Russia and Iran: A Wary Dance


2013-08-22 by Richard Weitz

Most Russians are probably as happy as everyone else to see Iranian President Ahmadinejad leave office.

His policies placed additional strains on the Russian-Iranian relationship. For example, Ahmadinejad’s unpopularity forced Moscow to distance itself from his regime, weakening Russian leverage as a potential mediator.

Yet, Ahmadinejad’s departure could make it easier for Tehran and Washington to reconcile, something Moscow also would not welcome.

Escorted by bodyguards, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to his well wishers, as he attends an annual nation-wide pro-Palestinian rally marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Aug. 2, 2013.  (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Russian officials oppose Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, but believe Iran needs many years to develop a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. Their opposition to an Iranian bomb program is not due to a concern about a near-term Iranian attack against Russia but to other considerations.

Russians worry about the health of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime at a time when many potential nuclear weapons states might appear near Russia. They further fear that Israel and the United States might respond to an Iranian nuclear weapons program with a military strike. Iran’s nuclear and missile activities are also driving NATO countries to support missile defense programs that Russians fear could eventually degrade their own nuclear deterrent.

Second, Russian officials have always opposed the use of military force against Iran.

A major war could encourage Islamist extremism or lead to unpredictable regime change in Tehran, which could produce a more radical or a more pro-Western Iranian government, either of which would harm Moscow’s interests. It is true that a major conflict in the Persian Gulf War could lead to a further spike in world prices for Russian oil and gas, generating windfall profits for Moscow, but Russian territory lies uncomfortably close to the site of any military operation.

Another war could also encourage Islamist extremism or lead to unpredictable regime change in Iran. Russians might also fear that a group within Iran might transfer nuclear explosive devices to a terrorist group, which could use them to try to coerce Russia to change its policies in Chechnya.

Russian leaders want to see changes in Iranian policies but not a change in the regime. 

They want to see Tehran’s anti-Western policies continue—not necessarily because Moscow favors Iran’s position but because Iranian-Western frictions leave Russia (and China) as Iran’s major economic partners, exclude Iran from contributing its territory or oil and natural gas to Western-sponsored trans-Caspian energy pipelines, and helps boost world energy prices by keeping Iranian oil and natural gas sales off international markets.

Furthermore, Russian leaders are aware that, should the Iranian opposition ever come to power, they would hold Russia accountable for supporting Ahmadinejad’s administration.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Iran and Russia have cooperated well on regional security issues. The Iranian government has refused to support Muslim guerrillas fighting Russian troops in Chechnya or to support the armed Islamist movements fighting in other parts of Russia against the Moscow government.

During the 1990s, moreover, Moscow and Tehran cooperated to end the civil war in Tajikistan, support opponents of the Afghan Taliban, and counter Turkey’s influence in Central Asia. At present, they are the Syrian government’s main foreign backers. In the future, Russian and Iranian security initiatives could overlap more comprehensively in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan.

It is true that, since the revelations a decade ago Iran’s massive covert nuclear program, the Russian government has employed a mixture of engagement and pressure to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities, including repeated deliberate delays in constructing Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr and Russia’s more publicized support for several Security Council resolutions that have imposed sanctions on Tehran.

Yet, Russian officials have opposed the “crippling” sanctions advocated by some Western governments.

Russians object in principle, if not always in practice, to using coercive measures to alter Iran’s behavior. They claim such measures would be counterproductive and that moderating Iranian nuclear ambitions requires making Tehran’s external environment less threatening. Instead of more sanctions, they call for enhanced dialogue between Washington and Tehran as other cooperative measures to moderate Iranian behavior. Although Russian officials cite humanitarian and tactical (“don’t back Tehran into a corner”) considerations, they also want to avoid harming Russian business interests in Iran.

Economic ties between Russia and Iran are marginal given the size of the two economies.

However, two influential groups, Russian nuclear and defense firms, profit considerably from Iran’s purchase of Russian-made nuclear technology and weapons. Meanwhile, Russian firms benefit from Iran’s alienation from West markets. Sometimes these narrow interests outweigh the general Russian state interests in non-proliferation and good relations with the West.

Russian diplomats also need tolerable ties with Tehran to achieve their goal of positioning themselves as a mediator between Iran and the West.

They can leverage that position to induce Western governments and Iran to curry favor with Moscow through concessions on other issues. Both the Bush and Obama administration characterized Russia as a possible partner in controlling Iran’s nuclear activities, though Russia refrained from joining the Obama administration in any joint initiative to pressure Iran, which would have underscored Moscow’s limited influence in Tehran.

But the main problem for Russia’s mediation efforts lies in Tehran. Moscow has found it as difficult as anyone else to deal with the clerical regime. Russians and Iranians have little trust in one another’s strategic commitments. Their perceived differences in interests and ideology and their historical tensions have been too great to make either fully comfortable allying with the other.

For example, Iranians decry Russia’s limited support for Iranian nuclear ambitions (seen in the lengthy delays in Russia’s completing construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor), Russians’ reluctance to supply Iran with the modern weapons (the cancellation of the contract to sell Russia S-300 surface-to-air missiles), and past instances in which Russian leaders seemed prepared to sacrifice Iranian security interests (such as voting for UN sanctions on Iran in an perceived effort to please the West) as evidence that Tehran could not depend on Moscow as a reliable ally.

Russians are annoyed that their past opposition to sanctions has not induced more Iranian gratitude.

Seeking to make the best of this situation, the Russian government strives to leverage this distrust to keep Iranians cautious about overly annoying Moscow. Past Russian support for some sanctions also shows Iran that Russia could support more punishment if Tehran remains uncooperative or if there are more revelations about clandestine Iranian nuclear sites or activities.

Furthermore, while Russians denounce the new unilateral sanctions adopted by the West outside the Security Council, they probably welcome these extra-UN sanctions since it enhances Moscow’s leverage.

Russian diplomats can tell Tehran that Moscow has saved Iran from more serious sanctions in the Security Council but might not do so for long if Tehran does not moderate its behavior.

Credit Photo and Caption:

Outgoing President Ahmadinejad – who was known for vitriolic anti-Israeli rhetoric while in office, including calls that Israel be destroyed – spoke to the crowds after Friday prayers at the Tehran University campus in his last public speech before his term ends.

“You Zionists planted a wind but you will harvest a storm,” said Ahmadinejad. “A destructive storm is on the way and it will destroy Zionism.”