MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentators Marianna Belenkaya, Pyotr Goncharov)

In recent years, Moscow has acquired the role of a delicate mediator in the Middle East.

In June 2006, a French diplomat said in an informal conversation with a RIA Novosti commentator at an international conference, "I wish we had the same approach to the Middle East problems as Russia."

These words, voiced by a Western diplomat, and a Frenchman at that, seemed surprising. Although Moscow and Paris were united in their opposition to Washington and London on the war in Iraq, their views differed on the developments around Syria and Lebanon.

Due to historic connections, Paris behaves in these countries much like Washington in Iraq, provoking conflicts inside Lebanon and the region. This way it robs itself of the opportunity to become a real mediator. Russian diplomats, on the other hand, are maintaining contacts with everyone. It was no coincidence that that Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora came to Russia looking for support in December 2006. His visit took place days before the talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Asad.

No matter whether it is Iraq, Syria or Lebanon that is at issue, Russia's stand is the same: the situation in the region cannot be allowed to explode. Support of balance of forces and regional stability is more important for Russian diplomacy than instant success like the one the United States saw when it seized Baghdad in 2003 (and has not known what to do with Iraq ever since).

Something similar can now happen in Syria and Lebanon, especially if pressure on Damascus increases.

Russia does not want another conflict zone to emerge in a region adjacent to its borders. It usually tries to find a compromise until the very last moment. It can hardly be accused of appeasing one of the parties. It was to a large extent due to Russia's efforts that Syria began cooperating with the UN commission investigating the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Moscow did not put pressure on Damascus, nor did it hit it with loud accusations. Instead, it engaged in a peaceful dialogue, trying to take into account Syria's interests as well. Russia tried to adopt similar tactics in Palestine, in relation to Hamas, inviting its leaders for talks in Moscow. However, it failed to establish a dialogue between Hamas and the West. Reasons were many, including the parties' unwillingness to compromise. Yet this does not mean that Russia should not have tried.

Moscow will continue its search for international compromises on Middle East problems. The Soviet era, when the country's policies in the region were dictated by ideology, is long gone; so is the beginning of the 1990s when Russia followed in the West's track and lost almost all of its contacts in the Arab world. By now it has established a good dialogue both with its old partners inherited from the Soviet Union and with new ones, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. It now has large-scale economic projects in the region and security interests as well. It cannot risk these gains because of another Middle East crisis.

Speaking of a crisis we cannot but mention Iran, which is a special case for Russian diplomacy.

Russian-Iranian relations today can be described as a limited strategic partnership. The two countries seem to be doomed to such partnership in some politically and economically important regions, such as Central Asia, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus. Moscow and Tehran cooperation there is based on the principles of sound pragmatism and neighborly support.

It has always been so. But now, in all of the three regions where Russia and Iran have interests, these interests do not collide, but supplement each other.

A good example is the situation in Central Asia, Russia's traditional area of influence, where Iran has recently mounted its economic expansion. Nevertheless, Moscow has silently approved of it, as it is unable to fill this important region on its own. Voids are filled fast, and Russia's calculations are simple: the more Iran is represented in the region, the less there will be of China, the United States and Turkey.

As to the Caspian Sea, Iran is the only country that fully shares Russia's stand on the issue of determining its international status, which would fully rule out presence of third countries in the area. Moscow and Tehran have similar positions on trans-Caspian oil and gas pipelines as well. Other Caspian-related problems are either secondary or insignificant.

The two countries follow the same principle when designing their Caucasian policies. The Middle East is the only region to stand apart. It is now popular to speak of Iran as of all but the key player there. Most Russian experts believe that it is absolutely natural for a country with Iran's population, resources and history to aspire to a role in the region correspondent to its political weight and potential. Moscow also supports the idea of engaging Iran (and Syria) in solving regional problems.

But that is all. Iran would of course prefer to expand its strategic cooperation with Russia to the entire Middle East, i.e. to turn partnership into alliance, even if nominally. Yet it is hard to imagine circumstances under which Moscow could agree to it.