the broader Arabian Sea. This means more business for Israel’s Mediterranean ports along that route and boosts Israel’s goal to make itself an overland alternative to Egypt’s Suez Canal for Asia-bound shipping to the Red Sea via connecting its Mediterranean ports with Eilat Port on the Gulf of Aqaba.

This Israeli push to make itself the prime East-West connecting state brought it into direct convergence with BRI upon its launch in 2013.

Israel announced in 2012 a planned 350 km ‘Red-Med Railway’ to Eilat Port from its Mediterranean Ashdod Port. Premier Netanyahu claimed Chinese interest in building the railway, a project which Israeli experts pointed out Israel could not finance itself.

As explained by a 2016 analysis by Dr. Mordechai Chaziza of the Ashkelon Academic College, the railway’s purpose in pivoting Israel at the center of East-West trade aligns well with the BRI:

‘Israel’s location (like that of Djibouti) makes it a feasible overland bridge connecting China’s trade routes from the Far East through Africa up to the Middle East and on to Europe.’

Chaziza also described the Red-Med railway as a means for China to offset its exclusive reliance on the oft-crowded Suez Canal for its shipments to Europe. In this context, China in 2014 pledged a $2 billion investment in the railway, to go with contracts worth billions for Chinese companies in Israeli infrastructure projects since 2010.

Furthermore, between 2014 and 2015 Israel awarded Chinese companies contracts to develop a new seaport in Ashdod Port and to upgrade and then operate Haifa Port. This move showed Beijing Israel’s willingness to link its own economic well-being to a long-term Chinese presence in the Middle East necessary for BRI – and in spite of the US-China rivalry.

Ultimately, this Israeli success in placing itself at the heart of BRI enables it to work toward persuading China that addressing Israel’s ‘national security concerns’ vis a vis Iran is part and parcel of the security of BRI itself.

Could Israel leverage the BRI against Iran?

As central as Israel makes itself to BRI’s realization and future functionality, it still has China’s strict neutrality to contend with if it is to attempt to push the Chinese toward considering Iran’s regional presence a ‘national security threat’ to Israel and thus the BRI.

However, Israel may yet have two trump cards to induce a Chinese bias in its favour against Iran. One is the Levant theatre of the conflict itself and the second is China’s consistent prioritization of its economic interests over all other concerns in its foreign relations.

The conflict in the Levant is close to and threatens the well-being of China’s Middle East BRI assets, creating the prospect of a more active Chinese role in influencing Levant affairs. Since those BRI assets are mostly located in Israel and not Israel’s Iran-allied enemies in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon, China in consistency with its own ‘economy first’ foreign policy doctrine may well side practically with Israel and agree to pressure Iran to compromise.

That Iran’s Levant axis is a reaction to Israeli expansionism will not matter to China the way Haifa Port and similar Sino-Israeli BRI ventures do. Moreover, Iran’s own position in China’s global economic plans may not hedge against such a potential pro-Israeli tilt by China driven by the Levant conflict.

Iran is not as geographically crucial to BRI as Israel is – indeed, its western neighbour Pakistan already provides China an overland outlet to the Arabian Sea for trade with Africa and Europe via the Middle East and a port in the form of Gwadar.

Alongside this, the fact that the largest Chinese banks and companies yet stay out of Iran in order to avoid risks to their business with the US makes Iran susceptible to becoming a bargaining chip for China with the US – as it has been for Russia with Israel. As observed by Roie Yellinek, a researcher at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv:

‘Beijing is quick to jettison Iran when convenient, however. For example, in order to encourage the progress of trade negotiations with the U.S. earlier this year, Beijing swiftly reduced its oil imports from Iran — by 89 percent year-on-year in March — as a gesture of goodwill toward the Trump administration. In June, China imported no crude oil at all from Iran, even as its imports from Saudi Arabia reached an all-time high. Since then, however, China has reversed course, importing 120,000 barrels per day of Iranian crude oil in July.’

If China decides that Iran’s regional power must be rolled back to reduce military tensions in the Levant, it is significantly capable of acting upon this.

Pulling investments from Iran and decreasing its Iranian oil imports can be a means for China to penalize Iran for projecting power in the Levant. Additionally, even the scenario Israel avails Iran’s economic woes to escalate matters in Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria would not ultimately bother China too much since BRI does not need to transit these countries en route to Europe via the Middle East as per its East-West connection.

Thus, if forced to take a position on the Levant and the Iran-Israel tussle therein, China would likely favour Israel.

China’s voting pattern at the UN regarding Israel Palestine would not impede this, either: indeed, the Israeli-US Deal of the Century pact on Palestine which violates all relevant UN resolutions has not affected the growth of China-Israel ties at all.

It is far from certain that Israel will manage to bring about such a change in Chinese policy toward Iran out of deference to Israel’s centrality to BRI. However, because of the deadlock that both the US and Israel face against Iran from a military viewpoint from the Persian Gulf to Iraq to the Levant, it is an option worth pursuing Tel Aviv.

Israel between the West and Eurasia: A smooth transition

 Israel has clearly invested amply in growing its ties with Russia and China regardless of the global military and economic rivalry of these Eurasian great powers with the US. The nature of Russia and China’s ties with Iran lend new possibilities to Israel’s overarching goal to contain and roll-back Iran, a purpose the US is losing its capacity to serve.

Overall, this approach will likely see Israeli geostrategy attain a more long-term dimension and a greater focus on geo-economics. Sanctions will retain their importance for Israel against Iran even as it downsizes its reliance on US military power against the latter.

While yet not widely observed, Israel’s ‘Eurasian integration’ has already begun and Tel Aviv is not likely to backtrack on the strides it has made in its ties with Russia and China.

* Author:  Agha Hussain, independent editorial contributor based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan