During the last two decades, the dynamics of Russo-Iranian relations were extremely unstable, volatile and, to a certain extent, unpredictable for other players in the international arena. And yet there was, and still is, certain logic behind the seeming ambiguity of ties between Moscow and Tehran.
Nuclear Iran is Not an Option
The Russian authorities seriously oppose the acquisition of nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by Tehran. They clearly realize that a nuclear-armed Islamic regime on their southern flank could be far less cooperative in Central Asia and the Caspian basin and could undermine Moscow’s influence in these ex-Soviet regions. A nuclear Iran could also spread terror domestically and destabilize the situation in the Middle East. Moreover, Russia would pay a great price in international opprobrium should it deviate from the consensus regarding Iran. That is why following the disclosure of the secret Iranian nuclear program in 2002, Moscow revised some principles of its cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). For instance, by 2005, Russia had signed a number of agreements with Tehran that guaranteed the return of spent nuclear fuel from the Bushehr power plant to the Russian Federation (RF) and limited its space cooperation with Iran (since then, all joint Russo-Iranian space projects have been implemented solely on Russian territory with minimum Iranian participation). Finally, the RF rejected all of Tehran’s attempts to obtain licenses for the production of Russian weapons in Iran.
In 2010, Moscow demonstrated the harshest negative reaction to Iranian nuclear research. Irritated by Iranian stubbornness and the sudden disclosure of Iranian plans to build a second enrichment facility, Russia not only supported UN Resolution 1929 (adopted on June 9, 2010), but adopted its own unilateral sanctions against the IRI. The Russian government imposed serious restrictions on the provision of banking, insurance, transit, and transport services to physical persons and Iranian entities involved in Tehran’s proliferation activities as well as nuclear and missile projects. They were also prohibited from investing funds in the Russian economy and from acquiring Russian technologies necessary for the development of the above-mentioned programs. The authorities of the RF reserved their right to inspect suspicious goods transported to and from Iran and to coordinate their activities in this field with other interested countries.
The most effective measures implemented by Moscow were related to military cooperation with Tehran. Russian companies were banned from selling or transferring tanks, armored vehicles, artillery systems, rockets and rocket systems, military helicopters, ships, and aircraft to the IRI. Special attention was paid to suspending the sale of the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile systems. Additionally, Moscow refused to provide Tehran with spare parts required for maintaining the above-mentioned military equipment and armaments as well as technologies necessary for their production and consultative services for their purchase. Subsequently, arms trade between Russia and Iran was halted. Moscow’s activities have since been limited to existing deals and only to those related to the sales of passive defense equipment. This not only constrained Iran’s options in strengthening its defense capacities, but it also seriously undermined those efforts. Thus, Russia’s sanctions logically led to the suspension of the provision of necessary service for TOR-M1 missile systems previously sold by Moscow to Tehran. The latter are considered one of few—if not the only—anti-aircraft defense units in Tehran’s possession capable of constituting a serious threat to U.S. and Israeli warplanes.
And that’s where the differences between the American and Russian positions on Iran become obvious: Having adopted its own unilateral punitive measures, Moscow was, and still is, not very persistent in pressuring Iran to uphold sanctions. Thus, the above-mentioned unilateral sanctions were not implemented immediately. Iranians received the time necessary to adjust their cooperation with Russia to meet the requirements of UN resolutions and unilateral punitive measures. For example, the Moscow branch of bank Melli was swiftly renamed to Mir Business Bank, and Tehran resumed studying possibilities to use roubles in the bilateral trade with the RF instead of dollars or euros. Moreover, the Russian transfer of equipment for radio-electronic warfare to the IRI in autumn 2011 is considered an unofficial excuse for Russia canceling its sale of the S-300 missile to Iran. Most recently, the media reported that the Russian-owned small private bank First Czech-Russian bank is helping Iran evade the EU and the U.S.’s punitive measures against the IRI’s banking sector.
The Russian Federation is reluctant to pressure Iran in practice for several reasons. First, Moscow is not sure that the time for diplomatic talks over Iran’s nuclear program has run out. Currently, the Russian government and experts do not have ironclad proof that IRI authorities decided to create nuclear WMD. Moreover, they believe that from a mid-range perspective, Tehran is incapable of creating a nuclear weapon, and they consider all statements by Iranian officials as nothing more than bravado. As a result, RF authorities view the nuclear program as a minor threat to Russian interests in the region, although Moscow is concerned with the possible usage of low-enriched uranium for the creation of dirty bombs.
Another reason for Russia’s reluctance to pressure Iran is that the RF authorities believe that further unilateral sanctions against Iran are useless since they would not strengthen the non-proliferation regime in the region but rather would be aimed at changing the political regime in Tehran. As stated by Russian Deputy-Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Ryabkov, who is directly involved in Moscow’s decision-making process on Iran, “some forces could cynically attempt to replace the government in Tehran considering the current situation as an opportunity to settle a number of issues in accordance with their interests and aspirations. Nevertheless, Russia will not join them. Moscow is not going to share the political and legal responsibility for such moves.”
Partners in Need
The aforementioned factors, however, would not significantly influence the Russian position on the IRI without the following factor, which was best expressed by ex-President Dmitry Medvedev: “Iran is not a U.S. partner whereas Moscow productively interacts with this country.” During the last three years, he repeatedly emphasized that “apart from economic relations…we [Russia and Iran] have mutual challenges such as drug traffic and terrorist threats. We will continue to cooperate with Iran as our neighbor and political partner.” Thus, Russia and Iran traditionally manage to achieve consensus, despite real differences in interests and approach.
For instance, the RF authorities traditionally consider Iran as an influential regional power whose support is important for securing Russian interests in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The political elite of Russia remember that, as opposed to Turkey, the IRI did not use the fall of the Soviet Union for the aggressive spread of its influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia by propagating the ideas of the Islamic Revolution and funding local nationalistic and separatist movements. Moreover, during the mid-1990s, Moscow and Tehran joined their efforts to end the civil war in Tajikistan. This Iranian behavior demonstrated that Tehran could be a helpful partner, even though these steps taken by the IRI authorities were pragmatic rather than altruistic. The two countries were, and still are, interested in maintaining peace and stability in the above-mentioned regions, limiting the presence of third countries and their intervention in regional affairs, as well as deterring the spread of “color” revolutions.
Russo-Iranian economic relations also enjoy an upward trend. They have recovered from the international economic crisis of 2009 and now Moscow and Tehran are ready to develop these ties further. For example, in 2011 the volume of bilateral trade reached 3.8 billion dollars. The construction of a so-called Bushehr-2 nuclear plant remains one of the main perspective joint projects that the two countries could probably try to implement in the future. At least, Russian officials periodically discuss this question during meetings with their Iranian counterparts. Moreover, their interest to continue cooperation with Tehran is typically met positively by high-level Iranian officials.
Under these conditions, it is believed that additional and undue pressure on Iran at this time would be harmful to other aspects of the Russo-Iranian dialogue where Tehran’s support—or at least acquiescence—is badly needed by Moscow.
Domestic factors should also not be underestimated. On March 4, 2012, Vladimir Putin, famous for his tough and nationalistic approach to foreign policy, returned to his seat as president of Russia. The liberal and pro-Western orientation of the previous president, Medvedev, and his administration’s attempts to handle several international issues by unilateral concessions and compromises (such as the solution of the territorial dispute with Norway and Azerbaijan through the cession of a part of Russian territory, the support of the anti-Qaddafi resolution at the UN Security Council, and the acknowledgment of the Soviet role in the Katyn massacre) were considered unacceptable for most of the Russian population who still missed the imperial style of USSR diplomacy. Under these circumstances, the new government of the RF is expected to revise its foreign policy. As stated by some experts, the Russian people would like to see the president more active in protecting Russia’s national interests while maintaining relations with the non-Western part of the world.
Putin—as a pragmatist and populist—will probably try not to squander the opportunity to improve the government’s image and gain additional support from the segment of Russian society experiencing the aftershock of the questioned parliamentary and presidential elections of 2012. Moreover, the new cabinet’s expected patriotic rhetoric will likely weaken the fractured domestic opposition by bringing nationalists over to Putin’s side. Indeed, some have already expressed their position by stating they would prefer to recognize the results of the presidential elections of 2012 rather than ally with liberals. All in all, this play on the patriotic feelings of the Russian population will also be in line with Putin’s overall domestic political strategy, which is based on appealing to the nationalist-oriented, lower and middle classes (working classes) of Russian society.
For Iran, the possible changes in Russian foreign policy will likely mean the gradual intensification of political dialogue between Moscow and Tehran. For instance, Putin’s return to the presidential office will likely translate into a more active role by Moscow in settling the issue of Tehran’s nuclear research. To that end, in July 2011 Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, offered Iran and P5+1 group a phased plan of actions that would allow for the gradual settlement of the nuclear issue, albeit with an increased Russian role in handling the matter.
Lavrov’s initiatives are also aimed at protecting the mainly pro-Russian regime in Tehran by offering peaceful solutions to the problem. This is supposed to prevent military operations against the IRI and thus guarantee the stability of the regime in Tehran. Russia has finally learned from its experiences in Iraq and Libya (as well as Yugoslavia) that the fall of its long-time partners inevitably leads to the loss of Russian economic and political influence in these countries. Moreover, whether it sits on the sideline (as in Iraq) or unobtrusively helps overthrow its old allies (as in Libya, where Russia was the first government to suspend the export of military equipment to Qaddafi), the result is the same: Moscow has been compelled to abandon its interests in countries liberated from dictators. This did nothing but irritate the Russian government. Therefore, without solid guarantees that safeguard Russia’s interests, Moscow has been fighting hard for Syria—one of its last bastions of influence in the Middle East—and protecting Iran from the prospect of either a military strike or new unilateral sanctions.
At the same time, Putin’s return should not be considered the first step of a Russian alliance with Tehran. As stated by Russian experts on Iran, Tehran and Moscow are just friends in need; their political dialogue is based on common domestic and external challenges. In the final analysis, Moscow’s pragmatic, cost-benefit approach to foreign policy remains paramount. As such, the Russian authorities clearly understand that any alliance or strategic partnership with the IRI will inevitably aggravate their relations with the leading countries of the world. And the Russian government is unlikely to adopt abrupt and negative moves regarding Iran. Their relations will likely remain what the prominent Russian expert on Iran, Vladimir Sazhin, called, “a watchful partnership.”
The Russian position on the nuclear issue could not be called either pro-Iranian or pro-Western (namely, pro-American). Moscow balances between the U.S., Europe, and Israel, on one side, and the IRI on another, without any attempts to join each of them. Although Lavrov’s proposal was not adopted as a plan of action, Moscow continues to squeeze as much out of it as it can. And the initiative genuinely reflects the Russian position on Iran’s nuclear program: on one hand, it is supposed to allay international concerns by boosting talks with Tehran, but on the other hand, it takes into account the Iranian position. For instance, Lavrov’s plan does not openly deny the right of Iran to have its own enrichment capacities. Moreover, one of its stages implies the probability of future talks on this matter. In one of his more recent articles, “Russia and the Changing World,” for Moskovskiye Novosti, Putin expressed the opinion that the international community should recognize Tehran’s right to develop its peaceful nuclear program, including the enrichment of uranium, as long as that program is placed under the complete control of the UN’s nuclear agency. During one of his speeches, Mr. Ryabkov hinted that this is probably not just the personal opinion of Putin, but Moscow’s future political program. In other words, Russia will try to keep the wolves fed, while saving the sheep.