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Russia goes its own way

Authors: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, and Nikolas Gvosdev
January 2, 2008
International Herald Tribune


If the deadlock in the UN Security Council over the final status of Kosovo signals any future trends, it is that Russia has finally dispensed with any lingering beliefs that it should work with the United States to set the global agenda.

One of the legacies that Vladimir Putin bequeaths to his successor is Russia’s changed position in the world. Moscow no longer has any interest in making minor modifications to a policy largely predetermined in Washington. And the principal beneficiary of this changed perception may be Iran.

Because the revelations in December of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate have all but eliminated the military option in dealing with Iran’s nuclear intransigence, the Bush administration has refocused on exerting diplomatic and economic pressure on the recalcitrant theocracy. It is hoped that an escalating series of Security Council resolutions would press Iran toward the suspension of the critical enrichment component of its nuclear program. The reliance on the Security Council as the principal platform for dealing with Iran is surprisingly acceptable to both Moscow and Tehran.

Despite Washington’s professions that the Security Council’s rebukes reflect international solidarity against Tehran, the Islamic Republic has largely adjusted to the UN process. At first, Iran was concerned about the Iraq precedent, whereby the U.S. employed the UN to isolate and sanction Iraq for much of the 1990s, and then used Baghdad’s lack of compliance as the basis of its military intervention. Iran tried hard to prevent the transfer of its nuclear file to the UN, and even suspended its program from 2003 to 2005 in order to forestall that development.

Moreover, Russia’s acquiescence to America’s requests did create tension in its relations with Iran, leading some to conclude that Putin was prepared to jeopardize the strategic and economic ties between the two countries.

Russia does share one principal U.S. concern: Moscow has no desire to see Iran possess nuclear weapons. The problem is that Russia has a far narrower definition of the term than the U.S., which sees Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure as constituting a weapons program. So Russia has no difficulty going along with UN measures designed to target a specific Iranian program to produce operational warheads, one which the National Intelligence Estimate says has been inactive since 2003. At the same time, Russia is moving to establish itself as a Middle East power independent of the West, and thus, can ill-afford to antagonize Iran.

Tehran has found value in Moscow’s clever strategy of endorsing watered-down resolutions while deepening its relations with Iran. On the one hand, Russian diplomats are in active negotiations with their American counterparts for a third UN resolution against Iran. Yet, Moscow is willing to provide fuel for Iran’s light-water reactor in Bushehr.

The incongruity of providing sensitive nuclear resources to a country that is actively sanctioned for its nuclear malfeasance is not lost on Iran’s clerical elite. A similar pattern is continuing in other areas, whereby Russia’s complaints about Iran’s nuclear activities has not deter it from signing additional commercial contracts with Iran.

There are strong economic motives guiding the Russian designs, as Moscow and Tehran together control roughly 20 percent of world’s oil reserves and close to half of the world’s gas reserves. The two powers could do much to dilute their respective leverage over the global energy markets. Moreover, in addition to atomic power projects, Iran’s oil and gas sector offer many opportunities to Russian firms looking for new investments. Keeping Iranian energy from becoming attractive for European consumers, while financing projects that will tie ever-hungrier South Asia and China into even greater dependence on Iran benefits a number of Russian objectives.

However, reducing this relationship to economic impulses obscures the equally compelling strategic rationale for improved ties between Moscow and Tehran. Despite its unsavory reputation in the West, Iran has acted responsibly in dealing with Muslim republics and populations of Central Asia. The United States may view Iran as a revolutionary power bent on upending the regional order. But for Russia, Iran is largely a status quo state whose continued cooperation is critical for stability in the Middle East and the projection of Russian influence in that region. The strategic alignment between the two nations only reinforces the economic interests.

The Bush administration, which has dedicated so much of its efforts to rebuilding ties with Europe, has utterly failed to bridge the gap with the Russian Federation. Having failed to stop the United States over Kosovo and Iraq, Moscow’s stance on Iran demonstrates Russia’s return as a major actor. For its part, Tehran has learned to love Russia’s strategy of placating the United States with superficial gestures while enhancing its relations with Iran. In the coming months, there will be ample Russian and American pledges of cooperation against Iran’s persistent nuclear violations. However, the strategic landscape has changed. And that does not bode well for America’s attempt to rein in Iran.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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