U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on June 17 about what he described as Russia’s “schizophrenic” Iran policy. According to Gates — who started his career in government service during the 1960s as a Soviet analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency — then-Russian President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin told him three years ago, during a meeting in Moscow, that “he considered Iran Russia’s greatest national security threat.” But yet, as Gates underscored for the senators, “they have these commercial interests in Iran that go back more than 20 years.” Asked by a senator to explain what seemed to him an internally conflicted Russian policy toward the Islamic Republic, Gates responded that “you’ve just put your finger on a kind of schizophrenic Russian approach to this”: on the one hand, “they recognize the security threat that Iran presents, but then there are these commercial opportunities, which, frankly, are not unique to them in Europe.”
Rather than describing Russia’s Iran policy as “schizophrenic,” we prefer to analyze Russia’s Iran policy as an ongoing attempt by decision-makers in Moscow to balance among multiple — and, in some cases, potentially competing — interests vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic. (To be fair, Gates also referred to the “balancing act” embodied in Russia’s Iran policy in his remarks to the Senate committee.) But the way in which Russia strikes this balance has shifted in some significant ways over the last year or so. We will write more about Russia’s Iran policy next week, in connection with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Washington to meet with President Obama.
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. This article was published in The Race for Iran on 18 June 2010 under a Creative Commons license.