The Obama administration’s recent decision to scupper a planned missile shield in Eastern Europe was at least in part conceived as a diplomatic strategy aimed at Russia. By terminating a defense system that had aroused Russia’s ire, the administration had hoped to win Moscow’s backing for stiffer sanctions against Iran. But if that was indeed the administration’s thinking, it appears to have been baseless.
At first, to be sure, the new, diplomatic approach seemed to have paid off. Russian President Dimitri Medvedev sternly told Iran that it would have to prove it was not building a nuclear bomb or it would face “other measures.” Medvedev’s pronouncement seemed to signal a change in Russian policy on Iran, especially since Russia had previously vetoed strong sanctions against Iran in the United Nations Security Council.
But events this week indicate that Medvedev’s warning was merely a rhetorical gesture. On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov insisted that Russia’s position on further sanctions against Iran had not fundamentally changed. Even after Iran provocatively test-fired short range missiles, Ryabkov warned against using this disturbing display of Russian-assisted Iranian technology to impose sanctions on Tehran. The missile test, Ryabkov maintained, should not “escalate debates on imposing sanctions.”
The Russian about-face comes was to be expected. Indeed, a closer examination of Russian-Iranian relations by the Obama administration would have revealed as much.
The Russian-Iranian relationship is an old one, and it has improved since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. During that conflict, Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, sold weapons to Iraq. That made the USSR an enemy of Iran, with Ayatollah Khomeini’s mullahs denouncing it as “the little Satan.” Alarmed by such naked animosity, and fearing the expansion of Iran’s fundamentalist revolution into the Muslim Soviet republics of Central Asia, the USSR developed a containment policy against Iran.
Relations improved in the 1990s. Both countries came together to back the anti-Taliban forces battling in Afghanistan. Russia saw the Northern Alliance fighters of Ahmad Shah Massoud as a defense against Islamic extremism spreading northwards into its now former Central Asian republics, while Iran viewed them as a bulwark against Sunni radicals. Russian and Iranian interests also converged in the technology sector. Russia earned badly needed foreign currency for its battered economy by selling Iran sophisticated weaponry to replace the Iranian military’s aging American armaments dating from the Shah’s era.
Russia also became involved in Iran’s nuclear program. In 1995, Russia and Iran signed an agreement to build a controversial nuclear reactor at Bushehr in southern Iran. While Iran has always claimed that the plant was for peaceful purposes, it probably served as the launching pad for its nuclear-weapons program, the source of so much current concern. For Russia’s part, it saw in the Iranian nuclear plant deal a chance to earn a profit that could then be used to save its own nuclear industry from collapse.
Today, Iran and Russia have reached something of an understanding. To take one example, Iran has caused no problems for Russia in the turbulent Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia, where the Kremlin has fought two wars against Islamic extremism in Chechnya. Although these are Muslim countries, Tehran appears to respect the fact that Russia regards this area as its own backyard.
Not least, Russia and Iran’s interests also have converged in the energy field. Last year, the two countries, along with Qatar, formed a gas-exporters association “to coordinate production policies and pursue joint projects.” Together, these three countries contain about 60 percent of the world’s gas reserves. As columnist Richard Lourie has pointed out, it is also for reasons of energy that Moscow does not want Iran’s “pariah status” in the world to end. An Iran on friendly terms with the West, he writes, would see a weaker Russia. Firstly, Europe would have a new source of energy in the Iranian oil and gas fields that would lessen its dependency on Russia. Iran would also be the best alternative route to a Russian one for any energy pipeline to the West from the Caspian region and Central Asia. It might be added that a menacing Iran also serves to keep energy prices high. It is these high gas and oil prices that keep the Russian economy afloat.
An Iran friendly with the West would also weaken Russia’s hand in Afghanistan. Geographically, Iran would be a much better supply route to NATO forces in Afghanistan than the current one through Russia. Russia was instrumental in having the former American supply base in Uzbekistan closed down and now earns money and leverage from NATO countries that have to ship supplies across its territory to Afghanistan.
Despite their common interests, Russia does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed North Korea under an unstable leadership already sits on one Russian border. The Kremlin sees no advantage in having another similarly armed neighbor.
Crucially, however, that does not mean that Russia is prepared to support a new and more stringent sanctions regime against Iran. At the end of the day, Russia does not want to compromise its lucrative relationship with Iran.
Money talks louder than words. If the Obama administration thought that flattering Russia with diplomatic outreach would be enough to secure its cooperation, it clearly wasn’t listening.