Russia, Iran, and the United States

Russia’s Iran Policy

Since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic has worked hard to cultivate a strategic partnership with post-Soviet Russia.  Of course, for many Iranians, there is heavy historical “baggage” attached to relations with Russia/the Soviet Union.  But, from an Iranian perspective, Russia is the “great power” that has been most intent on finding ways to counter-balance American hegemony in the post-Cold War world — an important strategic consideration given ongoing U.S. hostility toward the Islamic Republic.

From a Russian perspective, Iran has been a market for sales of conventional weaponry (though never as large as some other markets for Russian arms, such as China and India) and civil nuclear technology (epitomized in Russia’s role at Bushehr).  Iran has also been a constructive partner for Russia on regional security issues in Central and South Asia, taking what could be described as “pro-Russian” positions on a number of regional conflicts (e.g., Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and Afghanistan) since the early days of the post-Cold War period.

In addition, Russia has sought to present itself as a potential partner in the development of Iran’s energy resources.  In 1997, Russia’s state-owned Gazprom became one of the first foreign energy companies to invest in the development of the massive South Pars gas field (in a joint venture with Total and Petronas).  After Vladimir Putin became President of the Russian Federation in 2001, Gazprom and the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Petroleum formed a joint committee to “coordinate” Iranian gas exports with Russia.  The Russian government provided early political support for a planned gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan and India, while Gazprom offered technical support and even indicated its willingness to help finance the project.

Just a few years ago, Iranian-Russian relations seemed to be headed toward even closer strategic cooperation.  (For example, in what seemed at the time an important symbolic statement, in 2007 Putin became the first non-Muslim head of state or government to be received by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.)  But, since Dmitry Medvedev replaced Putin as President of the Russian Federation in 2008 (with Putin becoming Prime Minister), the limits on Russia’s willingness to act in strategic partnership with the Islamic Republic have become increasingly apparent.

It has become clear, for example, that Moscow’s willingness to support Iran’s emergence as a gas exporter is ultimately conditioned by Russia’s own position as the world’s leading producer and exporter of natural gas — a position which, among other things, gives Russia an especially strong interest in forestalling direct competition with prospective Iranian gas exports to European energy markets, where Gazprom is established as the leading foreign gas supplier.

More broadly, Moscow’s still compelling need to balance its interest in closer ties to Tehran against other important foreign policy interests — including relations with Washington — has regularly frustrated Iranian efforts to maximize the strategic and economic gains from cooperation with Russia.  Over the last 20 years, Russia has been willing on a number of occasions to curtail its arms exports to Iran in exchange for concessions from the United States.  Likewise, in response to American pressure/blandishments, Russia stepped back from commitments to provide the Islamic Republic with uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

Russia’s foreign policy “balancing act” is also reflected in its approach to the Iranian nuclear issue.  Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Russian leaders have been intent on constraining a unilateral resort to force against Iranian nuclear targets by the United States (or Israel).  To this end, Moscow has a strong interest in keeping the Iranian nuclear issue in the United Nations Security Council — where Russia, as a permanent member, has considerable influence — rather than having the United States deal with the issue primarily through an ad hoc “coalition of the willing” or “coalition of the like-minded” that would almost certainly not include Russia.  For this reason, Moscow has never been prepared to use its veto to give Iran “blanket” protection from Security Council sanctions.  Instead, on four occasions — most recently this month — Russia has supported resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, while also working diplomatically to water down the measures actually authorized and ensure that nothing in these resolutions could be plausibly construed by Washington as authorizing the use of force.

In this regard, it seems doubtful that Russia genuinely wants to see a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue, which would almost certainly go hand in hand with a substantial measure of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.  While Russia clearly opposes U.S. (or Israeli) military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets, Moscow has never pushed Washington to offer Tehran more fulsome security guarantees or other strategic incentives that could facilitate productive nuclear discussions — even though Russian diplomats believe that such offers are essential for diplomatic progress.  As Russian diplomats have explained to us, Washington’s failure to pursue effective diplomacy with Tehran creates a “workable paradigm” for Russia:  the United States may engage just enough to forestall a destabilizing military confrontation with Iran, but not enough to achieve real rapprochement — which could, among other things, undermine Moscow’s strategic value to Tehran and unleash Iranian gas to compete directly with Russian gas exports, in Europe and elsewhere.

To the extent that Moscow has proposed specific solutions to the nuclear issue since 2003, these solutions have emphasized Iranian participation in multilateral fuel-cycle centers — centers that would be based, conveniently enough, in Russia.  Russia’s support for the October 2009 “Baradei” proposal regarding international arrangements to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor was similarly self-serving: the proposal would have given Russia an enhanced role in providing “value-added” nuclear products while simultaneously circumscribing the development of Iran’s indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities.

Re-evaluating Iran’s Approach to Russia

Iranian policymakers and analysts are, of course, well aware of these dynamics.  A number of recent developments in Russia’s Iran policy — e.g., Moscow’s willingness to move ahead with a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran even after Brazil and Turkey had brokered a similar fuel-swap deal in Tehran, Russian officials’ vacillation on the prospective transfer of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, etc. — appear to be prompting a re-evaluation of the Islamic Republic’s posture toward Russia.

In this regard, we were struck by a recent interview on Iranian-Russian relations with Kayhan Barzegar, as reported in several Iranian news outlets: see Tabnak, Khabar Online, and RajaNews.  Kayhan is a brilliant scholar and foreign policy analyst who is currently on the faculty at Iran’s Islamic Azad University; he is also a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research and the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (both in Tehran) and maintains an affiliation with the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  (We have previously highlighted some of Kayhan’s work on the nuclear issue and on Iranian views of the regional balance of power in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.)  Kayhan’s observations about Iranian-Russian relations are certainly worthy of consideration on their own merits, but they may also offer a window into current discussions and thinking about Russia in Iranian foreign policy circles.

Kayhan focuses on the different perspectives of President Medvedev and his advisers, on the one hand, and elements in Russia’s national security apparatus (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the National Security Council) and Putin, on the other, regarding relations with Iran.  In his view, Medvedev and elites around him believe that an essential condition for maintaining power is the success of Russia’s economy.  This requires closer relations with the United States and the West, which incentivizes Russian leaders to accept at least some of the demands that Washington and its allies have put to Moscow, including with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.  By drawing closer to the West, these leaders can improve Russia’s “economic and strategic reach” to the world.

This line of analysis certainly seems plausible, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis.  Just this week, Igor Sechin — Putin’s former right-hand man at the Kremlin, chairman of Rosneft, and a leading figure among the siloviki (former Soviet intelligence officers who assumed a dominant role in the reassertion of state influence over Russia’s economy during Putin’s presidency) told the Financial Times that “the [global financial] crisis exposed the vulnerabilities of the Russian economy in its dependence on certain types of raw materials.  This cannot help but concern us.”

Last month, we met with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov — a close Putin ally — during his visit to Washington; among other things, Ivanov was clearly pleased by the Obama Administration’s decision to revive the “123” nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, which could set up Russia for significant new international business opportunities in the civil nuclear arena.  (This agreement had been concluded while George W. Bush was in the White House, but then mothballed after Russia sent troops into Georgia.)

In a special supplement to the Washington Post prepared by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the strategic context for Medvedev’s trip to the United States this week is described very candidly:

It is unusual for Medvedev to make the nation’s capital his second stop on a trip.  His first stop this week is San Francisco, and more precisely, Silicon Valley.  Medvedev is to meet with leading American entrepreneurs interested in opening or expanding business with Russia.  And for the first time in this relationship, we may see a focus on technological cooperation rather than investment in oil and gas.  His travel plans reflect the essence of his main agenda, namely innovative and technological breakthroughs for the Russian economy and reduced dependence on fossil fuel, in order to catch up with the developed world.

There are no significant obstacles for such an agenda.  First, the current U.S. administration declares a “pragmatic” approach in world affairs.  This means it is no longer a priority to irritate Moscow over sensitive issues, such as human rights or democratic values, which were among the favorite topics of the previous administration.  Second, Obama’s administration pays less attention to the post-Soviet neighbors. . . .  A change in focus on these issues has helped the United States create a more workable relationship with Russia and eliminate the excessive passion that characterized the previous decade . . . the greatest evidence for this approach was demonstrated very recently when the United Nations Security Council voted for a new resolution enacting tougher sanctions against Iran, which the United States had long discussed with China and Russia.  Russia may now expect something in return and, considering Medvedev’s agenda, this might be an appeal for better economic cooperation, particularly in technologies.

So, for the time being, Russia seems to need the United States more, and — given that “the Obama administration pays less attention to the post-Soviet neighbors” — to need Iran a little bit less.  Of course, Russia retains a significant interest in preserving cooperative ties to Iran.  Iranian diplomats have said that, after a public exchange of critical remarks by senior Russian and Iranian officials in May 2010, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took a conciliatory tone in a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki.  Putin and other Russian officials have also publicly reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to bring the Bushehr nuclear power plant on line later this year.

Likewise, the Islamic Republic retains an interest in preserving the most productive relationship with Russia that it can.  As Barzegar points out, there is still a “logic” of “mutual need” between the two countries.  Russia remains an important strategic actor and a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power; moreover, Iran has a continued interest in cooperation with Russia on nuclear energy and access to advanced defensive weapons.  In this regard, an Iranian parliamentarian who sits on the majlis‘s national security committee said earlier this week that “Russia and China actually voted (for the sanctions) out of empathy. . . .  Foreign Ministry officials have talked with Russian officials and believe that these two countries voted (in this manner) to prevent more severe action against Iran.”  (In the immediate aftermath of the sanctions vote, some parliamentarians had called for a reassessment of Iranian relations with Russia and China; it would seem that these calls are being decisively rebutted.)

But the structural limits of Russian willingness to cooperate strategically with Iran have been underscored.  As Barzegar notes, the interest of much of the Russian elite in establishing a truly independent national strategy and global position for Russia is a “long-term” goal.  Barzegar also notes that Russia — like the other veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — felt “threatened” by the Joint Declaration which Brazil and Turkey negotiated with Iran last month.  This is an extremely important observation, in our view.

Russia’s willingness to move ahead in the Security Council with sanctions reflected, at least in part, its interests in defending what Russian elites see as their country’s “great power” prerogatives.  Russian officials were uncomfortable with the Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal not on substantive terms, but because the Joint Declaration represented a potential weakening of the political monopoly that the recognized nuclear weapons states — which also happen to be the five permanent members of the Security Council — exercise with regard to what are described in the United Nations Charter as matters of “international peace and security.”

The Russian position on the nuclear issue underscores a bigger reality: Moscow is fundamentally uneasy about the Islamic Republic’s emergence as a genuine regional power on the borders of the Russian Federation and other parts of what Russian officials still describe as the “post-Soviet space.”  Gates’ claim that Putin, while still President of the Russian Federation, told him that Iran is the single biggest security threat facing Russia — even if accurately reported — surely reflects a deliberate exaggeration on Putin’s part.  Nevertheless, both Putin and Medvedev seem to like having the Islamic Republic kept “in a box.”

Because of these constraints, Barzegar argues that Russia and China are, at best, “short term solutions” for Iran, because these countries accept the rules and order of the existing international system, which largely benefit American interests.  (For a fuller statement of Barzegar’s views on China, see “China: A Short-Term Solution for Iran.”)

While we believe that China is becoming, over time, a more substantial strategic option for the Islamic Republic (certainly more substantial than Russia), Kayhan’s argument reinforces an important theme in our analysis: a critical mass of Iranian political and policymaking elites, cutting across the Islamic Republic’s factional spectrum, continues to recognize that their country has basic national security and foreign policy needs which can only be met — or, only optimally met — through rapprochement with the United States.

To be sure, Iranian leaders (including the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei) evidence deep skepticism about U.S. intentions regarding the Islamic Republic — an understandable posture, given the history of U.S. policy toward Iran and Tehran’s frustrating experience with attempts at outreach to the United States.  Political and policymaking elites in Washington who insist that it is incumbent on Iranian leaders to make, up front, substantial concessions addressing U.S. concerns in order to demonstrate their bona fides about engagement will not accomplish anything positive through such insistence.  Given the historical track record and the imbalance in military capabilities between Iran and the United States, Iranian leaders need to know, up front, that Washington is serious about a genuine realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations and is prepared to treat the Islamic Republic with respect as a fully sovereign state.

As President Medvedev arrives in Washington, it would be a waste for the Obama Administration to view the difficulties in Iranian-Russian relations primarily as an opening to bargain for a few more tactical concessions from Moscow on Iran-related issues.  Instead, President Obama and his senior advisers should view these difficulties as further confirmation of the real strategic opportunity that rapprochement with the Islamic Republic would represent for the United States.

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.  The text above is an excerpt from an article first published in The Race for Iran on 24 June 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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