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Why Russia Doesn’t Want War Between Israel and Iran

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on April 11, 2024.

An Israeli airstrike on an Iranian embassy in Syria last week killed three IRGC-QF generals and four other Iranian military officers. Iran is expected to retaliate in the coming days or weeks. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed that Israel will “be punished” and “regret this crime,” while President Ebrahim Raisi said that the attack would “not go unanswered.” Fears are high that this could trigger an escalation of the Israel-Hamas war into a broader regional conflict and potentially even a direct confrontation between Iran and Israel. Although it has been argued that Moscow benefits from chaos in the Middle East—diverting Western attention and resources from Ukraine—it stands to lose a great deal if the Israel-Hamas conflict escalates into a wider war.

Russia has spent the last decade shoring up its influence in the region, often by taking advantage of localized conflicts. This was most evident in Libya, where Russia exploited the country’s civil war to establish a foothold, and in Syria, where Russian intervention saved the Assad regime from imminent demise in 2015. Russia then expanded its footprint in Syria, establishing a permanent presence at military bases in Tartus and Khmeimim. After the U.S. withdrawal from Syria in 2019, Russia stepped into the void, helping Syrian government forces regain control of the northeast of the country. The same year, Russia held joint naval exercises with Egypt; the construction of a Russian-built nuclear plant in Egypt earlier this year demonstrated the continued growth of ties between the two countries.

While Russia capitalized on instability in Syria and Libya to establish itself as a regional security guarantor, it is not positioned to reap similar benefits if the Israel-Hamas war escalates. In part, this reflects Russia’s preoccupation with its invasion of Ukraine. Last October, distracted by the war, Russia failed to intervene on behalf of former-ally Armenia as Azerbaijani military forces overran the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. This suggests that Russia currently lacks the capacity to act as a stabilizing force in the post-Soviet sphere, let alone the Middle East.

Other signs suggest that Russia’s influence in the Middle East may be waning. The evolution of the Russia-Iran relationship may hold clues for Russia’s future status in the region. Since the start of the invasion two years ago, Russia has deepened its partnership with Iran, pursuing greater defense and economic cooperation since the invasion of Ukraine two years ago. Russia has found a critical military supplier in Iran, which has provided Moscow with unmanned aerial systems, ballistic missiles, and fighter jets. A closer relationship with Iran has also improved Russia’s ability to withstand international sanctions.

Moscow’s growing friendship with Tehran may signal that Russian influence in the Middle East remains strong. However, it could also signal the opposite: Russia may realize that its future role in the region will be contingent on the favor of an increasingly capable Iran. For Moscow to achieve its long-term strategic objectives in the Middle East, it must cultivate a close working relationship with Tehran.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at

Michelle Grisé is a senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute. Her research focuses on Iran, South Asia, Russian foreign policy and military strategy, and international law.

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