Russia’s Growing Soft Power in the Middle East

July 29 2019

Over the past years, in addition to its military campaign in Syria and its attempt to establish itself as a sympathetic mediator between the Taliban and other Afghan groups, the Kremlin has worked in less direct ways to increase its influence throughout the Middle East. Shay Attias explains:

[T]he decrease in America’s standing in the Middle East works to enhance Russia’s position as a regional peace broker. Vladimir Putin has put Russia in a preeminent regional position through the classical hard-power tool of fighting in Syria while simultaneously talking “peace” with the Taliban, who are still killing Americans. This is not a random success. As early as 2012, Putin was already openly discussing [such efforts].

Russia has also built up the international media channel RT, formerly known as “Russia Today.” RT is working hard on its Arabic service—RT Arabic is one of the largest TV networks in the region (along with Al Jazeera). Labeled “Putin propaganda” by the U.S., RT has had much success at pushing the Russian perspective. . . . RT Arabic has 6.3 million monthly users in six Arabic-speaking countries: Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan.

If there is in fact a soft-power battle between Russia and the U.S. in the Middle East, most [indicators] suggest that Moscow has the momentum. Two recent regional polls show that Arabs aged eighteen to twenty-four increasingly view Russia as an ally and the U.S. as unreliable or worse. The percentage of young Arabs who see the U.S. as an ally dropped from 63 percent in 2016 to 35 percent last year. Russia is increasingly regarded as the top non-Arab ally by young people in the Middle East, with 20 percent seeing it as the region’s best friend outside the Middle East and North Africa.

Unless Washington pushes back, concludes Attias, it will soon find itself at a significant disadvantage.

Read more at BESA Center

More about: Middle East, Russia, Syria, Taliban


Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy