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Russia, Iran: Brothers in Arms

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
November 1, 2006

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With the Iran-Iraq War winding down in 1987, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini reportedly told a roomful of ambassadors: “Today Iran is so isolated that we can count the number of our friends on one hand.” Two decades later, with the UN Security Council weighing punitive options against it, Iran remains isolated but can count on at least one supporter among its neighbors: Russia.

The burgeoning partnership between Iran and Russia threatens to unravel UN efforts to squeeze Tehran to forego its nuclear ambitions. A veto-wielding member of the Security Council, Russia has thus far resisted efforts to punish the Iranians for forging ahead with their enrichment activities and ignoring a raft of UN resolutions. Of course, Moscow is motivated by fears of losing lucrative business opportunities, not to mention an important ally in the region. Bilateral trade eclipsed $2 billion in 2005, and as this new Backgrounder explains, Russia now supplies the bulk of Iran’s conventional arms. That includes a proposed air-defense system that would give Iran a credible deterrent against any American or Israeli move to strike its nuclear installations. Russia also built a light-water nuclear power plant at Bushehr, an $8 billion project set to go online as early as next year (GlobalSecurity.org).

Brenda Shaffer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy calls Russia and Iran “partners in need,” motivated mainly by three ends: curbing U.S. influence, maintaining a multipolar world, and undermining U.S. efforts to sideline both states (take, for example, the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which skirts both Iran and Russia). Yet Michael Eisenstadt, writing in Arms Control Today, says cooperation between the two countries “is driven as much by fear and mistrust as it is by opportunism and shared interests.” Regardless, closer Russia-Iran ties pose challenges to peace in the Middle East, analysts say, especially if Iran goes nuclear over the next decade.  

Russia maintains Tehran’s nuclear program is peaceful and poses no threat to Iran’s neighbors (Reuters), much less to the United States. Yet Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says his agency is still “unable to confirm the peaceful nature of Iran´s nuclear program.” Moscow continues to voice its opposition to sanctions not only out of economic interest but also on the grounds that, as an instrument of diplomacy, their track record is suspect.

The most recent draft proposal before the Security Council calls for a ban on Iranian students of nuclear physics from studying abroad and denies visas to Iranian nuclear scientists (IANS). Yet Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, calls these efforts “feeble” (NYSun). Mohsen Sazegara, a U.S.-based Iranian dissident, suggests tough talk and smart sanctions are in order. “The most important thing for the international community is to talk to the regime of Iran firmly and strongly,” he told CFR.org. Meanwhile, CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot says only sanctions against Iranian exports of crude would cripple the regime in Tehran but that “would require a concerted international effort. Don’t hold your breath” (LAT). Instead, he proposes a “soft” approach that includes, among other things, reestablishing an American embassy in Tehran in exchange for a suspension of Iran’s nuclear program.

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