Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced some unusual bedfellows, the strangest of whom are Iran and Israel.
Perhaps the term “bedfellows” is an exaggeration, but these bitter enemies face two overlapping challenges. The first is how to manage ties with Moscow without harming their wider diplomatic relations. This is easier for Iran given its close partnership with Russia in Syria and the enthusiasm of Iranian hardliners, who are pleased to see an American European partner—Ukraine—take a beating. By contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is trying to play the role of mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Yet he must not take steps that complicate the diplomatic moves of the Biden White House.
The second challenge is how to respond to Moscow’s bid to effectively condition its support for the Vienna nuclear talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the outcome of the Ukraine crisis. While neither will mourn their collapse, Israel and Iran have good reason to fear the aftermath of failed talks. Their shared ambivalence initially helped to support the efforts of American (and probably Russian) negotiators to build a firewall between the Vienna talks and Putin’s war in Ukraine. That wall has been breached, and thus the negotiations, as European officials put it, are on “pause.”
Hardliners in Israel and Iran might celebrate the demise of the JCPOA. But without an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program—and in the wake of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s March 10 declaration that “Regional involvement gives us strategic depth and more national strength”—the prospects for a major military confrontation between Israel and the US, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other, could quickly escalate into a wider regional conflict. Thus, at least for the moment, a good case could be made that the interests of Israel and Iran would be best served by a diplomatic solution that ends the bloodletting while allowing for a face-saving formula in Vienna. Successful diplomacy on the Ukraine crisis would certainly increase the odds that Russian might walk back its recent bid to stall or complicate the Vienna talks, a development that Iran's President Ebrahaim Raissi would also welcome as contends with hardliners who are not unhappy to see America's Ukrainian ally take a beating. Foreign Minister SergeyLavrov's March 15 claim that the talks are "back on track" provide some cause for hope even against the grim horizon of the Ukraine crisis.
Bennett Plays the “Mediator” Card While Keeping One Eye on Vienna
A hardline Israeli commentator recently complained that while “every single Israeli media outlet sent correspondents to Ukraine and the war zones…not a single Israeli news outlet has sent correspondents [to Vienna].” Surmising the same judgment, Retired Israeli Brigadier General Assaf Orion argues that Israel should have been focusing on the nuclear negotiations rather than on Ukraine.
Apart from highlighting difficult questions of prioritization, these remarks underscore a wider debate in Israel’s government and security establishment about the costs and benefits of opposing what officials anticipate would be a flawed nuclear agreement. In late December 2021, Prime Minister Bennett laid out Israel’s position. “We want a good deal,” he said. “Is this expected to happen in the current parameters? No.” But in contrast to the previous government, which was looking to fight with the United States, Bennett promised a “quiet” approach, one that suggested that Israel would not be precluded from using the military option to address Iran’s nuclear program. Although pitched with the Biden Administration in mind, this more low key approach was also designed to facilitate Israel’s expanding diplomacy with Gulf Arab states, such as the United Arab Emirates, as well as to minimize obstacles to Turkey’s recent opening to Israel, which was marked by President Isaac Herzog’s March 9 state visit to Ankara.
In the two weeks preceding Herzog’s visit, the increasingly dire situation in Ukraine was putting Bennett’s government in a tricky spot. On February 22, Israeli officials were still debating how to respond to the crisis. “We can’t just ignore what the Russians did,” an Israeli official noted. Two days later Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced that Russia’s attack is “a serious violation of the international order.” But his remarks hardly signaled a decisive shift in position. Indeed, it was quickly followed by a Tweet from Yair Netanyahu (son of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) who asserted that “Lapid does not represent the majority of Israeli citizens.” Shortly after, Bennett declared that “like everyone else, we pray for peace and calm in Ukraine” but made no mention of Russia, much less of Putin.
March 5 Shakes Things Up
Russia’s escalating assault during the first week of March put pressure on the Israeli government to remedy this ambiguity. Bennett’s March 5 meeting with Putin in Moscow, and his subsequent offer to serve as a mediator, suggested that he might go the extra mile to placate the Russian president. On that same day, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threw a diplomatic left hook. Moscow, he insisted, wanted a written guarantee that sanctions “launched by the U.S. will not in any way harm our right to free, fully fledged trade and economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with Iran.” While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that the sanctions the US had imposed on Russia “have nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal,” Lavrov effectively linked the two, thus giving Tehran an incentive to harden its demands or even quit the talks. Suddenly the negotiations, which according to numerous reports were on the brink of success, were endangered, thus opening up the possibility that the agreement that Israel dreaded might never happen.
Days later, in a phone call, Bennett suggested to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that he consider Putin’s proposals for ending the conflict, an idea that got a curt “I hear you” reply. There remains much confusion regarding this report, which prompted Ukrainian officials to deny that Bennett was pressuring Zelenskyy. Whatever the details, Bennett is determined to stay on good terms with both Moscow and Washington, a point underscored by a statement from his office that his Moscow trip had the “blessings” of the Biden Administration. At the same time, having thrown a monkey wrench into the Vienna talks, by default or by design, Moscow has given Bennett an additional incentive to work with Putin and Lavrov. Bennett has certainly demonstrated his tactical juggling skills, even if his ultimate strategy remains unclear.
Iranian Leaders Dodge Moscow’s Monkey Wrench
It was not surprising that Iranian officials blamed the United States for the “pause” in the Vienna talks that followed Moscow’s linkage of the negotiations with the Ukraine crisis. At the same time, it seems that Iranians were caught off guard by Lavrov’s statement. After all, Russian leaders had previously criticized the Iranian government for being slow to define its basic positions. Moscow may very well have pushed Iranian negotiators to reach an agreement whose basic outlines were apparently drawn in the two weeks preceding Lavrov’s statement. The table thus was set, only to be upset.
There are two reasons Iran wants a deal. First, despite Khamanei’s assertion that Iran needs nuclear power, the entire economy will rely on oil and gas sales for the foreseeable future. While Iran has mitigated the effects of imposed US sanctions by selling oil to China, President Ebrahim Raisi has hitched whatever legitimacy his government has to the promise of solving Iran’s severe economic problems. Absent a revived JCPOA, sanctions will remain, and thus it will be much harder for him to honor this pledge. Second, if the Vienna talks fail, the prospects for a US-Iranian military confrontation will grow. For both reasons some kind of compromise is probably a better alternative to the black hole of no agreement.
In all likelihood, these considerations shaped Iran’s initial response to Lavrov’s March 5 remarks. The precise tone or content of this response is not easy to gauge but it certainly registered ambivalence. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman insisted that Moscow had been constructive “so far,” and that it was “clear that Vienna talks are on their way and Iran’s peaceful nuclear cooperation shouldn’t be limited or affected by any sanctions including Iran’s cooperation with Russia.” Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian asserted that Iran would not allow “any foreign elements to undermine its national interests.” Reuters reported that an Iranian official said in no uncertain terms that “there is an understanding that by changing its position in Vienna talks Russia wants to secure its interests in other places. This move is not constructive.” This author’s review of Farsi news sources did not reveal any statement by Iranian officials that was explicit as this one reported by Reuters. But there is no doubt that Iranian officials had to maneuver to avoid being hit by Lavrov’s monkey wrench as it flew their way.
Moscow’s Linkage Reveals A Deeper Iranian Debate
Lurking just beneath the surface of these responses is a deeper strategic debate regarding the very direction of Iran’s engagement with the wider global community. Three days after Lavrov’s statement, President Raisi articulated a tough if pragmatic hardline position. In a speech focusing on economic problems and the need to remove sanctions in a “dignified fashion,” Raisi declared that “some accuse us of looking one-dimensionally at the East… This is not correct. The administration is looking to develop relations with all countries and create balance in the country’s foreign policy.” Moderate conservative politician Ali Motahari took this position one step further in a Tweet that turned the linkage argument on its head. “Iran,” he declared, “must condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in order to demonstrate its independence. Currently, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting reports the news like one of the Russian colonies. Let us always remember the separation of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia from Iran by Russia and the Soviet support for Saddam in his attack on Iran.”
These sentiments were given free rein in a hardline publication that mocked Zelenskyy. “Zelenskyy’s lifestyle as a hedonist,” it wrote, “made him an effective tool in the hands of the Western mafia, especially the Americans.” The publication not only mocked him as a “Jew and has deep ties to Jewish officials and the rich, such as George Soros,” it taunted him for relying on the “Zionists,” (i.e., Israel), even after they “refused to…sign a UN resolution against Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.” This claim was not completely true since Israel did in the end vote for a UN General Assembly resolution to condemn the invasion. But the article served the purpose of underscoring the essential point that if the Jewish president of Ukraine was so easily betrayed by the implied perfidy of the United States or Israel, Iran has every reason to resist signing a new JCPOA agreement with the Biden Administration.
Iran’s Supreme Leader has joined the clamor in his most recent speeches. He not only argued that the US had created the Ukraine crisis, he declared that “regional presence” is the very basis of Iran’s “strategic depth” while denouncing the “suggestion that says that we must compromise…because if we show a little bit of toughness, they will impose sanctions on us. In my opinion, these would be grave mistakes.” These words have been widely and perhaps correctly interpreted as a warning against returning to the Vienna talks, or at the very least, a rejection of making any compromises with the United States.
A Grim Horizon?
It is too early to write the epitaph of the Vienna negotiations. Russia’s assault on Ukraine has clearly stiffened the backbone of Iranian hardliners. But Foreign Minister Lavrov's March 15 assertion that Russia has received "written guarantees" regarding its concerns on the possible linkage between sanctions and the JCPOA --and that an agreement was now possible-- suggests that Iran pushed back against Moscow's wrench tossing exercise. Russia's possible (and hoped for) shift underscores the point made above, namely that for Iran a failed agreement is a worse alternative. Lavrov's optimism may also reflect blowback from the mounting casualties Russia is suffering in Ukraine. Seeking to put the emphasis on the positive, during his meeting with his Russian counter-part, he emphasized that Russian-Iranian cooperation would continue and even expand.That cooperation poses challenges for all concerned. Indeed, Israel and Iran have both endeavored to manage this link in ways that underscore the tricky challenge of dealing with Russia as they manage their regional and global relations. If domestic politics have played a role in shaping the responses of both states to the Ukraine crisis, Israeli leaders still have an interest in pushing for a ceasefire and some kind of compromise. By contrast, Tehran has effectively backed Putin’s war but sooner than later may have second thoughts. Its embrace of Putin's bloody war puts Iran at odds with other neighbors—especially Turkey—while inviting growing tensions with European states--if not the wider global community. As Raisi and other Iranian leaders surely know, Tehran could pay a heavy diplomatic and economic price if it tries to embrace a rampaging Russian bear.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
Iran President Ebrahim Raisi (Fars News Agency via wikimedia commons); Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters); Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (Lev Radin/Shutterstock)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.