Despite the Sunni world's great frustration over the American dialogue with Iran, Arab countries' courtship of Russia is still surprising, in light of its consistent support for Bashar Assad's regime since the start of the revolution in Syria. Russia has provided consistent support for a regime responsible for the death of 120,000 Arab Syrians.
Russia, which was the most hated country in the Sunni world at the start of the revolution in Syria, is gaining growing popularity in the Arab world. A series of mistakes by the American government led to the Russians' return to the Middle East. How serious will the results of the Russian comeback be?
The negotiations between the United States and Iran have yet to yield a thing, but their sub-scores in the meantime are disastrous for America and its democratic vision in the Middle East. The series of mistakes by the US included its agreement not to attack the Syrian regime in return for its (alleged) complete elimination of chemical weapons, its willingness to negotiate with the Iranian regime on the nuclear issue, and cutting aid to the Egyptian regime while it fights the Muslim Brotherhood. The consequences could generate a strategic upheaval in the region.
Up until now, the Middle East was divided as follows: The Shiite world, led by Iran, was supported by Russia; and the Sunni world, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was supported by the US. But the latest American steps are seen as a serious betrayal by the Sunni axis.
As opposed to America, Russia was revealed during the Syrian crisis as a loyal friend of the Assad regime. The Saudi kingdom invested billions in the Syrian opposition and suffered a major disappointment with the cancelation of the American strike. Saudi Arabia's refusal to be represented in the United Nations Security Council in October signaled its change in policy towards the US.
Saudi Arabia is more concerned than all of the region's countries that Iran will achieve nuclear abilities. As opposed to the Iranian-Israeli conflict which only began in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian-Saudi conflict has a background of some 1,300 years of struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. If Iran attains a nuclear bomb, the Shiites will gain an advantage over the Sunni world for the first time in the history of Islam. The head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, declared in the past that if Iran obtained nuclear abilities, Saudi Arabia would do the same.
And so, from the moment the Americans began considering easing sanctions against Iran, Saudi Arabia began talks with Pakistan, the only Muslim (and Sunni) country with a nuclear weapon. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stated recently that he would also consider accepting Russian aid. The Russians, on their part, rushed to express their consent to help develop the Saudi reactors. At the same time, discussions began at the Gulf Cooperation Council on the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The Russians are expected to be involved in that project too.
Filling the American void
The Russians are taking very good advantage of the void created by the American policy. The arrival of the Russian foreign and defense ministers in Egypt for talks last week was an unprecedented historical event since the countries severed ties in 1979. In the 1970s, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke off relations with the Soviet Union, turned to the US for help and signed the peace treaty with Israel.
President Hosni Mubarak considered opening a civilian nuclear reactor with Russia's help, but shelved the idea after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. According to a recent report in the Arab press, a significant part of the aid Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates gave Egypt, which was supposed to help the country's economy, will be used to purchase modern weapons from Russia, including submarines and MiG-29 fighter aircraft.
Russia and Egypt are expected to sign long-term military agreements soon, which will open a new chapter in the relations between the two countries. A report in one of the Russian newspapers even stated that the future agreements include the establishment of a Russian civilian nuclear reactor in Egypt off the Mediterranean Sea.
The appetite for nukes has not skipped over Jordan, which officially declared about two weeks ago that it is building a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes. This reactor, which will be utilizable in 2021, was acquired from a Russian company at the approval of the Russian government. The declared goal is to produce energy and reduce the price of electricity. The Russian funding of the project, which amounts to 49%, proves just how important it is for the Russians to build the reactor.
The reactors are allegedly meant to solve the energy problem in the Middle East, especially in countries in distress like Egypt and Jordan. The nuclear energy is supposed to prepare rich countries like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates to an era in which they will run out of oil reserves. But the nuclear race, both for peaceful purposes and for purposes of war, will eventually lead to the nuclearization of the Middle East.
There is no limit to the dangers this new situation could create in the future. The Jordanian reactor will be built too close to the Great Rift Valley, and its maintenance will be problematic for the poor kingdom. The reactor built in the south of the kingdom, which will need the Red Sea water to cool the centrifuges, will serve as a constant threat on the entire area. The reactors expected to pop up like mushrooms in Saudi Arabia and perhaps in Egypt too later on, could violate Israel's strategic advantage over the Arab world.
In the Middle Eastern game of chess between the US and Russia, the former enjoyed a longer advantage of several decades. But one wrong move of sacrificing safe pieces in order to reach vague achievements, changed the situation on the board.
The US is facing a new and unexpected challenge: It must get the Sunni axis back on its side and regain its trust. The more the US takes its time in doing so, the more Russia will deepen its ties in the region.
The crisis created should have brought two old enemies closer, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as they are both frustrated by the US policy and both want to prevent the Iranian bomb at any cost. If the leaders of the two countries are wise enough to realize the power concealed in cooperating with each other, it will be "the start of a beautiful friendship."
Dr. Yaron Friedman, Ynet's commentator on the Arab world, is a graduate of the Sorbonne. He teaches Arabic and lectures about Islam at the Technion, at Beit Hagefen and at the Galilee Academic College. His book, "The Nusayri Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria," was published in 2010 by Brill-Leiden