The Obama Administration has sought to enlist Moscow in the effort to increase pressure on Iran to cooperate with the international community and verifiably renounce any ambitions it might have to acquire nuclear weapons. But while Russia would undoubtedly prefer a non-nuclear to a nuclear Iran, joining the U.S. and its allies in more forcefully sanctioning Iran for not cooperating on this matter involves risks for Moscow that it doesn’t wish to incur.
The geostrategic, economic, and political relations between Russia and Iran are, in a word, complex. Historically, Russia and Iran have been geostrategic rivals. In the 19th century in particular, Tsarist Russia made gains in both the Caucasus and Central Asia at Iran’s expense. In both the 19th and 20th centuries, Iran often had reason to fear a powerful, encroaching Russia (or Soviet Union) – an important factor underpinning the alliance between the United States and Iran from the end of World War II through the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Even after the Shah’s regime was replaced by the virulently anti-American Islamic Republic, Soviet-Iranian relations remained tense – especially since Tehran regarded both the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89) and Soviet support to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) as highly threatening.
With the end of the war with Iraq and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by the breakup of the Soviet Union itself, Iranian threat perceptions of Russia were greatly reduced. Underpinned by certain common geostrategic interests, Russian-Iranian relations have been greatly improved since then. First and foremost among these shared interests is a common desire to limit American influence, especially in the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia that became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Another geostrategic interest which Moscow and Tehran share is a common fear of radical Sunni Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban which, in addition to being anti-Western, are virulently anti-Russian and anti-Shi’a. Yet another overlapping interest between Russia and Iran is fear and opposition to secessionism, which both states are vulnerable to it.
Russia and Iran also cooperate with each other economically. The overall trade volume between them – which has grown to approximately $4 billion per year – isn’t large. Russia, though, is one of the few arms and atomic reactor manufactures willing and able to sell them to Iran. Similarly, Iran is one of the few customers for arms and atomic reactors willing and able to buy them from Russia. Both consider the continuation of their trade in these items to be a vital interest.
Despite this, Russia and Iran are both petroleum producers with highly competitive interests. For Moscow, U.S.-led economic sanctions efforts against Iran have been both an economic and a geostrategic godsend. The U.S. blockage of the construction of pipeline routes to Iran from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan has meant that these former Soviet states remain heavily reliant on export routes through Russia or countries subject to Russian intimidation (i.e., Georgia). And to the extent that American-led embargo efforts have led to reduced Iranian ability to sell its petroleum on the world market, Moscow has benefited both from higher oil prices as well as the increased need for others to buy Russian oil that this has resulted in. Moscow has no interest in seeing this situation change.
Finally, it should be noted that while Moscow and Tehran share a common animosity toward the United States, their ability to cooperate against it is limited by the mutual fear that each would gladly sacrifice its relationship with the other in exchange for concessions from the U.S. The Obama administration’s stated desire to improve relations with Iran when it first took office on the one hand and its continuing efforts to improve relations with Russia so that it “will help us with Iran” on the other have served to arouse suspicion in Moscow and Tehran about how the other might be contemplating a “sell-out” to Washington at its expense.
The reality is that Moscow isn’t as concerned about the prospect of a nuclear Iran as the U.S. and its Western, Arab, and Israeli allies. In Moscow’s (however unfortunate) view, Iran simply may not have the capacity to acquire nuclear weapons. Further, while Moscow doesn’t regard the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons as desirable, it’s far more sanguine about this possibility than America and many of its allies are. However unpleasant the leaders of the Islamic Republic might be, Moscow sees them as (just like the Putin administration) focused primarily on remaining in power and thus unlikely to undertake any actions that could undermine this goal, such as actually using nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Moscow sees Pakistan as far more volatile than Iran, and thus the Pakistani possession of nuclear weapons as being more problematic than Iranian acquisition of them. Ultimately, just as they had to accept and deal with a nuclear-armed Pakistan and North Korea, Moscow anticipates that the international community – including the U.S. – will just have to accept and deal with a nuclear-armed Iran if and when this emerges.