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Global Reaction to Lebanon Crisis Shaped by Iran

Following Hizballah’s assault in northern Israel last week and the Israeli military’s counter-offensive into Lebanon has brought about an apparently paradoxical global alignment. While Syria has spoken out in favor of Hizballah and blamed Israel unconditionally, most Arab states have criticized Hizballah as well as Israel, the most important among them has been the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As noted by ThreatsWatch on Monday, the Saudi government has issued a statement which, while critical of Israel, makes clear that Hizballah’s actions do not have the support of Riyadh.

According to the Associated Press, sources at an emergency session of Arab foreign ministers put Saudi Arabia at the forefront of those wanting Hizballah to back down:

…The Saudi foreign minister appeared to be leading a camp of ministers criticizing the guerrilla group’s actions, calling them “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts. These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot simply accept them,” Saudi al-Faisal told his counterparts…

The article goes on to claim that, while several Arab states lined up with Faisal, several others stood by Hizbullah. However, it should be noted that Arab governments on record have either joined Saudi Arabia’s condemnation of Hizballah or fallen curiously silent on the group’s recent actions, save for Hizballah’s logistical partner and supporter Syria, Lebanon’s Syrian-appointed preseident Emil Lahoud and his Foreign Minister, Fawzi Salloukh.

It might come to one as a surprise, then, to see that Russia has focused its criticism on Israel. As reported in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

…The divide came to a head during a tussle over a Russian attempt to have the summit formally condemn Israel’s assault on Lebanon. After the U.S. blocked the move, Russia stymied a U.S. effort to include language specifically linking Syria and Iran to the violence. Ultimately, the G-8 statement on the Middle East expressed the leaders’ “determination to pursue efforts to restore peace,” but didn’t address differences between the U.S. and Russian approaches….

…None of the European countries backed Israel as strongly as the U.S., and several mixed condemnations of Hezbollah with expressions of concern about the scope of the Israeli offensive. Still, the public statements of most G-8 leaders seemed closer to Mr. Bush’s than Mr. Putin’s. French President Jacques Chirac, in an appearance with Mr. Bush, emphasized the need for “to-the-letter implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559,” which calls for Hezbollah to be disarmed. Mr. Blair echoed American language accusing Iran and Syria of contributing to the violence through military and financial support of Hezbollah.

Mr. Putin’s denunciation of the Israeli offensive could open him up to charges of hypocrisy in his views in the war on terror, given Russia’s crackdown on Chechnya, where Russian forces battling Islamic separatists have killed thousands of civilians. Mr. Putin’s public statements make clear that he sees Hamas’s and Hizballah’s battles with Israel as predominantly political in nature, while he sees the Chechens’ attacks on Russia as religiously inspired terrorism…

The apparent paradox of Muslim Saudi Arabia criticizing Hizballah and Christian Russia blaming Israel may be logically explained by the relationship of each to Iran, Hizbullah’s primary sponsor. Saudi Arabia is a natural regional foe of Iran. During the 1980s, once the new Shia Islamist government in Tehran had solidified power, one of its major goals was the promotion of Shia Islamist revolutions throughout the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia has a significant Shia minority, and they tend to populate the areas of the country in which much of the kingdom’s oil reserves are located. It was largely over the threat of Shia revolution that Riyadh supported Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war against Iran. Anything that increases Iran’s power in the region is contrary to Saudi interests, and the kingdom has been warning Iran to back down in its nuclear confrontation with the West. While Riyadh blames the West for the problem in part because it acquiesced in Israel’s nuclearization, the Saudis know that Israel is not even a potential threat to them, while Iran is a very real one.

To Russia, on the other hand, Iran is an ally. Russia’s support for Iran’s nuclear program accelerated in 2001 as Russia moved ahead with the Bushehr nuclear facility, and then the two countries signed an agreement for the building of five new reactors. Russia has also provided assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile programs. (See Ilan Berman’s Tehran Rising, pp. 68-69.) Russia has also welcomed Hamas leaders to Moscow recently, and opposed Western efforts to isolate Hamas and pressure to for it to recognize Israel’s right to exist. (See Moscow’s New Twist by Ehud Yaari for more background on Russia’s new Middle East foreign policy.)

Russia’s policy toward Iran and radical Islamist organizations might be attributed to a financial incentive, or perhaps in a calculation that this will insulate Russia from any backlash over its aggressive response to Chechnyan separatists. Either way, Russia’s criticism of Israel in its showdown with Hizballah is consistent with its strategy in recent years.