The Middle East offers many opportunities for Putin to combine business with pleasure in challenging the United States. Consider its tumultuous strategic environment: a civil war in Syria, a potential civil war in Libya, ongoing political instability in Egypt and Iraq, simmering violence in Yemen, and political uncertainty almost everywhere else. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are deeply engaged in Syria’s war, as are Iran and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia and Egypt (among others) are frustrated with the United States — the former over Syria and the latter over America’s intervention in its complex politics, where Washington seems to have been on almost every side at one point or another and has consequently alienated almost all sides. Uncertainty about Iran’s intentions further complicates all of this, as does a weakened relationship between the United States and Israel (where Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman appears to be one of Putin’s closer personal contacts among foreign officials). Meanwhile, China has surpassed the United States as the largest buyer of Middle East oil even as broader China-Middle East trade soars. Expanded Russian arms sales — or new Russian nuclear power plants — may only further destabilize the region.
Saudi Arabia and Syria are Russia’s principal security concerns in the Middle East; Moscow’s pre-eminent security interest is in minimizing its own domestic terrorism problem, which means supporting a strong Syrian government that can crack down on extremists and discouraging Saudi and other financial support, whether official or otherwise, for al-Qaeda-connected opposition groups in Syria and extremists in the former Soviet Union. Russia has long viewed Saudi Arabia and Qatar as key sources of support for Chechen militia groups and two Russian operatives were convicted in Qatar in 2004 for assassinating former Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiev to cut short his fund-raising activity there.
The Kremlin’s position as a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and its resulting place at the table in the P5+1 process, have been an enduring source of international visibility and influence only recently surpassed by Russia’s Syria role. Moscow also appreciates Iran’s restraint in the former Soviet region and, as a result, sees it as a valuable partner in managing Saudi Arabia. Fundamentally, however, some Russian officials have a conflicted attitude toward Iran, in that they welcome diplomacy as an alternative to US-led war or regime change, but are not especially eager for a US-Iran rapprochement that could undermine Tehran’s interest in their relationship.
Al-Monitor: In the old days, the Iranians and the Saudis used to talk to each other and resolve issues. Now, this is a missing piece.
Patterson: It goes back 20 years [to Lebanon]. This is a missing piece. And so the proxy war has gotten a lot worse and you see it all over now in frankly scary dimensions. But it wasn’t that long ago when they had some kind of relationship. … They never liked each other, but they weren’t at this level of animosity.