Russia and Iran: A Balancing Act
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani at the SCO Summit this year.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Russia and Iran: A Balancing Act

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To the surprise of many observers, it was France rather than Russia that played the lead role in opposing last weekend’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran. There should have been no surprise, at least in the case of Moscow. A close study of Russian policy shows that Moscow’s role in the Iranian drama is more complex and subtle than simply fanning tensions between Iran and the West.

Russian officials have to balance a complex set of goals in their relations with Tehran: supporting nonproliferation, averting war or regime change, maintaining regional security, minimizing sanctions, enhancing Moscow’s diplomatic leverage, limiting U.S. influence in Eurasia, and advancing energy and economic cooperation. The hierarchy of these objectives varies depending on changing circumstances. Furthermore, some of these aims conflict, at least in the short run, requiring Russian policymakers to choose among them or behave schizophrenically.

In general, the present stalemate, with Iran and the West in a state of nonviolent conflict, seems best suited for promoting Russian security interests since it elevates Moscow’s influence in Tehran. The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president has not fundamentally changed Russia’s relationship toward Iran. Since entering office, Rouhani has continued his predecessor’s praising of Moscow for its supportive role in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and has continued Iranian calls for enhanced bilateral economic ties. But Rouhani has focused his diplomatic outreach on reconciling with the West, trying to demonstrate that his government is not pursuing nuclear weapons. A relaxation of Iranian-Western tensions could provide some benefits to Moscow, but a genuine reconciliation could prove economically, diplomatically and strategically costly for Moscow.

Russians do not want Iran to have nuclear weapons. Tehran’s stubborn refusal to heed the demands of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to reign in its nuclear activities and come clean about its alleged earlier studies of how to design a nuclear weapon have clearly exasperated Russian officials. In both institutions, the Russian government has voted for critical resolutions and other measures aimed at coercing greater Iranian cooperation. In addition, Russia has leveraged its role in completing the construction of Iran’s first nuclear power plant at Bushehr to discourage Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities. For example, Russia successfully demanded that Iran return the fuel Russia supplies to the plant. Through reprocessing, technicians can extract plutonium, a powerful fissile material, from spent reactor fuel.

Iranian officials have rejected proposals to abandon their plans to develop their own national fuel-making infrastructure and rely on Russian-made fuel or multinational nuclear fuel centers to supply their nuclear program. They claim not to trust the international community to provide them with guaranteed fuel deliveries or assured access to such centers. Nonetheless, Iran’s present enrichment capabilities and supply of uranium are insufficient to produce sufficient reactor fuel for Bushehr, but are adequate enough to make a few nuclear bombs. Moreover, the reactor under construction at Arak in western Iran does not, unlike the light-water reactor at Bushehr, require uranium fuel; it is designed to use heavy water, which makes it more easily employed to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium. Even so, if Iranians seek to build a nuclear weapon, they will do so not at Bushehr or at other locations (such as the Natanz enrichment facility) under IAEA supervision. Instead, they would design and build an atomic bomb at some clandestine facility, such as the one exposed in 2009 near Qom. That enrichment complex is remote and deeply buried, shielding it from foreign surveillance satellites and possible air strikes. For this reason, Russian diplomats have joined their Western colleagues in demanding that Iranian nuclear activities are fully transparent to international observers.

What Worries Moscow

Moscow’s opposition to an Iranian bomb program is not because of concern about an Iranian attack against Russia but to other considerations. Russians worry about the health of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime at a time when many potential nuclear weapons aspirants are located in Russia’s vicinity. Even more, they fear that Israel and the United States might respond to an Iranian nuclear weapons program with a military strike, resulting in unpredictable consequences for one of Russia’s neighbors. If tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program spark a war, Russia might derive immediate benefits from surging world oil prices, but mass conflict could result in unwanted regime change in Tehran, with a more radical government directly challenging Russian policies toward Chechnya or the Caspian Sea Basin, or threatening other Russian interests. Even in the absence of war, Iran’s nuclear and missile activities are helping NATO justify its missile defense programs, which Russians profess to fear could eventually degrade their nuclear deterrent.

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